That's enough smooth talk

That's enough smooth talk

inspired in the two Gravediggers, Michael Jackson seeks a provocative pint and a combative ball of malt
Michael Jackson

13 May 1999

Publication: Issue 3

The most famously well-kept Scottish ale was for decades the McEwan’s 80/- in an Edinburgh pub officially called The Athletic Arms but universally known (because it was between two cemeteries) as ‘The Gravediggers’. Oddly, the publican who kept such a good cellar did not himself drink alcohol. The place was a shrine to one of Edinburgh’s principal soccer teams, Hearts of Midlothian. I always felt vulnerable in The Gravediggers because Hearts is a Protestant team. ‘A you a Proddy or a Catholic?’ someone would provocatively demand after a few pints, implying that perhaps I supported Hearts’ deadly rivals, Hibernian.‘I am a Jew,’ I would reply, exaggerating slightly. Dissatisfied, he would press the point: ‘A Proddy Jew or a Catholic Jew?’Had I not acknowledged this particular Gravediggers, some Edinburgher would have tried to start a fight over my quoting another pub of the same nickname, in Dublin.That Gravediggers, next to Glasnevin Cemetery, is really called Kavanagh’s. The publican, Eugene Kavanagh, is another teetotaller. ‘Drink doesn’t agree with my family,’ he explains. Yet he, too, is famous for serving the best pint in his town. If he does not taste even a drop, how can he tell when it is right? ‘I can see when it isn’t,’ he explains.The Guinness at Kavanagh’s has a head like clotted cream, and a peaty, sappy, almost woody, acidity. It beats the beer at Mulligan’s, famous for well-served Guinness, and at favourites of mine like Doheny and Nesbitt’s, Neary’s, the Long Hall and the Brazen Head. Voice from the saloon bar: ‘Why all this talk of beer? Isn’t this a whisky magazine?’ Indeed it is, but some of us are eclectic enough to enjoy the ball of malt in fermented form, before the refinement of distillation. (Do the Irish really call it a ball? I have never heard them do so).So what’s your point? I hear you say. Forgive me; drink causes one to digress. That is one of its social benefits. My point, as you put it, is that good Guinness has greater dimensions than its much-vaunted smoothness. So does any good beer, any fine drink, especially one as complex as whisky. Or whiskey.Many whiskies are smooth, but they all have characteristics beyond that. ‘Smooth’ can sound like a euphemism for ‘bland’. Perhaps it is intended to be so. Marketing men, scared silly that any suggestion of flavour might alarm the consumer, love such devices. Their favoured message is: ‘Don’t worry, you won’t taste a thing.’ Much as I greatly admire Glenfiddich’s pioneering achievements in building an audience for single malt Scotch, I wish the company would dispense with such blandishments. Likewise Irish Distillers.Many Irish whiskeys are smooth, in a soothingly oily way, thanks especially to a proportion of unmalted barley in the mash tun. They can also be leathery, fruity, raisiny, peachy, lemony, cakey, nutty, aniseedy, minty, cinnamony, gingery and, in the rare case of Connemara, peaty and smoky, as the tasting notes (starting on page 62 of this issue) show. Neither the Irish nor the Scots should be so mealy-mouthed about their achievements.

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