We had discussed the oak in the casks, which dated from before World War One, and considered the infuence of their position in the warehouse. Now we were sampling the contents. My enthusiastic host, Australian winemaker Mick Morris of Rutherglen, Victoria, first offered me a Shiraz, then a fino-style fortified, followed by an amontillado-style, a vintage port-style and two or three Muscats. Finally, he fetched a mystery glass. The contents, almost black, clung stickily to the sides.‘Know what it is?’ demanded Morris. I was struggling. ‘A Pedro Ximénez?’ I hazarded. ‘It’s an Aulerot,’ he announced, naming a grape of which I had never heard. ‘It’s pre-phylloxera [phylloxera being the vine pest that destroyed most of Europe’s vineyards at the turn of this century, and later spread to Australia], though I did top it up with some Muscat in about 1960. What do you think?’ It had an earthy, oaky mustiness and acidity, with a surge of maple syrup.‘Thought of topping it up again?’ I inquired. He looked as though this were an unreasonable suggestion, given that he had tended the mini-solera so recently – less than 40 years ago. ‘What with?’ ‘A bourbon cask full of Lagavulin,’ I suggested. ‘You’re obsessed,’ grunted my roadie, a Samoan attorney.
They say the same thing when I visit Japan. A Japanese journalist once asked me how many malts I sample in a day. ‘Usually only a dozen or 20, but occasionally 50 or 60,’ I explained. ‘And how do you clear your palate between whiskies?’ ‘With a bottle of Cabernet,’ I said. Irony is not big in Japan, though humour is. When the yen dropped, she was convulsed with giggles.‘Afterwards, when you have finished tasting whisky for the day, what do you do for leisure?’ she asked. I told her that I usually go for a drink. ‘What do you order?’ At that moment, in all seriousness, I do fancy a bottle of Cabernet, ideally shared with my girlfriend. Said girlfriend usually dismisses the grape in preference for the grain. ‘Let’s have a pint of bitter/Guinness/Ardbeg,’ she says, in a way that brooks no argument. I usually go along with it. ‘So your girlfriend is happy?’ asked the journalist. Sadly, I had to explain that she was not. ‘Why?’ Because I find myself involuntarily nosing the bitter/Guinness/Ardbeg.’ The conversation with my girlfriend then goes like this:‘Stop it.’‘Stop what?’ ‘Stop working. You’re supposed to be with me, enjoying yourself.’ ‘I am [enjoying myself] and am not [working].’ ‘Yes you are working. You’re thinking.’ A man of my mental capacities finds it hard not to think, but try telling her that. One of my favourite noses is Maureen Robinson, who has done great work for Johnnie Walker. She told me how she realised that she had become obsessed. ‘One day I caught myself sniffing the ketchup bottle.’It could be worse, Maureen. I remember something I heard from Steve McCarthy, who makes whisky and brandy in Portland, Oregon. He told me that a couple of women who buy his eau-de-vie de Muscat dab it behind their ears, like scent. For that, I would choose a Strathmill. Aged in Muscat, of course.Then there was this macho feller who said that water never passed his lips. ‘Not even when you clean your teeth?’ challenged sceptical friends. He replied, ‘For that I use an unpeated Lowlander from plain wood.'