Tell me,” he said, looking at me gravely. “How long is a long finish?” I must have looked bemused. This isn’t unusual. He tried again. “How many seconds is a long finish?” There was a slight tone of irritation in his voice. I laughed, thinking that this was quite a witty thing to say. He looked at me. “What is wrong? I want to know how many seconds it is. You are a whisky writer … ”He was serious, in a way that only the most intense whisky nut can be. At times like this, I always think of my old headmaster, a man who only gave me two pieces of advice: “Join the police force Broom, you’ll never be any good at anything,” and “If you don’t know the answer, say so.”
Actually, there was a third, come to think of it. “Hold your hands up, I’ve not finished belting you yet.”But we’ll gloss over that. It’s the second one which seemed the most apposite at this juncture. “I don’t know,” I said. “It’s just a loose term. A short finish doesn’t leave much of a taste, a medium finish lasts in the mouth a little longer and a long finish goes on for … well … ages.” I realised how lame this all sounded because he was looking pained. Sad, even.“But how long is long?” he repeated, and then, more censorially, “Have you never measured it?” At this point I didn’t want to admit that I never wear a watch. That might have tipped him over the brink into a state of gloom that northern Europeans do so well. “No,” I replied. “I must confess I never have,” and then for some unaccountable reason I added, “I don’t really do numbers … ”To say he was less than impressed would be an understatement. There again, few of the number- crunching whisky fanatics I’ve met seem to understand my opinion that figures cannot define pleasure. I could also have fallen back on the fact that I’m a journalist, and none of us do numbers well. One of my old bank managers went insane and believed he was the Emperor Claudius. I still feel partly responsible. But I digress.Fact is, when someone asks me about specific peating levels, I try and fudge the issue, not because I don’t know the answer, but because I don’t know how relevant it is. Is the difference between 20 and 24ppm noticeable? Does it actually matter? Surely it is the overall effect, the flavour that is of interest.Just imagine this. Instead of writing hopelessly poetic descriptors, Michael and I will do it by numbers: 21.5ppm, a finish which is 8.5 seconds, a nose-burn that measures five on the Konk scale, and instead of any tasting notes, we’ll reprint a gc (that’s gas chromatograph) analysis. Would that be more useful? Of course not. Does the fact that one whisky has a finish which is 10.2 seconds make it better than one which has, disgracefully, failed to break the nine second barrier? No, it makes it different. That 10.2 might not have been a pleasurable 10.2. I might have been wanting to get the taste out of my mouth. A short finish is often desirable as it freshens the palate up.Numbers can explain things, but how can a number explain an aroma, how can figures conjure up evocations of places, people and events? How can beauty be encapsulated in a chemical reading? This game, this drink, is about sensory pleasure, sensual delight. It is flavour that matters. So, I’m sorry my disappointed friend, but I still don’t know how long a long finish is, and you know what? I don’t care.