Every day on Instagram there are new whisky giveaways, as influencers, distilleries and bars compete for followers, sales and publicity. Most of these competitions demand the post is liked, shared in ‘stories’ and that friends are tagged for ‘bonus entries. Yet, there was one #giveaway the other day that requested something different, it asked for entrants to share their favourite whisky memories.
Cue a great deal of reflection and introspection on my part. I retraced my whisky journey and found to my surprise that my key memories and definitive whisky experiences included some rather ordinary drams. Experiences shared with other people, a heightened sense of time and place, moments of revelation and discovery – none of these things are totally dependent on the quality of liquor in the glass. My most memorable lockdown dram was truly awful and has become a running joke in my ‘Virtual Whisky’ group. (I wish I had read Malt’s review of the East London Liquor Company’s most recent London Rye releases before purchasing a bottle!).
My whisky journey started with pilfering my Dad’s single malt from the cupboard, buying whatever was on offer in the supermarket and occasionally visiting a distillery on holiday. It’s led to an overflowing whisky cabinet, an ever-expanding set of tasting notes, Whisky Club membership, and leading tasting events on Zoom. In recent years the journey has accelerated dramatically, as I’ve had a steady income and also become a parent (with the resulting curtailment of my social life, never-mind the stress!). There have been many definitive drams on the way, but I’ve managed to whittle them down to five.
Ardbeg 10 Year Old – Where it all began
The first bottle of whisky that was my own was an Ardbeg 10, a Christmas present from my Dad. I think it was a hint, so that I would stop drinking his whisky! My love of peated malt undoubtedly comes from him, and as far as I’m concerned, nothing can match the lingering taste and smell of a good peated malt. Growing up, Laphroaig, Highland Park and Talisker were ever-present in the drink’s cabinet. It would be a real treat when Lagavulin was on offer. Whilst many people speak of the smell of roast dinner reminding them of home, for me, it would be Mum’s chocolate cake and the waft of peat later on.
At this stage, Dad was quite one-dimensional in his approach to whisky. It had to be single malt scotch, it had to be peated, and it had to have an age statement. I’ve managed to broaden his horizons a bit, but discovered recently that he has a very limited sense of smell and taste, so the desire for strong flavours, in cheese as well as in whisky, began to make sense. There’s little point discussing finer tasting notes with him, just relaxing and enjoying the dram, which can be liberating from time to time.
I proudly returned to university with the remnants of the Ardbeg. It was soon finished and replaced by a Laphroaig and a Jura. My collection had already begun to grow, as it has ever since!
Johnnie Walker Blue Label – Sentimental dramming
When I got married my best mate gave us a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue Label. This was a definitive dram for a few reasons. It was well beyond my means and was a level above anything I’d tried before. It was a blend, which was confusing, as I’d been quite prejudiced against them thanks to Dad, but this was actually quite luxurious. It proved that blends can be good. Today, I wouldn’t choose to buy a bottle of it myself, I think it’s over-priced, over-rated, and more of a status symbol than anything else, but at this time it broke down some of my whisky boundaries.
Yet, the main reason this is a definitive dram for me, is that over the following years it was only drunk on wedding anniversaries, before being finished 7 years later to celebrate the arrival of our first child. It is an accomplished whisky, but by the end it was dull, and in reality, that bottle should have been killed off years earlier. The taste though, was not important, when compared with the shared experience of surviving another year together and celebrating with the same ongoing bottle of whisky. Although that bottle is now empty, my wife’s toleration of me and my whisky obsession is ongoing!
Dalwhinnie 15 Year Old – A time and a place
I had successfully got away for a few days walking in the Highlands, and based myself at Loch Ossian Youth Hostel, in the middle of Rannoch Moor. It is only really accessibly by train, and Corrour Station House is the only amenity for miles around.
