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.