There’s a dirty Scottish secret. Nothing to do with the price of Brent crude, or who votes for Nicola: it’s that our global triumph, whisky, is now done rather brilliantly by others. Your reviewer is no bigot. I have gurgled and gargled Canadian, Swedish, Welsh and American whisky. These days, winter isn’t winter without Woodford Reserve. Even the English produce drinkable drams — drinkable, that is, for the curry-contaminated palates of chain-smoking Swindon estate agents. But the problem is specific. It’s Japanese. They came, they pottered around our distilleries, they chewed and they spat. A few decades on, serious international blind tastings give them the prize.
So purely in the interests of science, I have spent an utterly miserable time drinking drams late into the night. For Caledonia we have two 18-year-olds: a Talisker from the Atlantic West and Mortlach from Dufftown in the Eastern Highlands, home of Glenfiddich and Balvenie. Now I was brought up to believe that peaty Islay malts, clogged with tar and crusted with salt, were the only winter drink. But a friend of my father’s once argued that, for a sophisticated man, Skye’s only whisky had the surge and the bite of Islay, with honeys and a dapple of spice. Talisker was simply cleverer.
On the other side of the country, in my boyhood, anyone who argued for any malt other than the Glenlivet was likely to face a severe dose of the tawse. Life is never so simple. Mortlach, a relative newcomer, is known for a certain earthiness alongside the floral ponce and skipping spicy pleasure-cult of the region. I coped manfully. The 18-year-old Talisker is sublime, a rich and complex drink for long evenings of storytelling. Mortlach, though bloody expensive, is a whisky for whisky drinkers.
At this point I should say, in any random order, the following: leather, pear drops, spices, apple, orange. And so on. But the truth is that whisky mostly tastes like whisky and if it didn’t, we would be disconcerted. All that wittering about unwashed socks, the underlying stench of haddock or the faint aroma of pomegranate merely makes me wonder what the Gaelic is for twat.
Competing against the Scots? Hakushu 12- and 18-year-old, from a Suntory-owned distillery on mountainous wooded slopes in central Japan. It’s chewy, full of toffee and a beautiful colour. It tastes, by and large, quite strongly, and in an entirely good way, of … whisky. As a friend told me:
‘It’s motorbikes, and cameras. When they set their minds to it, they’re just very good at making things.’
True. I will be buying Talisker. But uneasily…