Tag Archives: Whisky

Discovering Rakia the Serbian way

11 Jul

Central and Eastern Europe is, I’ve always found, full of random liqueurs. My cupboard is hiding many a strange bottle of fruit based drinks I’ve picked up over the years in Montenegro, Croatia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

But my best discovery in recent years came as a bit of a surprise. During a trip to Serbia to learn about the country’s food and drink heritage, I came across Rakia (or, fruit brandy). And it’s one purchase I don’t imagine will be gathering dust in my cupboard for long.

Grape rakia at Distilerija restaurant, Belgrade

Rakia is a traditional drink made across the region, from Slovenia to Bosnia and Serbia. For hundreds of years, families have had minute copper stills at home to distill the strong, sweet liquor themselves. Flavours range all across the board, from quince, to apricot, grape, raspberry, young walnuts, herbs and – the most popular – plum. The latter – called Slivovitz in Serbian – is what you’ll find most commonly and can run the gamut from pretty horrible to deliciously drinkable. But with most sitting at an alcohol level over 45%, I recommend you mind how much of the latter you’re getting down your gullet.

The first references to the drink in Serbia originate with stories about Turkish invaders of the 14th century. It has been mass produced since the 19th century and is traditionally served up in every cafe and bar, and drunk at any point in the day.

While in Serbia, I visited both a distillery and a rakia bar called Distilerija, in Belgrade. Both opened my eyes to the product which was very exciting as a drinks lover.

The distillery, called Zarić, was located in a hilly region in western Serbia called Kosjerić, which is famous for producing various fruits that end up in the drink. The distillery was established in 1946 and produces three millions litres of brandy a year through a process much like whisky or gin distilling.

Zaric stillhouse

Dusko Disanović, the master distiller, took me around the distillery and explained the process.

To start, the chosen fruit, enzymes and yeast are fermented in large vats for 20 days. Then, the resulting mash is distilled in large copper stills powered by steam, coming off at 60-70% ABV. The pear and raspberry brandies are distilled on a column still, as it helps hold in the fruit essences more fully.

A single distillation takes 10-12 hours, although it’s longer for Slivovitz, which is double-distilled. The alcohol content is brought down by adding distilled water to the vats (or, in the case of Slivovitz, to the large casks it will mature in).

The Slivovitz is then aged for a minimum of six months in huge, 250,000 litre Slavonian oak barrels from Croatia, which gives it a darker colour and deeper flavour than the other brandies. This one was definitely my favourite. While some of the fruit ones were interesting – the raspberry, for instance, had a nice, sharp twang to it – many were too sweet for my liking. The Slivovitz, however, was more balanced, with notes of vanilla, spice and stewed plums.

A random Gwiltypleasures interview with Serbian TV about my thoughts on Rakia!

I tried all of these and many more at both the distillery and Distilerija. The latter was just opening when I visited, but is owned by Branko Nešić, who started the first rakia only bar called – quite logically – Rakia Bar in 2006. His new venture combines a quasi-museum providing the history of the drink and a full restaurant and bar.

Trying the types of tapas that go with rakia.

Rakia is normally served with small dishes of food, similar to tapas. I first tried a cold pressed grape rakia, paired with a pike carpaccio, that offset eachother wonderfully, the sharp lemon and fish flavours marrying well with the alcoholic bite of the rakia. Also on the menu was a quince rakia, that hinted at parma violets and fleshy fruit, and a buckwheat pancake stuffed with mushrooms and a type of Serbian cream cheese called Kajmak. But the best of the night was definitely the Slivovitz, once again. It was paired with a small dish of ox tail with a spicy paprika, dill and lemon sauce, which was salty enough to balance out the sweeter vanilla and brown sugar notes of the drink.

Throughout my journey to Serbia, one thing was clear: Rakia is king. Every home will offer the traveller a drink of it, while at every restaurant, a waiter will proffer it to start. It’s diverse and more enjoyable than traditional, thicker brandies we get in western Europe. So if you find it on liquor store rack somewhere, give it a try – I’d share mine but it’s too pleasurable to leave on my shelf for long!

Highland Adventure: Applecross to Skye

2 May

How peaceful it must be to be a Highland cow munching away on a cliff top with no realisation of just how deadly a slip off the edge would be. Although the photo does not illustrate this, behind them is not a gentle rolling hill but a vertical plunge to the Loch. Unfortunately, I am not like the Highland cow – instead, I am horrendously fearful of horrendously edged drops.

