Once a knight

Once a knight

Good things take a while, sometime decades to reach their best. Michael Jackson makes the case for prizing maturity... and animal warmth

Musings with Michael Jackson 16 Dec 1999 | Interviews | By Michael Jackson

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You may call me “Sir”. My knighthood is in the post, so to speak, though it may take a while. I have just hit the road to publicise the latest edition of my Malt Whisky Companion, the fourth in 10 years. At this rate, it will take only 60 years or so to reach the 29th edition. That fine version, by the grand-sounding Sir Michael Jackson, is mentioned in the short story Brotherly Love, from the keyboard of crime-writer Mike Ripley. His tale is set in the future, though not quite that far ahead. He refers to my book being consulted in Ben Fuji’s Whisky and Sushi Bar, in the City of London. As Ripley’s ripping yarn was published only in the US, I thought I might give his suggestion a wider circulation. It was included in a Signet Mystery collection called Royal Crimes. Did the Queen read it, I wonder? Or Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose Scottish origins have not persuaded him to slash taxes on whisky? Back in 1994, on a visit to Dumbarton, Blair commented, “My acquaintance with Laphroaig has been at times just a little intense.” Surely he and his Scottish chancellor realise that whisky is Britain’s most successful, and prestigious, export?Perhaps the prestige is the point. Sell it cheap and you devalue it. On the odd occasions when people complain to me about the price of whisky, especially malts, I am reminded of a thought expressed by Allan Schiach about his days managing The Macallan. In 1968, the company, at the time predominantly supplying whisky to blenders, decided to lay down sufficient stocks in dry oloroso casks to launch seriously as a single malt with 10 years’ ageing.Schiach observed to me, “It was a bit like acquiring
the premises for a restaurant, fitting the kitchen, putting a chef and waiting staff on the payroll, then not opening the doors for a decade.” People in the whisky business know this, but tend to forget it. I am not sure it even occurs to drinkers who make comparisons between the price of malts and, say, ‘super-premium’ vodkas. I find myself explaining through clenched teeth that Chekhovka or Dissolut, or whatever is hot (or cold?) this week, was made only yesterday, and could equally well have been produced in Peterborough or Peoria.“Yes,” say the knowing types, “but is older better?” Among the more salty, peppery, peaty, island malts,a strong case can be made for youthful robustness. Nonetheless, even some of those age wonderfully. Judging blindfold in the International Spirits’ Challenge earlier this year, I loved a whisky with a smoky fragrance of roses, an astonishingly fresh palate and in the finish what a fellow panellist dubbed “animal warmth”. It turned out to be a Laphroaig 30-year-old, bottled in 1997, from 123 sherry butts branded with the legend SS Great Auk. This is believed to be the ship in which they came from Jerez more than three decades ago. This parcel of casks was being matured at the distillery for veteran US merchant John Gross, a great promoter of malts. After his demise, Laphroaig bought back the stock.As I tasted this wonderful whisky, I felt I had experienced its wonderful flavours before. It came back to me the other day. I was conducting a whisky tasting in Cologne and one of the guests was Prince Luitpold of Bavaria, whose neo-Gothic castle contains a brewery. “Remember that Laproaig 30-year-old you tasted from the cask in my brewery cellars?” he ventured. “It’s a little older, and even better now. When are you coming down for another taste?”Maybe the Bavarians will make me a knight ... for services as taster to the Royal House.
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