I seem to be in Glasgow once a year at the moment. During the week of International Women's Day in March I visit and catch up with Geraldine Murphy, founder of the UK's first women's whisky club which is based at her family's pub and whisky bar, The Pot Still on Hope Street. Her Women in Whisky fundraising lunch is the main driver for my visit, but this year I hit the ground running as my first stop was the launch of Tomatin's innovative Five Virtue's range of whiskies. The event, from a distillery that I had already earmarked as one to find out about in 2017, celebrated a partnership with Eva Ullrich, a contemporary abstract artist renowned for her landscape works. My own first foray into whisky events was at an exhibition by Scottish colourist JD Ferguson at our local gallery, and so this evening really appealed to me.Read More
I have missed sharing the fun of marmalade making for a few years: I used to run courses in this at West Dean College near Chichester which were always a pleasure. People love sharing their marmalade inspiration - especially men - and, as they said in the Paddington Bear film, every family should have a Marmalade Day.Read More
It's my third Burns' Night and I wanted to select my whiskies with a theme - just three this time, at the end of a dinner at Pallant, the restaurant in our incredible art gallery in Chichester. Could I find a selection of good drams from distilleries that were operational during Burns' short lifetime, from 1759-1796?Read More
There are 64 whisk(e)y related references in this tale for the New Year. Some of them are achieved with a bit of licence, and you might like to click on either the audio file below or video link here before you read on to see how many you can catch before you look at the written word! Don't count any duplicates. Good luck - with this and in the coming year.Read More
One of my favourite people to chew over a dram or two of whisky with is Cesar de Silva, the very talented and hugely knowledgeable manager of liquid hospitality at London's The Capital Hotel. Created Keeper of the Quaich at the age of 32, the youngest person ever to be so honoured for his services to Scotch Whisky, Cesar's knowledge is a blend of passion, intuition and learning, whereas my skimpy opinions are based on 40 years of honing my palette on great food and drink. We seem to spark off each other very well and so when my professional colleagues at the Guild of Food Writers asked me to organise a whisky tasting, my first thought was to present the evening with Cesar.
We began our quite beautifully crafted tasting with a whisky cocktail based on the very fruity Wolfburn whisky, from the most northerly distillery on mainland Scotland. This was the base for citrus flavours and a trace of smoke from a dash of an Islay whisky and was a delicious drink to sip as Cesar and I bounced off each other with how to taste whiskies - the second sip is the all important one - and our tasters of food were introduced. Wolfburn produced its first spirit in January 2013 so the whisky we were tasting was amongst the first to be released by the distillery. It is very easy and fruity and I just know that it will develop beautifully over the next decade or two: the distillery manager has moved north from Speyside's Glenfarclas so this distillery is in very good hands.
Whilst the Guild evening was a special event I must stress here that anyone can enjoy some of Cesar's whisky knowledge and passion as tastings can be booked on a number of themes at The Capital. One of my Whisky Women went along and loved every second of it - her tasting was a delicious birthday present.
Cesar had chosen two whiskies for the Guild and I had matched them with a couple more. We started with one of mine, Alisa Bay from the family-owned William Grant & Sons. It is the first whisky to state it's peatiness and sweetness on the label and the combination of smoke and sweet is so good for food matching. I love this whisky with white fish like skate and, at the opposite end of the taste spectrum, with rich chocolate cakes like brownies. We tasted it with three different salami and the stand-out combination fro me was the Hungarian salami. Hard, fatty and full of pepper, the sausage and the Alisa Bay were excellent together.
My second whisky was next up - a boutique dram from Compass Box, the most innovative creators of mouth-filling blended malt whiskies that I have found. Master blender John Glaser has created a core range of delicious whiskies with special editions coming quite regularly. I chose Enlightenment to bring to the Guild, specifically as it raises the issue of transparent and informative labelling in the whisky industry, an area in which whisky trails far behind food. Although Compass Box have now temporarily dropped their campaign to be able to inform drinkers as to exactly what whiskies at what age are in their creations, it is beyond my comprehension that the whisky industry should regulate that it is not 'whisky legal' for the public to know this. However, in the best tradition of 'Scotch Enlightenment' this gorgeous whisky is smooth with spicy, warming base notes, a sweetness that pulls layered tastes from the whisky and an overall wish, nay need, for another sip. Like the fabulously matured Davidstow Cheddar (and brightly fruity apricot chutney) that it was paired with, this was a combination to keep returning to.
