Passion, fruit and  a hint of manure

In the increasingly bold early years of 80’s Britain, a new TV programme about food and drink had a large and lasting impact on Britain As We Know It. Titled – presumably after some lengthy boardroom debate and soul searching – ‘Food and Drink’, the show was the first ever programme to be centred around features that had no recipes or guidance about how to cook, but instead focused on the ‘lifestyle’ aspects of consumption. This was to be the revolutionary element of Food and Drink but the idea didn’t really take hold in the collective consciousness as much as the introduction of the incomparable Jilly Goolden and a little later in the programme’s long run (1982 -2002 and a revival in 2013 with Michel Roux at the helm), the equally fabulous Oz Clarke. Who, it turned out, were the true revolutionaries, along with the brothers Roux, who took on the challenge of bringing gastronomy to UK shores with rather more impact than Food and Drink.

Jilly and Oz, as readers may be aware, are wine tasters. And not just any wine tasters. Not only could they perform stage-worthy blind testing accuracy on what wine came from where, they could talk about wine in a way that both amused and confused the Great British Public in equal measure. J&O would wrap themselves around a glass and then volley forth with the enthusiasm of a faithful spaniel reuniting with an owner mistakenly considered lost at sea for a bit. A something-or-other from the Nappa Valley didn’t, as by way of instance, smell ‘buttery’. No. The Californian gave off a scent reminiscent of – and I paraphrase here – ‘awakening to the aroma of buttered toast rising from the kitchen as the summer sun streams through your bedroom window’. A Claret from Somewhere-French was so good that it could only be fully enjoyed by ‘while seated in darkness and wearing a hood’, or something along such lines. Blimey.

The effect of all this on the GBP was deeply felt. Not only did the pair offer endless material for the stand-up, satirical and Sunday-supplement communities, wine was now increasingly evaluated by the body politic in rather more sophisticated measures than by its colour. Wine, and the now uncorked enthusiasm in the appreciation thereof, was the new black. Not all of this was down to the exploits of our two heroes, of course – just as the appreciation of fine dining sky rocketed throughout the 80’s 90’s and 00’s, so it was naturally accompanied on it’s journey by dinner party guests waxing lyrical on the benefits of oaked Chardonnays and city types attending noisy Beaujolais Nouveau parties until being noisily sick in the Thames. But while Jilly and Oz didn’t single-handedly storm the Bastille, they were certainly near the front and waving the flag with vigour.

“Wine, and the now uncorked enthusiasm in the appreciation there of, was the new black.”

As such, they became somewhat famous, and also more than a little infamous. To some, such tasting notes were amusing, clever and beyond that, actually useful. To others, however, they were if not the most annoying things ever uttered, were at least housed within the same neighbourhood as the announcement of the new, fairer-to-all Poll Tax or M Thatcher explaining the logic of snatching milk from the expectant mouths of dewy-eyed primary-aged cherubs.

If all of this sounds familiar to the drinker of whisky, it should not come as much of a surprise – the upsurge in scotch appreciation has been similarly meteoric, if a decade or two behind the Wine Rush. From the business-like, even somewhat brusque, descriptions of the early 20th century where Scotch was primarily described as ‘old’ or perhaps, if aficionados were waxing particularly lyrically, ‘Highland’, there was a steady upward tick of the richness of descriptions as the century progressed. However, the last wee whiley has witnessed tasting reach a level of art form that is at least equal to that of wine. Indeed, under the measured keyboard strikes of some of today’s expert tasters, it has also reached a similar plateau in terms of the joyful enthusiasm (and often borderline surrealism) in the application of metaphor as its grape-based cousin. Additionally, there are now seemingly as many Jillys and Ozs within the world of whisky as there are whiskies. And that’s quite a lot, particularly when you consider that J&O also offer the odd comment themselves these days.  

This makes perfect sense of course. For the supplier of The Good Stuff, one who makes his or her living pondering the flavour merits of same or a deeply devoted whisky fancier, minute attention to detail is a must. It is vital, in fact, to ensure that the whisky appeals to as many grateful palates as possible. All eventualities should be looked at askance to ensure the whisky, or advice, is the best that can be offered forth. Is there too much of this? Too little of that? This is the sort of thing that separates the wheat from the chaff in terms of the expert supplier, scribe or enthusiast. My appreciation for these people knows no bounds and I often stand in awe at their abilities and precision palates. However, just like wine, whisky is extremely complex in its flavour and as a result, the opinions can often be, shall we say, involved. And just as Jilly and Oz polarised opinion on Food and Drink, I have seen first hand among the less forgiving of my peers that such opinions on whisky can create a distinct lack of approbation regarding those who have given of their time to set them down on the page.

Now, you could argue this is just down to a curmudgeonly disposition belonging to these tasting-note detractors. That they hate poetical speech patterns and have no time for florid metaphor when simple instruction would be of far more use. But I don’t think it’s that at all. Good and decent friends of mine who have The Bard in their head and a song in their heart are often so incensed by tasting notes or reviews that veins pulse in their foreheads and they have to break some nearby innocent objet d’art before going for a lie down. And although they would probably be loathe to admit this, I think they really hate them because they don’t understand the passion that lies behind them. Nothing, not even barking my shin on what can only be described as the wantonly careless placing of the coffee table, annoys me as much as not understanding a thing. It makes me feel unworthy and out of step with the world around me. So when faced with expertise on show that is so breathtaking and enthusiasm so fizzing, I can wholly understand how the novice – or even the day-to-day whisketeer who has up until now, simply announced ‘I like that’ or ‘I don’t like that’ – can become not a little vexed.

