A question of choice

A question of choice

Michael Jacksonponders the age old question of what's your favourite
Michael Jackson

30 August 2006

Publication: Issue 58

What was the best dram you ever enjoyed? I am not turning on you the question I most often dismiss.When people ask, as they constantly do, what is my favourite malt, I tell them there is no such creature.There is the right malt for the time and place – the mood and moment. They cannot always be made to coincide (Hemingway and Dietrich had the same problem).When they do, the Grampians move. Unless, of course, one is on Islay, in which case the roof blows off.The perfection of such moments is lodged in the memory.On my first visit to Ardbeg in the 1980s, when it was silent, the caretaker manager gave me a heavily sherried dram to keep out the cold while I was given a tour. We lingered in the stillsmoky maltings, and the whisky seemed to fill my every vein and artery, until my heart was warm and won.One year at the Islay Festival, my partner was about to drive straight past Ardbeg. “I’ve had enough distillery tours for the moment,” she pleaded.We had been round all the others in a couple of days on the island, but that would have made an even sadder ommission to miss her favourite (she is allowed to have a first choice; she is not a whisky writer).Thus persuaded, she agreed to a quick walk round the outside, but no entry: no examinations of mash tuns, washbacks, spirit safes and such. Someone just happened to be looking through a window. It was a gusty day, and they were probably checking that the roof on the visitor centre was still intact. Manager Stuart Thomson appeared and insisted on dramming us. It was a lovely cask, but the pungently earthy, moist, warehouse made it perfect.Islay is alive with candidates for dram of the day. Or of a lifetime. Or the dram of my dreams. On the rocks at Lagavulin, eating scallops with Martine Nouet, serenaded by a piper on the ruins of Dunyvaig Castle. It might be a once-only experience, at the festival, but the memory’s magic lingers like a genie in the bottle. You won’t find that in Grey Goose vodka or Smirnoff Ice.Laphroaig before an early morning walk on the Big Strand.Are you seriously telling me that is not seaweed I smell in the whisky? Bowmore accompanied by Norma Munro singing Lassie with a Yellow Coatie. Bruichladdich with oysters picked and shucked by Jim McEwan. Three vintages of Caol Ila the day manager Billy Stichell made his first public speech. Bunnahabhain, westering away to New York for St Andrew’s Day.Sometimes it’s the occasion, or the people, or the place. They are all part of the terroir. Or, if you prefer English: they go with the territory.Warning: this product may contain Scotland. There is as much Scotland in a good malt as there is Bordeaux in a firstgrowth claret.In Isle of Jura whisky, I smell the pine forest from which the water emerges.Perhaps I am being suggestible, imagining it. If I am, it doesn’t matter. If I smell pines, they are there. Whether or not they are, if you see what mean.The importance of water in the flavour of whisky was being defended in the Saturday colour magazine of The Times the other day by Bill Lumsden of Glenmorangie. He thought water was the element we understood least. I might have nominated yeast.For years, my most memorable dram was my first: a flowery, sweet, Glen Grant, introduced to me in an Edinburgh pub when I was 19 (the whisky was 12). I fell in love with Glen Grant all over again when I first visited the distillery and was taken to the wonderful gardens behind. The manager lowered a metal cup into the distillery burn and collected water to splash into my whisky. The cool, peaty, slightly vegetal, water seemed to frolic with the whisky. I decided this was the only way to drink a dram. Perhaps I should move into the distillery? I was back at Glen Grant recently and enjoyed a repeat performance of this ritual. It seemed even better.Then I was at The Glenlivet, taking part with Dave Broom and others in their attempt to recreate the whisky of smuggling days. We were outdoors, of course. It began to rain, quite heavily. I stayed put. No need for a burn or a cup. The first raw material of whisky was drizzling straight into my dram. The true taste of Scotland.The Times had reported James Thomson, of the Ladybank Distillery (well, not yet) as saying that terroir was “a load of baloney.” He allegedly said that he could make an Islay-style whisky in Tibet. Good idea, James. Go for it.

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