By Rob Allanson

Going underground

Sometimes you visit a place and think, “Have to do a tasting here!”
There have been a few interesting moments in between the magazines here at Whisky Towers, and not least on the travel front.
There have only been a couple of places I have said to people I am heading to where the response has been, “Why?” Beirut was one of these places. But for anyone who has been there the truth is quite far from the image perpetuated due to the civil war.
You will notice that the scars of war are not totally eradicated, however thankfully these seem to be limited to occasional pock-marked building.

The city is a vibrant, fascinating place with a thriving bar and cocktail culture. You will find people shrugging off the past, looking and working for a bright future. The whisky scene is also pretty impressive, and as I saw at Whisky Live, people want to learn more, taste more and explore the whisky world.
Of course it is an incredibly old country, Phoenician finds, including the civilisation’s alphabet attest to this. However one breathtaking part of the country, stretches back way beyond human habitation can be found just outside of Beirut.

The trip to the Jeita Grotto was one of those perfect moments. Collected from the hotel by a battered Mercedes, then heading through the city, windows down and local radio blaring.
Traffic in Beirut is not a terrifying as say India or Italy, but it has its moments, the driver pushing through a couple of close shaves as we started to wind up into the hills. As we climbed you get a brilliant view of the city and its place beside to the Mediterranean.
Finally we got to the cave system, but to reach the actual openings it’s a change of vehicle, this time a cable car ride. The views take your mind off the car swaying and creaking as it makes its way through the steep sided valley, coated with lush verdant trees.
This all becomes a distant memory as you walk through a small tunnel hewn into the rock and step out into the cavern. If you have seen The Lord of the Rings, the part where Gandalf and the Balrog fight, think that sort of cavern. Vast, seemingly bottomless, its magnificence crushes words out of you, there are no superlatives left.

At its highest point, these astonishing caves stretch up to 120 metres (390ft) high and in the upper chamber resides the longest stalactite in the world at 8.2 metres (27ft) long.
I have heard of some caves in Europe putting on concerts, but wandering round the upper chamber I thought what a place to do a whisky tasting; your senses heightened by the impressive surroundings. But perhaps that might just be a pipe dream, but worth thinking about surely.
One other thing has got me thinking at the moment is are we in the grip of a Bourbon cask overload?

Are our tastebuds starting to take more of a sweet-toothed slant than they used to

You will find it remarked about by my fellow taster Mark Newton, “It feels like there’s a lot of this type of whisky about at the moment.”
I have not come across a massive, mouth puckering sherry bomb in the tastings since returning to the big chair.
Is this down to distillers finding the supply of sherry casks dwindling 10 to 20 odd years ago? Are our tastebuds starting to take more of a sweet-toothed slant than they used to and distillers are playing to that?
I am not sure I have a definitive answer, but would love to hear if you have a theory, or have found the same. Drop me a line if you fancy.
One final thing, another pipe dream at the moment but I would love to hear if any one has tried it.

I recently took on my neighbours’ allotment plot, fairly big and due to ill health it had not been dug over and cleared for a year or so. Slowly I am making progress on this, and should have things sorted before the worst frosts set in.
My thought was to try and plant winter barley, or an early spring variety. I realise that by now seed efficenty will have halved, but I figure it’s worth giving it a go.
The ideal outcome would be to grow enough to attempt old school, garage floor malting. Obviously home distillation might not be the best idea, but there are plenty of small gin stills in the area that might be willing to help out. Watch this space.