By Michael Jackson

Still in league with the devil

Michael Jackson continues the saga of a tasting at Philip Pullman's house
Despairing of my constant travels on various whisky trails, my partner Freckles occasionally retaliates in kind. She packs her goods with the intention of absenting herself permanently. “I have never left you for another man,” she asserts (that verb fits her like a glove), “but don’t take me for granted. Arthur Miller appreciates a good woman". Will he know that you like a glass of Ardbeg before going to bed?” I observe, tartly. She thinks that, being a sensitive man, he will. “In as many expressions as I can offer?” I persist.“He’s a writer. He is hardly likely to be short of expressions,” she sighs.I am behaving in exactly the way she expects of a man, she says, mimicking a school yard chant: “My collection of Ardbegs is bigger than yours.”Who knows what fires people’s passions? Freckles glows in the presence of a writer. Perhaps it was mistake to take her to Philip Pullman’s home. You may recall, if you have been paying attention, that the evening had scarcely begun when she asked him to sign a couple of his books. Appreciative words were soon muffled by the closed door of his study. What exchange was being pursued? At length, they emerge, smiling. One of the books, a first edition, is apparently worth a great deal of money. Pullman is entitled to smile, despite the fact that he writes books for readers, rather than collectors or investors. In much the same way, people may collect whisky, or treat it as an investment, I prefer to drink it and taste it. That is why I am at Philip’s home: to conduct a small tutored tasting.I am invited by Jane Hampton, chair of writers in Oxford. Janie is a warm human being, with purple hair. Her biography of the actress Joyce Grenfell was described in the Sunday Telegraph as being ‘attractively redolent’, and in the Literary Review as ‘complex’. Sounds like a whisky.The whiff of malt has attracted a diversity of talents to the Pullman cottage. Oxford has more scriveners per head that any other city. If writers in Oxford enjoy this evening, expect mentions of malts in Gothic fantasy, science fiction and the children’s books of the future. Which malts? Normally, I would solicit samples from the industry. This gathering, however culturally influential, is too small to be served in that way. The industry has, indeed, provided samples, but indirectly. Bottles are sent to me every day with a view to my tasting them for my books or for this magazine. My cellar is impassable with cases full of bottles. Now, having tried to staunch the supply, I suddenly need a few, ideally to showcases regional styles. One find suggests a novel approach. Suntory’s Yamazaki distillery is at a modest elevation, and produces a sweetish, gentle, honeyish, whisky. We’ll start with that, then head through bottlings from creamy Arran, coconut-tinged Springbank, leafy Bowmore, passion-fruity Bruichladdich, peppery Talisker, a robust Glenfarclas. Then another novel touch: Old Potrero, distilled wholly from malted rye. Writers in Oxford ask good questions, but drink with more restraint than their professional counterparts in cities with which I am more familiar. This may be just as well. Philip seems to have made a Faustian pact with The Darling Daemon. Rather than take home half-empty bottles, I pressed them upon my hosts. Philip chose The Balvenie, a vintage bottling.Since then, he tells me, his American publisher and a film producer have each arrived at his cottage bearing gifts. One was a 20-year-old Bowmore, the other a 40-year-old Dailuaine. All of this for a man who is already a member of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society.Now I begin to wonder whether he has a collection of Ardbegs.