Beenleigh Blue, a semi-soft raw ewe's milk cheese from Ticklemore Dairy in South Devon, was a great favourite in my deli in the early 90's and I was delighted to find that Cesar rates it highly and uses it regularly for his tastings. It was a natural to add to our Guild tasting, paired with a dark fig chutney and matched to a Bunnahabhain 12yo whisky from Islay. This was the only age statement whisky in our tasting and, although smokey like the Alisa Bay, it was less sweet and provided a real contrast in terms of the peated or smokey whisky styles. Cesar introduced this dram as being an old-style Bunnahabhain - my bottle at home is new style, and the dram that we tasted was softer than the current. There was still a huge mouth-filling smokiness - which you either like or you don't - but the style is generally brilliant with shellfish. The degree of perfection in the match is dependant on the dryness of the whisky and the sweetness of the fish. When you match a smokey whisky to a blue cheese - as we did at this tasting - the match, for me, becomes more dependant on the mouthfilling quality of the whisky and the balance of sweetness and acidity from the milk in the cheese. Once the chutney was factored into our mouthfuls, I found this combination to be spine-tinglingly good, although it must be said that the whisky was a bit too much for some of the food writers.
Our final whisky was a real treat for all: The Dalmore's King Alexander III. This whisky is matured in six different types of barrel (including port) before it is considered ready by master blender and whisky legend Richard Paterson. Richard has just celebrated 50 years in the industry and his knowledge - and showmanship - is internationally celebrated. The King Alexander III is a Highland whisky, a style which I usually find appealingly rugged in a sophisticated sort of way, but the complex maturation reveals a sublimely smooth whisky which is an unbelievable match with chocolate cake and which rather stole the show at this tasting. It has surprising orange notes in amongst the sweetness from the fortified wine casks, but it is kept from being too sweet by the influence of the Cabinet Sauvignon cask used. These seem to be a hallmark of The Dalmore - the first whisky that I bought from them was the cabsav matured Cigar Malt. The King Alexander III is so smooth that it is actually a bit too smooth to be my whisky of choice but, as we have learnt time and again in 2016, you cannot argue with the majority vote.
The Guild of Food Writers was very lucky that Cesar could tie up with me and host this event but do remember that you can spend time with him just by booking in for one of his tastings at The Capital Hotel: it's easy to find as it is right by Harrods.
Wemsys Malts were one of the first companies to welcome me into the whisky world and so I have a very soft spot for them and their drams. An independent bottler with a core range of 3 boutique blended whiskies, Wemsys also sell selected casks from distilleries and create mouthwatering and palette inspiring names to sell them to us, for example Velvet Fig, Fruit Burst and Nuts about Pears. Their website, KingsbarnDistillery, give you all the distillery and age info that you need but what fantastic tasting hints those monikers are.Read More
Pat Retson, Brand Heritage Manager at Orkney's Highland Park Distillery, was the first whisky pro to welcome me into the world of the amber nectar. Two and a half years after our first meeting I caught up with her again, for a whisky-charged blether about TV, whisky, tourism and beer.
Whisky on TV
Pat and I agreed that BBC Scotland's recent 3-part series Scotch! The Story of Whisky had been excellent, with David Hayman asking pertinent and probing questions around the industry. (The series is available at the time of writing on BBC iPlayer and is well worth watching.) I said that I think the level of information is exactly what would interest my Whisky Women and video review subscribers. Pat said that the programme was excellent for the industry, and that she is amazed at how much so many people now know about whisky. They are always keen to share their knowledge with the guides and staff at Highland Park. More knowledge, more understanding and appreciation, and then more enjoyment of whisky.
You have to make an effort to get to the Orkney Isles, buffeted by wind and surrounded by deep waters and strong oceanic currents. It was the latter that first brought me here, charged to translate the excellence of their salmon farming practice into digestible gobbets of information for Waitrose provenance-hungry consumers.
I asked Pat if Highland Park and whisky drive tourism on Orkney? Pat described many people's journey to Highland Park as one of pilgrimage, and the opening of Scapa Distillery's nearby visitor centre has added to the whisky allure of the islands. The tours and visitor centre at Highland Park are Pat's responsibility and the demand for the more specialised tours is steadily increasing. The tour structure has changed in the last 3 years and the Magnus Eunson* experience (£75pp) is fast becoming the most popular specialist tour (I guess the standard tour numbers are skewed by the increasing numbers of cruise ships that visit Kirkwall now in the summer months.) The day that we met Pat was expecting a guest for the £1,000 Work a Day experience, a complete whisky school in about 16 hours. I kept thinking of the lucky guy the following day (he had his induction on the afternoon of my visit), cutting peat on Hobbister Moor, turning the grain on the maltings floor and especially in the evening as he and his wife enjoyed a 7-course tasting menu with matched Highland Park whiskies. Yes, I was a tad envious! (*Magnus Eunson is acknowledged as the founder of Highland Park, legend labelling him both a clergyman and an illicit distiller.)