This was highlighted wholeheartedly as the boy and I made our way around the Applecross Road, which runs around the Applecross Peninsula. Seen as one of the most dramatic roads in Scotland, the single-track route takes drivers 2000 feet up the side of a mountain. Complete with “passing points” every few dozen metres, the road is winding, narrow and terrifying to those (like me) who are petrified of cliffs.

As such, I spent most of the 45 minutes as we inched along the route clenching desperately to the car’s seat, heart palpitating, palms sweaty. Oh, to be an unaware Highland cow.

Despite this, the route is incredible. After you climb to the top through the ever-increasing mist and fog, you snake your way back down and glimpse the spreading loch in front…it’s hard not to be mesmerised.

Through the mist and rain, the loch appears below the snaking roads.

When finally we emerged from the mountain’s grip, we continued on our way to the Isle of Skye. We had a distillery to visit!

As we drove through the small town Kyle of Lochalsh I saw the Skye Bridge illuminated in the crisp sunlight. Finally the fog had cleared and the arcing structure gleamed enticingly. Crossing over Loch Alsh, we could see for miles into the picturesque distance: mountains, shimmering azure water and gently moving boats. At the top of the bridge’s arc, the whole of the windscreen was filled with this image, eliminating any of the bridge’s structure so it almost felt like we were floating. I’ve never become quite so worked up over a bridge. But maybe it was just the final release of emotion after the terrifying drive.

Entering onto Skye is like finding yourself in the middle of an alien planet. Mars-like red earth contrasts with sharp-edged grey stones. The winding roads seem almost out of place, as if they’ve been rudely carved into this beast of a landscape.

An hour of driving later and we reached our destination: Talisker distillery at Carbost. There we were meeting Mark Lochhead, the distillery manager.

Mark has worked for Talisker for just over three years and been in the industry for 25. After a quick cuppa and chat, he took us around the distillery, showing us the whole process in detail, from mashing, to fermentation and distillation in the beautiful, copper stills.

The distillery brings in its barley pre-malted from Glen Ord, just north of Inverness. From there, everything is done on site. During our visit, the mashing and fermentation tubs weren’t in use, due to a water shortage from the springs at Hock Hill.

“I’ve got everyone doing rain-dances,” said Mark.

In the distillation room, we saw the oddly shaped stills, which are the only ones in Scotland to have a U-bend at the top, which increases the amount of copper contact the liquid has during distillation, and creates a lighter flavour in the whisky.

Finally, we stopped off at the cask warehouse, in which a proportion of the Talisker stock is housed for aging.

It was the boy’s first visit to a distillery and learning about the process from one end to the other was eye-opening, he said – a fact which I recommend anyone curious about whisky to take on board. Once you know about the process, it’s easier to become fascinated with the final product. The distillery, which is owned by Diageo, gets an astounding 55,000 visitors a year and will soon be expanding its visitors centre to keep up with demand so definitely check it out if you get the chance.

After the tour, we headed back up to Mark’s office to taste some Talisker drams – well, let me correct that. I tasted some stellar drams – the boy had a wee sip of a couple because he was driving.

We started with the new make spirit (the natural spirit before it is aged in oak barrels). It was briney, with hints of olives and fleshy fruit on the nose, and cigarettes, sweat and rubber on the palate.

Next was the creamy butterscotch smelling 10 year old. In the mouth was a delicious lemony and Werther’s Original flavour.

Then came the 18-year old: a long-time favourite of many whisky drinkers and a dram that is often sold out everywhere. This was slightly thicker on the nose, with deeper scents of caramel and fudge, while on the palate was an earthy, oily sweet taste with a hint of candied orange. Stunning!

The final dram was the 25-year old, which was much sharper: lemon and peat on the nose, and salt, sea, brine, almonds and smoke on the palate. One of my favourites.

The boy tried the 18-year old and, to my great joy, said he “finally got whisky” when he tasted it.

With a triumphant finish to the day, we said our goodbyes and headed back from where we came to the east side of the Isle of Skye, finally arriving at our next luxurious hotel: Duisdale House. But more on that later…

In part 4, the boy and I drown our tiredness in a four course meal and the luxuriousness of Duisdale House and navigate our way back to Inverness in the snow.

A Blacksmith & a Toffeemaker walk into a pub…

10 Apr

The Blacksmith and the Toffeemaker

Since moving to London, I have come to love the random names of pubs across this country. The“Bunch of Carrots”; “Dirty Dicks”; and “The Dog and Duck” all spring to mind.

So, when an email came through inviting me to check out a new, quirky pub on St John Street, between Angel and Farringdon, I was immediately taken by the name.