So what is to be done to lead the annoyed into the righteous path of appreciating the efforts of the dedicated whisky tasting community who do such an excellent job of giving us the goods on what is Ambrosia and what should be spat unceremoniously on to the carpet of the local hostelry? As is often the case, the answer is to find out a bit more about the thing which annoys and thus it will no longer grate, but illuminate. This, rather obviously, can be done by jolly well tasting the stuff yourself and writing your own notes.

Yes, yes, that’s all very well, you may say. Good idea. Great, in fact, but how exactly does the layman approach this seemingly tortuously complicated business of ‘tasting’ whisky? How does the lady or gentleman who just enjoys a responsible snifter now and again (and who, while they may recognise certain flavours and smells within a quick belt of The Good Stuff, is unlikely – and perhaps rightly, unwilling – to think of ‘sweaty gym shoes on tarmac’), place a tentative foot in the game?

Pleasingly, very easily indeed. The way forward is the above tasting table. Often this is a wheel, arranged like one of those colour chart things that suck the life out any DIYer who has gamely set out to choose paint only to find so many possibilities as to be debilitated by sheer choice and become flummoxed on the starting line. There may be advantages to the arrangement of the whisky table in this wheel format but I’m not clear what they are and in any case, such a formation offers unappealing dimensions for this web page, so a table it is. Anyway, the idea is pretty much what you would expect – you have a sniff, a swirl around the mouth, a swallow and then compare your experiences to the suggestions on the above, ticking gaily as you go. This not only has the effect of allowing you to think about what you like and don’t like, but also which regions taste like what. The knock-on of this is to avoid any future nasty surprises – and expensive wasted trips to the off sales dept. – and home in on the whiskies that giveth of the most joy according to your own particular set of proclivities. And it really is as simple as that. You can even find the regions and the flavours all in one handy map which saves you doing the tasting, but you can’t help feeling that misses the point somewhat – a hands-on approach is always better with this type of thing. It’s drinking whisky, remember, not something dreadful like running sets of 200 metres with 30 second pauses in between.

You can go much deeper into the thing too, if you fancy. There are more complicated tables and charts than this one but for me anyway, this is enough to be going on with. I like the smell of ‘cigar boxes’ and the taste of ‘bubble gum’ may be exactly the thing I’m after that day but in either case, whether the humidor is from Havana or the gum from Hubba Bubba, it is unlikely to have so pronounced an effect as to make my heartfelt conclusions wobble.

Alternatively, if you are of a scientific bent, you can look at things differently and get involved with the many different compounds in whisky that whip around together, busying themselves with making up the very essence of the myriad tastes and smells that appear on the tongue and in the nose respectively. Again, and this is just personally speaking, I wouldn’t. It’s not that this is not an extremely worthy and interesting thing to do and for the aforementioned experts and dispensers of the spirit, it’s a must. But for the rest of us mere mortals? No. Imagine taking the Lady or The Gentleman out for a romantic evening meal and then deciding to explain how worms have made the silken napkins or what had to rot in order for the mushroom to taste magnificent, then you can envisage the effects of the appearance of science in circumstances where it perhaps should not be front of stage. Kills the romance stone dead in a trice. And with whisky, the effect is very much the same – if you give the sniff, the swirl and the swallow and then pronounce that the coconut flavour seems pronounced due to the lactones, specifically Cis-3-Methyl-4-Octanolide and Trans-3-Methyl-4-Octanolide, before expanding warmly on the o-, m- and p-Cresols’ effect on the detectable smokiness, you can very much imagine the response you will get from The Loved One. Definite raspberry notes.

However deeply you wish to drive the spade is of course very much up to your very good and decent self, but it is always worth considering that at the root of this tasting game should be pleasure. It would be an error indeed to focus the mind so diligently on associating this region with that flavour profile and that nose with the other ethyl hexanote as to forget to actually enjoy The Good Stuff while undertaking the project. This may seem unlikely, but trust me when I tell you it is easily done. I have extensive notes from one day’s tasting where, while I have closely observed cherry noses and marmitey finishes, I seem to have forgotten to write down how much I liked each whisky. All of them tremendously I suspect, but it goes to show how eye can be taken from ball if rigour overtakes rapture.

Alexander Pope once said ‘A little learning is a dangerous thing’ and while he is an estimable poet and no doubt an excellent gentleman who was kind to dogs and always washed and dried the dishes after dinner, he was talking out of his ear when it comes to whisky tasting. A little learning is a superb thing and the process of gaining it is better even than that. On the one hand, it will it create very enjoyable afternoons of drinking excellent whisky. On the other, it will mean that the next time you read something like ‘a blitzkrieg of blackcurrant and balsa wood brings a balletic balance’ you will nod sagely, stroke your chin for a bit and then argue passionately that it is very clearly strawberries and sandalwood. And, temporarily at least, the snearing china dog on that blasted coffee table will be safe from being hurled wallwards.

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