NAS (non-age statement) whiskies and special editions are received with mixed emotions by industry commentators and Highland Park have contributed quite a few of these in recent years. I asked Pat how special editions are received by whisky enthusiasts? She agreed that as they are always in limited supply they can be outside the reach of people who buy their whisky to simply drink and enjoy with friends. For both collectors and investors, however, they are valuable editions to the Highland Park range - and I guess they are exciting for the blender to create. Pat told me to check out the Highland Park Appreciation Group on Facebook and I have asked to join it. This pack of 1615 fans (soon to be 1616 I hope) is a closed group for true Highland Park enthusiasts.
When Pat and I first met she very kindly shared some glorious drams with me in the Tasting Room and so I put a couple of samples in my bag for her before I left home. She did seem genuinely touched and I was delighted to have been able to extend some wonderful whisky friendship back to her.
Grains - mainly barley - water and yeast: beer and whisky go hand in hand and matching them together is becoming a very fashionable thing to do. Pat explained that since my last visit, the Swannay Brewery has come of age and Highland Park is now offering tasting evenings with them, matching beers, whiskies and cheeses. I know that we shall be booking onto one of these events as soon as we return to Orkney again: we have enjoyed several Swannay brews on this visit.
Pat and I both agreed that we could sit and talk for hours but the lucky recipient of the Work A day tour was on his way and it was time for us to make a move. I am already very much looking forward to meeting Pat again.
Layout note: I am attempting to only use an iPad Pro and have yet to learn how to move images and float them in text. I'm sorry if they are all at the bottom of this post - but they are here!
Plastic pumpkins have been occupying quite a lot of my thoughts for the past ten days. I know, I need to get out more but, the truth of the matter is that, if I hadn't got out I might never have been shocked into the knowledge that such vegetable impersonations actually exist.
Here on Orkney where I am writing this post I have seen plastic pumpkinettes in shop windows as part of the now ubiquitous Hallowe'en displays - how did we ever get to the point whereby the spooky celebration of 31st October is now the second most profitable 'sales opportunity' after Christmas? Herrumph.
OK, maybe plastic pumpkins in shop windows is not so bad but I first saw plastic pumpkins at RHS Wisley, that temple to horticultural excellence and genteel shopping. I could scarcely believe my eyes! Was this a consumerist step too far that might cause Mary Berry to relinquish her role as a RHS Ambassador for Grow Your Own?
Once my heart rate returned to normal I started to think that maybe, just maybe, a plastic pumpkin as a lantern was actually a good thing? That is, for those who buy a pumpkin simply to make a lantern and waste the flesh which could be made into any number of delicious dishes. And the more I thought about it, the more convinced I became, although pumpkin farmers who have come to rely on sales for Hallowe'en lanterns may have to balance waste and profit in this particular argument.
Today is apparently National Pumpkin Day - how could I not know that until I saw it on social media at tea-time?! I saw this excellent little video on Twitter that made me think, again, that plastic pumpkins might actually be a good thing.
I must, however, advance the argument that we need to cook far more with pumpkins and squashes than we currently do. They are fun to grow, store well and are the first step towards huge numbers of truly delicious dishes. I should know as I have written a whole book on cucurbits and people who have it are always so full of enthusiasm for the recipes. So here are a few of my favourite pumpkin dishes from a previous blog and, if you are making a lantern in the good old fashioned way, do give at least one a try.
Top tip: To make your own pumpkin purée, peel and dice some pumpkin - or roughly chop the results of hollowing out your Hallowe'en lantern - and steam or microwave (without water) until tender. Beat to a purée or blend, then allow any excess liquid to drain from the purée if it is very wet. This is best done by leaving it for 30 mins in a muslin-lined sieve over a bowl. The 'water' can be added to soups etc.
I know it is autum once pumpkins and squashes are abundant and dwindling soft fruits are replaced by apples and pears. My cooking changes and so does my taste in whisky. I start to look for drams that are a little more warming on the finish and rounded in flavour. However, living in Sussex which is fast becoming the new Champagne, I am also aware that October is a busy month in the vineyards around me as the fruit is picked, after traditional harvests are gathered in, and wine-making gets under way. There is a synergy between whisky and wine as many drams are finished in wine barrels for extra nuances in flavour, and some are aged in wine casks for the whole of their maturation. This year, to celebrate the UK's blossoming as a serious wine producing country, my Autumn Whisky Collection features whiskies finished in wine barrels - it's Whisky in the Vineyard.Read More
More divisive than the ice and/or water debate, the growing trend of peating even Speyside whiskies risks the loyalty of many a whisky drinker. Why are peated whiskies on the increase? I have a suspicion that it is to appeal to the die-hard Islay drinkers and the younger whisky fans who seek an experience in their glass. Just as some want the hottest chilli, the strongest Cheddar and the 100% pure cacao bar, I believe that there is a small, but possibly growing, number of people who want whiskies in a Peat Parts Per Million (PPPM) that is bordering on ear-melting - just to have the Experience.Read More