Called The Blacksmith and the Toffeemaker after a song by former British singer-songwriter Jack Thackray, the pub is run by two young chaps – Marc Dalla Riva and Matt Rix. The former, a chef, and the latter, an events guru, love the place so much they even make upstairs their home.

While the interior has been redesigned with a Hoxton-ish interior (light colours, modular ’60s furniture, quirky vintage feel) the space manages to avoid being trendy and pretentious by feeling comfortable and laid-back. The aim is to create a place that gets back to the roots of what makes a great pub: good food, good drinks and good people. The pair are focused on providing a roster of impeccable British gins (things like Hayman’s Old Tom Gin, Sipsmith and Sacred Gin) and a selection of high quality whiskies, such as The Balvenie, Laphroaig, Macallan and Auchentoshan, at some of the most reasonable prices I’ve seen in London. The pub also offers up real ales and is hoping to do more with British wine.

The pub's chic but cosy interior

It helps that both Marc and Matt are almost jumpy with a childlike enthusiasm for their new space, despite the long hours that go into running the place each week. They came up with the idea for the venture whilst travelling in the States. It developed over many pints and Marc says they couldn’t be happier with the way things are going. He also says their plan had always been to avoid being a “gastro pub” by focusing on high-quality drinks with food accompaniments.

A pork pie waits to be devoured

“The food was always designed to complement the drinks, rather than the other way around,” he adds.

This was partly because he didn’t want to be stuck in a kitchen 18 hours a day – like many chefs find themselves – but also because he wanted to do something a bit different. As such, the bar area features a beautifully streamlined deli counter with sumptuous looking pork pies, scotch eggs and potted duck and pickles.

“People like to see what they’re eating and it encourages people to eat,” says Marc.

There is also a limited selection of mains like burgers and lamb hot pots, in case one finds the gin going to her head. Ingredients are sourced as locally as possible from places like Smithfield market and organic vegetable growers in Kent.

The decision to move away from the “gastro-pub” tag was also because the team didn’t personally like that style.

“We decided it was the formality and, airs and graces that we didn’t like. We love pub culture and find the idea of a ‘gastro-pub’ detracts from that,” says Matt.

“The last thing I wanted was linen napkins,” adds Marc, laughing. “At the end of the day, you can feel relaxed. And you know the owners are happy.”

The Blacksmith and the Toffeemaker is located at 292-294 St John Street. For more information about the pub, its events or more, visit the website here or follow the team on Twitter: @BlacksmithPub

European Beers

21 Jan

As mentioned in my previous post, I was lucky enough recently to be sent some very interesting beers from R&R Teamwork to try out. In the last edition, I tried out the beers from the U.S. and now I shall wax lyrical on those from this side of the ocean (namely, Belgium and Scotland).

If you’ve tried any of these, then drop me a line and let me know – I’d be curious to hear your thoughts!

Fruity beer? Well, why not...

Liefmans Fruitesse: 4.2% – Liefmans Brewery, Belgium:

Sometimes fruit beer can be too sickly sweet for my liking. I’m almost always after a bitter, punchy, yeasty beer or stout to sit by my side while I cook dinner or watch a film. So, I was a bit hesitant with this one. Liefmans Fruitesse is a fruit beer (duh!), combining flavours of cherry, bilberry, elderberry, strawberry and raspberry. What makes it slightly more interesting than a run-of-the-mill fruit beer is that it has been matured for 18-months on cherries. And you can definitely taste that. This beer manages to hold its own by focusing on more tart, bitter flavours – cherry, bilberry – rather than overdoing the candy shop strawberry taste that I find too sweet. It’s a bit biting and – although I’d only have one – I found it to be a refreshing, rather than a sugary, beer; great for summer picnics. It retails for £1.60 at Waitrose & Selfridges.

A smoking gunn?

Innis & Gunn Highland Cask 18: 7.1% – Innis & Gunn Brewery, Scotland:

Opening up the box to find this beer was a real treat – a 7.1% beer that I hoped could really set my taste buds alight. Innis & Gunn is very popular back in Canada, but until my latest trip there, I hadn’t heard of it – odd, I thought, given I live in England and this is from Scotland. But, Innis & Gunn do a lot of promoting in North America – it’s a bigger market and people’s beer drinking tastes are evolving rapidly there. This bottling was a limited edition, matured in casks previously containing 18-year-old scotch whisky. And, I could really pick it up – there were hints, not unlike a whisky, of toffee and oak, and it was rich and warming. It didn’t get me quite as excited as I thought it would but I have a feeling that – given I love whisky so much – I was expecting more of a whisky hit. It was well balanced, though, and an interesting one to try. Though, at 7.1%, maybe just stick to one or two. It’s available for £2.50 at Sainsbury’s.

