Recently I spent two days giving classes to bartenders, something which is always a heartening experience. After all, when I started this gig a quarter of a century (say it quickly Dave and no-one will notice) ago you’d be lucky to get a couple of barkeeps interested in something as outré as whisky cocktails, and now? Now the room will be packed with fresh-faced young things who are genuinely interested in whisky and want to learn more.
You know there’s going to be a ‘but’ though, don’t you? Sorry, there is. What was interesting about these sessions was that they were focusing on single malts in cocktails. Let me say from the word go that I’ve got nothing against using a malt as a base for a mixed drink. That focus and intensity of a singular character can be advantageous when it is placed at the centre of a quality concoction. Breaking the rules in viewing malts as being a valid part of the bartender’s armoury is to be encouraged.
Where though, I mused, even as I spoke, was the opportunity to talk blends? Today, the phrase “I like whisky,” in the UK at least, means “I drink single malt.” It is as true for the on-trade as it is for consumers.
It is surely time to speak blends. It makes more sense at the moment, not just because of their inherent versatility, but because there are less restrictions on supply. Showing whisky’s versatility and spread of flavours and then restricting the conversation to malts is, I believe, missing a trick. Malts are built on individuality, but blends are built for occasion. They have a wider range of flavours and textures often within a single sip. That’s what happens, unsurprisingly, when you mix different malts and grains.
The only way in which you can expect there to be a shift back to blends, or rather an equal voice given to blends, is by engaging the people who are pouring them or should be. Now is the time to get bartenders excited because once they do it will filter down to the consumer.
That means looking long and hard at flavour. At the sessions we paired some of the malts with chocolate; a no-brainer you might think, but judging from the faces one which hadn’t been thought of.
A wider range of flavours and textures often within a single sip
My point to the bartenders was that if they thought the combinations worked (and thankfully they did) the next stage was to forget that they were eating chocolate and concentrate. By doing so the chocolate stopped being a sweet, stopped being chocolate in fact and became a delivery mechanism for different flavours which then linked in various ways with the single malt. If this simple combination worked, then the next stage was to try and replicate the effect using other ingredients from the bar.
It’s a technique which would work with malts, but imagine then applying this to blends, which IMHO are better as partners with food because you’ve got a greater range of flavours and textures with which to establish links.
It’s something which I’ve been dwelling on recently as my mind –as you may have gathered – has been somewhat preoccupied with the writing of a book on the best ways to drink whisky. This has meant long tasting sessions with a whole load of mixers, something which has thrown up some fascinating results.
One of the mixers has been cola. A bad mix?An overly dominant mix? Sometimes yes, but on occasion it is a really good drink, especially with bigger blends and Bourbons because what comes through is a herbal note, with red and black fruits which then makes you think of vermouth. By forgetting it is cola and thinking of the flavour, there’s a clue as to which blends and Bourbons will make the best Manhattans or Rob Roys.
It can be extended to blends in general. The issue with the resistance to blended Scotch isn’t down to an aversion to the flavour; because no-one knows what they taste like, but image. If distillers could begin to persuade bartenders that blends are simply a complex collection of flavours with amazing possibilities then we have, perhaps, a better chance for consistent long-term growth. Mix with malts by all means, but don’t miss the opportunity which exists for blends.