The twenty-first of December, 2010: this year’s whisky (had better last)

I usually buy good whisky only at Christmastime. This year, I was torn between an overpowering Christmas-fuelled yen for tradition and an acknowledgement that I can’t spend my entire life drinking only Islay malts.

I felt particularly clued-up and in the know, because a few months ago I had to write a set of Mastermind questions on Scottish Malt Whiskies (I don’t think it’s been on the telly yet). This, I’ll add in passing, was not an easy job: questions like “which whisky is salivating with barley content boosted by pounding spice?” or “which of the Scottish malts is described in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2009 as a truly brilliant mouth arrival“?” were not considered good viewing material. This is a shame, as I have come across few phrases as deserving of televisation as a truly brilliant mouth arrival.

In any event, the competing influences of tradition and erudition (off-the-cuff crossword clue: replacing regressive art in ancient custom with turning flower leads to enlightenment (9)) went for a Burton at the Oddbins till and I fell back on that old stand-by, the panic purchase.

And so I find before me – as I assemble gifts, wrap, sellotape, scissors and carols CD – a bottle of 12-year-old Caol Ila. An Islay malt, yes, but one I’ve not tried before.

Jim Murray’s verdict:

n[ose]: a coastal, salty biting tang (please don’t tell me this has been matured on the mainland!) with hints of rockpools and visions of rock pipits and oystercatchers among the seaweed. t[aste]: enormously oily, coating the palate with a mildly subdued smokiness and then a burst of gristy malt. f[inish]: caramel and oil. b[ody]: a telling improvement on the old 12-y-o, with much greater expression and width.

Yes. I know. Anyway, I prefer to listen to Michael Jackson (not that one), because he’s published by Dorling Kindersley and his book therefore looks nice.

For a start-off, he tells us that Caol Ila means ‘sound of Islay’. I’d rather know that (and that it’s pronounced cull-eela) than sit through that guff about rock pipits. Apparently Caol Ila is “junipery, fruity, estery”, which would be all well and good if “estery” were a word, which it isn’t (I’ve checked). He proceeds:

COLOUR Vinho verde. NOSE Soft. Juniper. Garden mint. Grass. Burnt grass. BODY Lightly oily. Simultaneously soothing and appetising. PALATE Lots of flavour development. Becoming spicy. Vanilla, nutmeg, white mustard. Complex. Flavours combine with great delicacy. FINISH Very long.

Ri-ight. That’s all very well, but I’ve never tasted white mustard. I gather from my researches that it “exhibits a pungent taste after some time of chewing”. Mmm.

I fear that this Christmas I have chosen badly. Experts agree, it seems, that I have spent a pocketful of money on a thing that will taste like oil.

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