Desert Island drams

Desert Island drams

What do professional tasters drink for pleasure? Richard Jones finds out what the whisky makers' whiskies are

People | 09 Jun 2003 | Issue 31 | By Richard Jones

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They have some of the most finely tuned palates in the business. Distillery manager, master blender, production or operations director; their titles might be different, but they all have one thing in common – the ability not only to recognise a great malt whisky when they find one, but to appreciate from personal experience the level of skill and commitment required to make it.These are the people who have dedicated their working lives to the whisky industry, individuals who might routinely nose 300 barrel samples before lunch, who spend an unhealthy amount of time thinking about the likes of fermentation temperatures, yeast cultures and worm tubs.So, at the end of a long, hard day, what do the professionals like to drink? Which whiskies are good enough to tickle the tastebuds of the blokes who make the stuff for a living? In many ways, it’s the ultimate recommendation, the most popular drams amongst the people who know the world of whisky inside out, from their own distilleries and beyond.“I’m having a love affair with Scapa at the moment,” admits Jim McEwan, production director at Bruichladdich.“Scapa 12-year-old is probably the best value-for-money malt in the market today. I just love that flavour of the Orkneys, it’s a bit like Bruichladdich, it has the taste of the ocean without all the heavy peat.” For Bill Lumsden, head of distilleries and maturation at Glenmorangie,“Highland Park, Springbank, Benrinnes and Mortlach are right up there. I’m a huge Highland Park fan, especially the 12-year old. At that age it displays perfect flavour balance between raw materials and wood.” Richard Paterson turns to Islay:“Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg are all great whiskies,” says Kyndal’s master blender and Whisky Magazine’s Blender of the Year. Jim McEwan agrees:“There’s nothing better when I’m on the road then to get my bag unpacked, open a miniature of one of the heavily-peated Islay boys and just chill out.”After working at Caol Ila Distillery on Islay, David Hardy, group manager for Dalwhinnie and Blair Athol, also has a soft spot for the island’s whiskies.“Us distillery managers on the island used to call ourselves the Condenser Club and meet up to share each others’ drams.“Although the Islay malts vary greatly in style, I really enjoy them all.”Jim McEwan has a particularly eclectic taste when it comes to malt.“I always seek out Glen Elgin 12-year-old when I’m overseas,” reveals Jim, “it’s one of the diamonds in the coal dust, an absolutely stunning dram. No bugger knows about it, it’s just a cracking whisky!”Benrinnes also figures in Jim’s affections.“I remember in my old days as a whisky blender, when Benrinnes came into the sample room, the word quickly went round. I was like, ‘Jesus, this is good stuff!’”Jim is also a huge fan of whisky matured in sherry casks:“And there’s certainly none finer than Glendronach 15-year-old, which is really, really amazing. Of course, given my previous ties with the distillery, I also enjoy the sherry influence in Bowmore Darkest.”Dave Quinn, Irish Distillers’ technical director, not surprisingly picks out Irish.“My favourite would be Black Bush,” notes the former Bushmills master blender.“It’s such a well-balanced whiskey in that it has immense all-round flavour and great drinkability. Aperfect combination.”Mike Miyamoto, deputy managing director of Morrison Bowmore Distillers, explains why Suntory Royal 12-year-old would be his favourite everyday whisky:“The blend has a smooth taste and a fruity note that makes it easy to drink, and it goes extremely well with Japanese meals thanks to its lightness and roundness.”Working at a distillery for a long time, it’s hard not to become attached to its whisky.“The only bourbon I ever drink is Wild Turkey,” remarks Jimmy Russell, the legendary figure who has spent nearly five decades at this Kentucky distillery.“For special occasions, I might have Rare Breed or Russell’s Reserve, but it’s always Wild Turkey. It’s the flavour, the body, the caramel and vanilla that I like. A good, full-bodied, robust bourbon.”Iain Henderson, formerly of Laphroaig and now operations director at Edradour, continues the theme:“Of all the distilleries I’ve run, it’s the ones you put the most into that become your favourites. Obviously Laphroaig is pretty special for me because I had so much to do with it over 14 years. And I’m particularly fond of Bladnoch because we basically resurrected it from the dead.“No doubt Edradour will soon become a firm favourite as well.”From the Laphroaig range, Iain has always preferred the 10-year-old.“It’s the strong pungency, the peatiness of the 10-year-old that I like. “With a wider selection of distilleries at his disposal than most, Richard Paterson plumps for The Dalmore as his malt of choice, as he explains:“Quite simply because of the variation within the range. I’m a great believer that the style of a whisky should match the moment, and with Dalmore that’s relatively easy to do. The 12-year-old is obviously influenced by sherry wood, then there are the older styles such as the 21 and 30, plus the very rare 50, 60 and 62-year-olds.”Talisker distillery manager Alastair Robertson opts for his own whisky.“My favourite Talisker is the 25-year old,” remarks Alastair Robertson. “You nose it and you just think ‘yes!’”For David Hardy, Caol Ila still commands pride of place in his whisky cabinet.

