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Magnificent Seven meet the Famous Five

Chivas billed it as the great Glenlivet Tasting Showdown. Our man Ian Buxton popped along to see what it was all about
By Ian Buxton
The idea seemed simple enough – but there was a twist. A panel of seven expert tasters would assess five expressions of The Glenlivet and compare notes. However, to spice things up, each of the five would be tasted blind, in random order, and the seven experts would be whisky novices.Drawn from the fine food world, our tasting panel comprised a food scientist; coffee importer; condiments producer; a chocolatier; two cheesemongers and, for added fun, a perfumer. I went along to Scotland’s Speciality and Fine Food Show at the Royal Highland Centre to record the event for posterity and learn some new tasting vocabulary.Well, I may have been just a little sceptical, but that was soon forgotten in the voluble and fluent analysis offered by my fellow panellists. Though almost everyone began with an almost ritualistic disclaimer (“I don’t really know too much about whisky…”) this didn’t impede the flow of opinion, which was impressively considered and articulate.The Glenlivet’s objective was clear. It set up the tasting to debate how we taste and enjoy whisky and how previous experiences and perceptions influence what we smell and taste when tasting blind.We were also asked to suggest what food we might serve with each whisky and then to nominate a favourite. Finally, and only after declaring our hands, The Glenlivet’s brand ambassador Ann Miller introduced each of the drams.And an impressive introduction they provided to single malt. The flight comprised, in order, the standard 12 year old; a prototype 15 year old French Oak finish; the 18 year old; the 21 year old Archive and the 1983 Cellar Collection French Oak bottling. So the ‘random order’ mentioned in the introduction proved a little misleading as this was a vertical flight, but the panel weren’t put off.In fact, they entered into the spirit of things with gusto. Coffee importer Mhari Mackenzie-Robinson of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters spoke passionately about “a sparkling amber trout river” (15 year old French Oak), following this up with an animated description of the 1983 Cellar Collection as a “sumo wrestler of a whisky – rich, smooth, squashy and chocolatey.”All this from an avowed non-whisky drinker who confessed afterwards that she had thought the panel would be easy but that, in fact, she’d found it nearly impossible to find the vocabulary (not that you would have noticed).There was animated discussion about the idea of serving different whiskies through a meal or with different foods. Some panellists found this a deeply implausible idea but others, such as perfumer Arthur Burnham, rejoiced in the fun of it.He saw a great future for The Glenlivet with smoked fish and shellfish and, such is the power of suggestion, I will confess to a craving for a half-dozen oysters as the tasting drew to its conclusion.Though curry was nominated as a food accompaniment, relatively few of the panel picked up on what are, to me at least, the key nose and taste elements that make The Glenlivet unique. I’m reminded of the heat and intensity of a spice market every time I encounter this whisky: cloves; liquorice root; cardamom; coriander; cubebs and a host of other exotic spices all explode out in a riot of flavours, tumbling one over the other. In this flight it was fascinating to see the different aspects open up and others recede as wood and age played their part.To that extent, the whiskies were noticeable for their family resemblance, more the same than different, but with fascinating subtleties and nuances to explore and return to.Our panel noted how the aroma and taste developed over time, with some of the samples opening up after a little delay, whilst others were more immediately appealing and accessible.Arthur Burnham offered an anecdote from the perfume world. Apparently Chanel, “the last of the noble houses” according to Burnham, spends a minimum of three years preparing its flagship fragrances, painstakingly blending the individual elements into the base alcohol and then letting the fragrances marry at length before the eau de parfum is bottled.It costs a fortune, of course, but the finished product has unparalleled elegance, subtlety and length of finish. My wife tells me it’s worth every penny.The parallels with whisky are clear: you get what you pay for. However, round the table, preferences were split, with the premium priced and distinctively full-tasting 1983 Cellar Collection arousing the most debate.Guy Tullbery, a producer of mustards and sauces who claimed to travel everywhere accompanied by his bottle of whisky, refused to nominate a food for this expression claiming it should be drunk “with reverence”.Mhari and Arthur adored the 1983 but one cheesemonger who shall remain nameless rated it “an old man’s dram” and others found it too robust and assertive.I ended up preferring the 18 year old, though it has to be said that choosing was a tricky business and the standard 12 year old acquitted itself with distinction.Afterwards I reflected on some of the new vocabulary I’d picked up: one dram was “a bolt to the brain”, another “creeps up and takes you by surprise” whilst a third was “reminiscent of a pale golden early summer morning”. Food tastings are obviously great fun!All of our panel claimed to have found the exercise instructive, and at least one appeared to be a genuine convert.Neil Macdonald, for The Glenlivet, expressed himself satisfied and felt that the event had been a success: “The main point that struck home with me was that professionals working with foods that themselves reflect strong and empathetic flavours were surprised at the sheer diversity between The Glenlivet references tasted.“It was refreshing to get such individual and articulate descriptions of our range so in future I’ll definitely look to garner feedback on tasting notes and reactions from a wider sphere of experts.”Fans of The Glenlivet can look forward to the release of the 15 year old French Oak finish that we tasted as a prototype: it’s got that family spice note that I love, but with a fresh citrusy aroma and some interesting underlying vanilla and more complex wood notes that develop with a little water.It may be a ninja warrior to the sumo wrestler of the 1983 but, when it’s released, I suspect it will creep up on you just the same. These whiskies are agile and light on their feet – just like the group of food expert tasters I met for this experiment.