As a passionate promoter of Scottish tourism and all things Scottish I’ve always felt there was a chink in my armour. An appreciation of my national drink. No, not Irn Bru everyone loves that – right? I’m talking about Scotch whisky, uisge beatha or the water of life. While I can spout endlessly about Scottish scenery, wildlife, history, literature, food and customs I’m an utter ignaramus when it comes to whisky.
So, when I was invited to attend the Edinburgh Whisky Solstice 2016, a festival of whisky hosted by The Whisky Lounge in conjunction with the Scotch Malt Whisky Society I jumped at the chance to go. What better way to find out more?
Yesterday afternoon Mr G and I trotted off to the Assembly Rooms on Edinburgh’s George Street where the event was taking place.
We were warmly welcomed on arrival and given a complimentary tasting glass and bottle of water each. The place was packed, predominantly by men of all ages as excited as children on Christmas morning.
I looked at the array of stalls bewildered – where to start and how long before I encountered that terrifying, elephant in the room – Islay peat!
A couple of years ago on holiday on the stunning Isle of Islay, Mr G and I had an ill fated attempt at cultivating a taste for whisky. Having toured the island snapping photos of the numerous distilleries with their pretty pagoda roofs we decided to immerse ourselves in all that Islay had to offer with a wee dram.
Ignorant of which whisky and island distillery to opt for I consulted that great oracle, Google. The Bowmore 15 year old darkest single malt sounded a perfect place to start and the barmaid wholeheartedly agreed.
Matured in sherry barrels with notes of treacle toffee, chocolate and spices it sounded perfect. I took my first tentative sip and my tastebuds erupted. I was overwhelmed by the smoky taste of peat. Peat is a smell I adore – it instantly whisks me off to small Highland and Island villages where it’s burned in fires. As a taste it was something entirely different. I felt as if I’d just swallowed a mouthful of cold embers from the fireplace. Needless to say each sip after that was a struggle. It didn’t help that we’d attracted an audience of gawpers at the next table. They were clearly thinking, geez if Scots love whisky so much they should tell their faces. The pair of us would comfortably have won a gurning competition hands down that evening.
I cautiously approached Wemyss Malts, my tasting glass clutched nervously. Weymms Malts are a family run, independent bottler. They work in partnership with the Kingsbarns Distillery who are based near Saint Andrews in Fife.
Their whisky expert was first class and spent lots of time with me explaining the process for making single malts and blends. She guided me through several samples, including Scottish gin (hooray) and seemed genuinely delighted when I could taste honey, smoke and citrus.
Encouraged I tried The Hive, a blended malt from Wemyss Malts. I could taste honey and even more surprisingly, I liked it! Next I tried Spice King another blended malt also from Wemyss Malts. Mmmm that’d be a nice one for Christmas I heard myself utter as a voice inside my head screamed “Who the hell are you?” I bid Wemyss Malts farewell before they cracked open the Smoke Chimney – still a step too far after the Bowmore incident.
The Edinburgh luxury, boutique hotel and bar Tigerlily were mixing whisky based cocktails at a stand so I made a beeline for them next.
Mr G and I adore cocktails but there are a few which we can’t stomach and you’ve guessed it they’re whisky based.
On our first wedding anniversary back in 2010 we spent the night at the fabulous One Devonshire Gardens in Glasgow. The bartender was a cocktail whizz and the night was going perfectly until he mixed us his favourite cocktail. The whisky based Old Fashioned. Once mixed a good half hours worth of grimmacing ensued.
I picked up a Tigerlily cocktail sample and tried it. It was lovely – light, refreshing, citrusy and not at all like the dreaded Old Fashioned. It was something I’d willingly drink on a nice sunny day.
As I wandered around the stands deciding which to brave next I repeatedly returned to the same stand, drawn by the quirky labels on their bottles. That Boutique-y Whisky Company was my next port of call.
First I was offered a 5 year old English single malt. Yes you heard right English whisky. I took a taste and recoiled in shock, it actually tasted like “real” whisky and was even quite drinkable.
Next I tried what was to be one of my favourites of the day, together with The Hive from Wemyss Malts. Mortlach a 27 year old single Malt from Dufftown. The label emblazoned by a giant, angry demon hurling whisky barrels down the streets of Dufftown. I should have tasted rasins and granola with a hint of mince pie but my novice palate wasn’t quite that sophisticated yet. What I did taste however was rich and warm with a lingering flavour that didn’t fade away quickly like the 5 year old English single malt. Hardly a surprise therefore that you won’t be left with much change out of £300 for a 50cl bottle of this stuff.
By this stage I was starting to feel that peckish way you get once you start drinking alcohol. Luckily the well loved Edinburgh institution that is Ian Mellis Cheese was on hand to save the day. Ian Mellis has been adding a pungent aroma to the streets of Edinburgh’s since 1993. You could walk up Victoria Street blindfold and know exactly when you were passing his shop.
We shared a cheese platter of Mull Cheddar, Somerset Brie and Auld Reekie, with oatcakes and spiced chutney and a grilled cheese toastie with more Mull cheddar – delicious.
Stomach lined and hunger abated I decided to tackle the elephant in the room head on. Peat from Islay! I made my way to the Elements of Islay and Port Askaig stand. As soon as I arrived I was transported back to the island with its peat cutters working out in the fields. The smell was intense. I listened as their expert described the various whiskies and when asked which I’d like to sample I took the bull by the horns and asked for Peat. A blended malt from 3 island distilleries, which are a closely guarded secret.
I took a sniff and there was no denying this was going to be another Bowmore experience. A teeny, cautious sip and yes my mouth was full of peat fire embers once more but this time no gurning, grimmacing or desire to boak. (Boak is a favourite Scots word of mine which means throwing up or being sick. There’s also the dry boak which means retching. We’re an expressive lot us Scots). It was at this moment that I realised I’d finally learned to appreciate my national drink. I actually quite liked whisky. While I’ve a very long way to go before I understand the mystery that is malts, grains, blends and batches, for me this was an exciting leap into a whole new world of distillery tours and sampling local whiskies on my travels.
Before we left I had a bet to settle with Mr G. Every year we visit Mull and every year I say I’m going to take the Tobermory Distillery tour and sample a dram. He always bets I won’t and he’s right I never do. He always jokes about me not forgetting to have a nip of Tobermory before we leave the island – so off I went in seach of Tobermory or Ledaig. I found Tobermory and swigged back my sample with a smug look on my face. Pah, why would a whisky lover like me be afraid of a wee glass of Tobermory!
Sadly Mr G has been working nights this weekend so he couldn’t join me in the whisky sampling, which leaves him still very much with the Bowmore fear. Despite being halfway through a weekend of nighshift he enjoyed the Edinburgh Whisky Solstice just as much as I did. I could even see the cogs in his brain turning as he started to picture himself Harris Tweed jacket on, dram in hand sitting in the comfy wee snug of the Mishnish Bar, Tobermory. I know it’s only a matter of time before he leaps into the World of Scotch whisky with me.
Until next time……..