“It was the first distillery I was let loose on. I was newly-married at the time, and we both enjoyed life on the island enormously. I have great memories of sitting in my front room on Islay, looking over to the Paps of Jura with a glass of Caol Ila in my hand.”Dave Quinn has another Irish favourite:“For special occasions, it would have to be the latest addition to the Bushmills single malt range – the 21-year-old Madeira Finish,” he says.“It’s wonderfully complex. Also, from the other side of the Irish coin, it would be Jameson 18-year-old, a classic whiskey with that wonderful Irish pot-still character.”Mike Miyamoto picks out Hakushu 12-year-old:“It has a distinctive character which is great to drink outdoors. It’s a cracker when you want to relax on a sunny spring or autumn day in the garden, as a companion when you’re out for a walk or playing golf.” Bill Lumsden also has a special occasion favourite.“My most precious bottle, and, in fact, very happily I can say ‘bottles’, because I have two, is the very first Glenmorangie Manager’s Choice,” he enthuses.“It was released back in 1997 when I was distillery manager, and there was one cask out of many that I kept coming back to. I thought it was the most superb example of everything Glenmorangie should be. I tasted it recently at a restaurant, and I’m pleased to say that it was still fabulous!”Jim McEwan’s favourite bottle at the moment is Bruichladdich 1970.“I only took over the distillery two years ago, so it’s got absolutely nothing to do with me. But it’s incredible, I’ve fallen in love with it.” Jim eulogises.“Sometimes you meet a dram and you just fall on your knees and go ‘Thank God!’ It’s so beautifully made, it speaks to you when you taste it, you can actually feel the skill of the men in the glass.”Despite himself, Iain Henderson has the odd bottle held back, too.“I’m not a collector, because I firmly believe that whisky’s for drinking,” he says, “but I do have one or two special bottles stored away. My 1935 Laphroaig is worth a few bob, I think, as is the 1947, one of the first to be released after World War II.”Unquestionably the most valuable bottle in Jim McEwan’s collection is his first edition Black Bowmore.“It’s probably one of the most beautiful whiskies ever created. I was a cooper at the distillery when it was made, I might even have filled the casks, so I’ve followed it through its life, grew up with it.”Despite its high value, there’s no question of Jim holding onto the whisky for a rainy day.“I just feel that if I get hit by a truck or something, I don’t want all these folks at my funeral drinking my hoard! My wife would mix Diet Coke with something like Auchentoshan 1965, and I’d die a second death! I’ll probably crack the Bowmore open when my first grandchild is born or when the first Bruichladdich is bottled.”And the most memorable dram? Richard Paterson has no hesitation.“The most memorable whisky I’ve ever tasted is Dalmore 62-year-old. When you gamble with old whiskies, they don’t necessarily respond to what you’re trying to do. I’d already racked the cask holding the whisky four times, trying to manipulate the quality to the style I was looking for.“When I opened the bottle, my heart was in my mouth because it could easily have collapsed. Fortunately it hadn’t, instead it had retained its full character and was everything I could have hoped for.”A bottle of Dalmore 62-year-old recently sold at auction for a mere £25,877.50.“I have a bottle of Coleraine 34-year-old – from the old Coleraine Distillery,” says Dave Quinn.“It was the last cask of whiskey that was ever produced there, a small reminder of all the fabulous whiskeys that the distillery made in its lifetime. I’m maybe a little afraid to crack it open just yet.“I do have a bottle from the old Midleton Distillery, the 26-year-old, which certainly has been tasted – it’s wonderful to see what complex and fantastic whiskeys these old distilleries were able to produce years ago.”Jim McEwan’s dream dram is a Macallan.“If I had a dram to die for, it would have to be something from the year when I was born, 1948. There’s a Macallan 1948, but unfortunately it costs around £2,000.“Macallan is such a fantastic whisky, and to try something that was made in my birth year would be amazing. I’m just hoping that if Bob Dalgarno at Macallan reads this article, he might be tempted to fill me a sample of Macallan 1948. Come on Bob, you owe me after all the headaches you’ve given me over the years!”And what would the whisky professionals drink in a fantasy world – assuming the laws of science did not exist, and money was no obstacle?Well, if he owned a time machine, Bill Lumsden would travel back and sample two pioneering whiskies: the late 15th century distillation made by Friar John Cor of Dunfermline, the earliest reference to ‘aqua vitae’ in Scotland; and the first licensed bottling of Glenmorangie in 1843.“It would be fascinating to try, just to see how it compares with what we do today.”Dave Quinn would be even busier in his time machine:“Many years ago, there were lots of distilleries in Ireland, and sadly a lot of them are now gone and closed. If I did have samples of all those whiskeys, I’m sure it would be some tasting experience, absolutely incredible. They would be very different to modern whiskies – probably heavier, more robust, fuller-bodied.”No journey into the whisky past would be necessary for Mike Miyamoto.“I’d love to distil a malt whisky in my own back garden, a mini distillery in a hut, like the illicit distillers in days gone by.”However, not content with just one fantasy, Mike also throws in a couple more for good measure:“First, to produce a blended whisky which is created from distinguished malts and grains from all the whisky regions in the world. A universal blend.“And second, to taste a whisky which is quite literally ‘out of this world’, a single malt whisky distilled and matured on the moon, and presented in a moonstone bottle!”But the final word on whisky fantasies must go to David Hardy.“In my perfect bottle, the whisky would constantly change its character to suit my every mood. And, most importantly of all, it would never run out!”
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