The whisky lesson

The whisky lesson

Michael Jackson, friend of malt, learns the British way

Musings with Michael Jackson | 16 Jul 2001 | Issue 17 | By Michael Jackson

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One of my favourite restaurants is owned by a chef called Greg Higgins. When he decided to start his own place, he agonised over names, as any of us would. “Why don’t you call it Higgins?” his wife eventually suggested. So he did. An unpretentious name for a gastronomically serious restaurant. Higgins is in one of the world’s most pleasant cities, but one that is not especially well known. South of Seattle and north of San Francisco (and perhaps overshadowed by both), Portland, Oregon, has virtues of its own. We will hear more of Portland in the future – take my word for it.The Pacific coast state of Oregon has excellent fish, grows wine grapes, pears and malting barley. In 1984, a local family that owned a winery started the Columbia River brew-pub, making rather Scottish-tasting malty ales. The Portland metro area now has about two dozen breweries, more than any other city in the world. Steve McCarthy was an environmental lawyer, a job in tune with Oregonian preoccupations, but turned to another pursuit well-suited to the landscape. He set up the Clear Creek Distillery to make pear brandies. He has also, more recently, begun to distil barley-malt so that Oregon now has its own whisky (several ‘boutique’ whiskies are now being produced in the northern part of the West Coast). Such a career transformation is common place in the United States, especially the west. This land of wine, beer and whisky first beckoned me more than two decades ago. I stayed at Portland’s
Heathman Hotel when Greg Higgins was cooking there, and followed him to his own restaurant, which is a block away. Convenience is not my reason for patronising Higgins. The asparagus risotto with Rogue River blue cheese, the Oregon Bay shrimp sausage and the pork loin with yams are good reasons, but the clinchers are the drinks. Greg’s wines stretch from Oregonian Pinots Noir and Gris to some pretty decent Chianti Classico; his beers from Deschutes Pale Ale (Bend, Oregon) to Orkney Skullsplitter, Fraoch Heather Ale and Traquair House Jacobite; his 50-odd whiskies from Canadian Club to Blanton’s to Jameson’s and Glenmorangie Port Finish. There are restaurants with more whiskies but too few that offer a printed list. When they do, how many explain on the list what single malt whisky is and how it differs according to region? Higgins’ does. They even recommend Laphroaig with ice-cream and espresso as a desert combination. Greg was in London not long ago and wanted to eat British food, fish in particular. I took him to Sheekey’s which, I explained, has been given a new life in recent years. When the waiter asked us what we would like as an aperitif Greg asked: “What malts do you have?” The waiter replied: “All of them.” It was not the first time I have heard this stupid, unhelpful claim and I inwardly tried to calm myself. Greg resisted the temptation to ask for a cask-strength Ben Wyvis. “I’ll have a Bruichladdich, please,” he requested. The waiter looked blank. He had clearly not heard of Bruichladdich. “I thought you had them all,” I protested. “All of the well-known ones,” he responded, through clenched teeth. “Never mind,” murmured Greg after discovering there was no list, “how about a Bowmore?” The waiter became more irritable. He told us that most people liked Glenfiddich or Macallan. He then made an extraordinary reference to whiskies that sold “more than 20 cases” (a year?), implying that was the criterion. As a customer, I had never before had such trade-talk thrown at me. I explained that we were not concerned with other guests’ preferences. We, too, enjoyed a Glenfiddich or Macallan but my friend was in the mood for a whisky from Islay. “Ireland? You want an Irish?” he sighed. He had obviously never heard of Islay. Greg was beginning to understand the accuracy of Fawlty Towers. He settled for a Lagavulin. I needed something more alcoholic. I ordered a martini.
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