Whisky Squad, David vs Goliath

After enjoying the atmosphere of tasting whisky in the wine cellars of the Eighteenth Century Nickolls and Perks it is obvious that more whisky has to  be drunk in an old building. In this case i the Red Lion  in Crown Passage, off Pall Mall. It is a tiny place that claims to have the second oldest continuous beer licence in London. Although a pub might have been here for centuries, the present building is probably Georgian – but that is still old and plenty atmospheric enough.

This is where the Whisky Squad hold their meetings, in a first floor room that has room for less than twenty people (that’s a fudge because I don’t know if there were fifteen or eighteen of us, but you get the idea: it is an intimate space). We were gathered around a couple of tables and so it was conducive to conversation and exchanging opinions and as it was a gathering of whisky enthusiasts there were plenty of opinions.

This was the first time I have been to one of their meetings and surprisingly I got in through luck.  How did that happen? I never win raffles yet here I pulled a lucky ticket in a ballot. Maybe this year will be my year of surprises. Anyway when I arrived at the small, crowded downstairs bar I was not sure what to expect, so I walked up to the meeting room. Apparently the protocol is to wait downstairs until everything is prepared but never mind, someone else had done the same so we sat and chatted, out of the way,  on the sofa in the corner. It was a good way to start because it eased me in and meant there was someone amusing to talk to throughout the evening.

Conversation is the the thing that characterised the evening, because it is blind and because we are trying to guess things like age, strength, provenance, or even such basic things as to whether it is a malt or not, there is a lot to discuss. Few people (anybody?) get everything things spot-on but the guesses are always interesting and informative and one can always learn things from all the opinions, even if they are wrong. It is great fun and further proof, if such proof is needed, that are few more pleasurable ways to spend an evening than sitting round, tasting whisky, and talking about it. Conversation really does add a lot.

The theme of the evening was nominally David vs Goliath i.e. comparing some of the smaller producers with the behemoths but in all honesty that became a little hazy, especially with the subplot of ostensibly small, craft distilleries actually sourcing their spirit from mega producers. We tasted two of those, and they were quite tasty but the question of how much the brand story really matters or how much it is fluff was mentioned but not pursued. There was also further confusion about what small actually means. One of the evening’s favourites was a 9yr old cask strength Caol Ila bottled by Gordon & MacPhail for The Whisky Exchange. So it was something from the biggest distiller, Diagio, the biggest independent bottler, and the biggest online whisky retailer, yet it’s a small batch product. Who knows if it is big or small. Actually I’m not sure it mattered. It was honest in what it was and had a rather mighty prescence on the palate – so in my mind it is definitely a goliath.

The evening had a number of surprises, ont top of being let in, beginning with the first bottle. At our end of the table there was general agreement that it was not too old (about 10yrs), pleasant enough but not fully developed, good quality but a little underwhelming. Nevertheless it would be a good session whisky and you would be very happy if someone brought it along. But it was a Macallan 15yr old that retails for £150. Wow! That seems a lot of money and we didn’t get close with our guesses. But it might also show one of the weaknesses of comparative tastings: whiskies that have a big initial hit make a disproportionate impression, whilst whiskies that take time to open up, that you might even enjoy more when you get them home, can be unfairly disregarded. This might be the case here but I will not pay £150 to find out.

Another surprise, for me at least, was the FEW rye. The reason being that I was all at sea, lacking points of reference, I was unable to quite understand what I was drinking and whether I even liked it or not. At first it smelt a bit mossy,  over ripe fruit, a bit musty and it wasn’t too clear on my palate either. But then I tried again and the taste lingered and was  rather fine. I was beginning to change my mind. The whisky was developing and I like whiskies that develop and take longer to appreciate.

The thing that was not a surprise though was how bad I was at identifying what I was drinking. I was closest with abv, which I got right a couple of times (but that is only because 46% is usually a good guess) but with age I was all over the shop and as for the  distilleries – pah! Not even Caol Ila, which I should thought of. But that doesn’t matter, I enjoyed concentrating on trying to work out what I was drinking. and trying to heighten my senses.

All in all it was a very good evening and Elise Craft did a good job of hosting the event and choosing some interesting bottles.

The Whiskies tasted were:

Macallan 15yr old, 43% –  £150
Caol Ila 9yr old Cask Strength bottled by Gordon&MacPhail for TWE, 58.5% – £59.95
Kilkerran work in progress, 10yrs – £35.95
Smooth Ambler Old Scout 10, 50% – £48.65
FEW Rye, 46.5%, £44.45
Templeton Rye, 40% – £49.95