I had set off early in the morning, to climb Ben Alder and Beinn Bheoil, two of the most remote Munros (Scottish mountains over 3000ft high). It was a twenty-two-mile slog through peat, heather and heavy showers, but I was rewarded with stunning views including a glorious rainbow over Loch Ericht. The trudge back became a race against the clock, as the closing time at the Station House approached! I made it, too late for dinner, but in time for crisps, a beer, and a dram. The only sensible option from a small selection was the Dalwhinnie 15.
As I sipped this unassuming and unremarkable malt, I had an experience that I had not had previously, as time, place and the whisky all intertwined. Perhaps it was because of how tired I was, but this was akin to a spiritual experience, bringing me even closer to the place I had been exploring. The water in the dram had once been a part of the hills I had been scaling and sliding down. If I had kept walking east from Beinn Bheoil, then Dalwhinnie would have been the first point of call. It was the most local of malts and took on a significance it would never normally have had for me, thanks to its origin in that place.
I’m not sure that Dalwhinnie would feature in many whisky drinker’s newfound appreciation of origin and place, with good reason! Yet, it opened the door to a deeper appreciation of Scotland, whisky, and of distilleries such as Bruichladdich, who are truly pushing the boundaries of provenance and terroir.
Bunnahabhain 12 Year Old – Unadulterated liquid gold
Standing at a bar in Kenmore, at the end of Loch Tay, I was scanning through a range of fairly commonplace malts to find something I had not tried before. The barman suggested Bunnahabhain, which had some words on the bottle that I had never noticed previously. ‘Unchillfiltered’ and ‘natural colour’, whilst the abv at 46.3% was just weird and stronger than I was used to.
This definitive dram was an eye-opener. It was bold, with a great feel, packed full of new discoveries in each and every sip. I hadn’t really considered what happens to the whisky post-distillation before, besides it sitting in different types of cask and being watered down. It took my whisky innocence away, laid bare the deficiencies in many of the supermarket mass-produced whiskies I had been used to up to this point. I felt deceived by the non-natural colour, and robbed of texture and flavour, by the chill-filtration.
Things like this cannot be unlearnt, but make for far richer and informed whisky purchases, and help with the ever-present necessity to cut through the marketing jargon, in order to have some idea of what is actually contained within the bottle. Transparency, honesty and justice is something I seek after in all areas of life and whisky is no different. I suppose it’s a natural outworking of my day-job as a church minister!
Green Spot Single Pot Still – A whole new world
Whilst my exploration in the world of scotch had grown hugely, I was still blinkered to whisk(e)y from outside of Scotland. I had tried Bushmills thanks to a Northern Irish mate who was quite evangelical about it, and Jameson too, but I wasn’t too interested. The only whisky that counted to me was Scottish. Green Spot was on offer one St Patrick’s day, I took a punt on it, and was very pleasantly surprised. The last of the blinkers I had appropriated from my father had been whipped away by this waxy, sweet, dangerously smooth and drinkable revelation.
If I could like Irish whiskey, then why not Japanese, Australian, Swedish, or even American? This definitive dram opened up a whole new world of whisky experiences and flavours. The freedom that the Irish and others have from the restrictions imposed by the Scottish Whisky Association bring some sensational flavours alongside some pretty average concoctions. However, my whisky lexicon is broadened because of it, my palate is expanded, and the possibilities are endless. The Method and Madness French Chestnut finish have become a household favourite.
I did eventually respond to the Instagram giveaway referred to in the introduction, choosing to share my memory of the sentimental anniversary drams of Johnnie Walker Blue. These definitive drams are unique to my own experiences, key landmarks in my own journey of discovery in the world of whisky. None of them would make it into my whisky top 10. No doubt, you’ll have your own stories to share, distinctive moments that revealed something new and remarkable, and drams that have gained a far greater significance than they would ever have held on their own merit.
Over the past few years, I’ve really enjoyed all of the exploring, new experiences shared with different people, and the incredible malts I’ve had the privilege to try. Yet, if in doubt at the bar or at the whisky cupboard, I’ll always return to something familiar, a heavily peated dram, and a reminder of home.
Photographs kindly provided by The Whisky Exchange who stock these releases, as do many other retailers.