Reviews, recipes, ramblings and other gourmet bites. A food blog of indulgence...

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

A Glass Of Something Smoky

My lovely aunt and uncle gave us the first series of MadMen for Christmas and we're now totally hooked. It's beautifully done - very witty and very sexy. It reminds me of a line in a song by croaky-voiced 60s chanteuse, Melanie, who my dad always loved and, as a kid, I always hated ... 'The Madison Avenue pink dream makers'... a brilliant line, and one that has been stuck in my head since we watched the first episode.

It also makes me want to take up smoking, using a spindly thin cigarette holder, and exhaling languidly with a pointedly raised eyebrow, and have a cut glass decanter filled with whisky sitting nonchalantly on the corner of my desk at work (and in fact on the corner of any table I happen to be passing by).

The smoking thing I shall quash. The whisky thing on the other hand ...

It was Matt who introduced me to whisky, and he had to endure several months of me making faces and squeaking 'urgh, it tastes like bacon' before I understood why anyone would drink it out of choice. But I'm glad I persevered.

Now, before we go any further, I should like to say that this is very much going to be a 'whisky for beginners' sort of a post. I feel certain that Matt, who is a) more of a connoisseur, and b) more of a chemist, will do a more in depth, less airy fairy post about his view of whisky at some point in the future. If you're really lucky he'll talk about parts per million phenol, feints, low wines and other quirks of the distillation process. Ooh er.

So, after a month or so of 'whisky training', I started to appreciate the flavour of the drink- its smoky, buttery sweetness. But, it was only after we went to Islay on holiday last summer that I became a proper fan.

Islay is known as the Queen of the Hebrides. It's a tiny island, home to some 3,000 people and nine massively productive whisky distilleries, including some of the most famous and highly thought of in the world. It's really rugged and very beautiful, but not exactly crammed with things to do - the whole heartbeat of the island is obviously its whisky production, and its visitors tend to be devotees of this smokiest of spirits.

The stunningly well stocked whisky bar at the Lochside Hotel, Bowmore

We managed three distillery tours while we were there - Bowmore, Ardbeg, and Laphroaig. We did tastings at each, and I was really surprised at the huge range of flavours you can get from small tweaks in the distilling and aging process. Put your spirit in a bourbon cask, you get burnt sugar and citrus notes, put it in a sherry cask and you get something much sweeter and rounder.

A Laphroaig peat fire. My hair smelt deliciously smoky  for days afterwards.

It was Laphroaig that was the real stunner of the holiday, we stayed there for nearly 9 hours, and would have camped out on the little verge by the waterside if we could. It's nestled in its own little cove, and on the day we visited it was in brilliant sunshine, so the water was a deep, deep blue. Laphroaig means 'The beautiful hollow by the broad bay'. I love that so much meaning can be packed into one, lilting little word. The same applies to the whisky to be honest. At the tasting held by the lovely Rhona, we tried several drams, and she encouraged us to hold a mouthful on our tongues - one second for every year of aging. Some of them were a little too much for me, leaving me with a mouthful of slightly heathery smoke that made my eyes water, but there were some that were delicious. You couldn't help but let a long, slow grin spread over your face as you swallowed and managed to put a name to the flavours you'd got hits of. Peat smoke, honey, cinnamon, lemon, caramel, nuts and a salty, seabreezy tang.

In between drams, we mooched around the museum which charts Laphroaig's history. One story struck a bit of a chord with me.

Bessie Williamson came over to Islay from the mainland in the 1930s to work as a secretary at Laphroaig on a temporary contract for three months. While she was there, she became fascinated by the whisky making process, and the distillery's then owner, Ian Hunter, gradually showed her the tricks of his trade.

That 3 month temp job turned into 40 years at Laphroaig for Bessie, who eventually became manager and then owner of the distillery. Laphroaig's First Lady. She gave up her old life for that beautiful hollow by the broad bay; for mash tuns and great copper stills; for the dark bricks of peat and their bluish smoke; for heather and hardy, hearty island folk; for that last dram before bedtime; for night skies dripping with stars.

After only spending a week on Islay, I can begin to see why it was she stayed...

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