Duvel, how you set my heart on fire!

Duvel: 8.5% – Duvel Brewery, Belgium:

To top things off, I finished with a Duvel – I held off on this one because it has been a long-time favourite. I discovered it for the first time at the fabulous De Hems pub on Macclesfield Street in London a few years back and I’ve been drinking it ever since. This Belgian beer is really one for beer lovers, in my opinion. It comes in at a hefty 8.5% but still manages to be refreshing – always dangerous! The blond beer is fermented a second time in the bottle (fermentable sugars and yeast are added at the bottling stage). It is then matured for another 60 days in warm and cool temperatures to achieve its characteristic biting, yeasty flavour. It’s slightly sweet but has a drying bitterness on the finish which keeps the sugars down. I could drink it all night long. Definitely a favourite. It retails at most supermarkets for £1.67 upwards.

2012? When did that happen?

3 Jan

When I was a kid, any date after 2010 seemed an impossibility. I remember very clearly, sitting at home in a philosophical haze (as much as my 10-year-old self could handle) trying to envision the thought that by 2010, I would be 25. TWENTY-FIVE YEARS old! To my brain, that seemed an eternity away.

And yet, I couldn’t wait. Having a sister 11 years older than you, tends to make you want to be a grown-up much quicker – she was already off to university, living away from home, getting to “play house” as I called it.

So, now here we are in 2012. And all I can think is, “When did that happen?”

But, happen it did. And moving into a new year always makes me reflect on the year that was.

So, what was 2011?

Well…2011 was the year I started this site with a post on the food I savoured in Montenegro.

Hot air balloons drift in front of ours in the Napa Valley

It was the year I discovered fantastic wine in the Napa Valley and went hot air ballooning over the vineyards; worked on an organic farm; and, volunteered to take care of turtles in Costa Rica before returning to London to a new home with “the boy” and a new life writing about food, drink and travel.

A little girl runs after friends in the small village of Parismina, Costa Rica

It was the year I discovered my great weakness for whisky and created a site to encourage more young/female/people (!) to drink it, while also trying some fantastic tipples such as absinthe, tequila and cognac (the latter while sitting in a window at Harrods) through my work with Fluid London.

Glasses of Martell Cognac sit on the table in the window at Harrods

It was also the year I and the boy found out how absolutely, divinely incredible Ireland was with a series of posts (Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3) on our journey up the west coast.

The boy stands near yet another beautiful vista in Ireland

And, finally, it was the year I finished off by tasting some great mince pies for a worthy cause, going off the beaten path of food and drink writing, by thanking many supporters who donated to a fantastic charity night I helped organise with Marie Curie, learning about soup making with Nusa Kitchen and writing about some lovely wines I tried at a Virgin Wines event.

Me, looking incredibly cool, making soup at Nusa Kitchen.

All in all, very pleasurable indeed – and I have to say, far from what my 10-year-old self necessarily envisioned for my 26-year-old self.

And so, I say thank you to the people who have taken a spare few minutes to read my ramblings, and to wish you all the very best for 2012 – it’s the year of the Olympics, the year of the Jubilee, and the year of…well…we shall just have to see. I hope to continue celebrating London’s great food & drink, and maybe do some further exploring afield. And I hope for many pleasurable things all around for all of you (and your ten-year-old selves!)

Whisky, WOW!

10 Oct

As readers may know, I have been looking rather forward to the stupendous sounding TWE Whisky Show for a while. Well, I’m happy to report that the fest did nothing less than “wow” me when I went on Friday.

Rows of whisky companies snaked along the walls and, as I walked in, it took a minute for me to take it all in. Where to start? Which to choose? Should I go for the familiar or aim for some newbies I’d not tried before?

Like a kid in a candy store, I felt overwhelmed by it all – but finally made the choice to head to the Number One Drinks stand to start. May as well start at the top, right?

A bottle I can't wait to try and get my hands on!

I was not disappointed. On show was a rather fabulous quartet of Japanese whiskies. My favourite was the Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu: flavoursome, with caramel and citrus notes, and a surprisingly soft bite given it comes in at a rather hefty 61% ABV. The bottle was only shown for the first time at Whisky Live: Paris at the end of September. With only 900 bottles due to come to the UK (out of 7,400 bottles made) I expect it will sell out quite quickly, but you can be sure Gwiltypleasures will be hanging around with her credit card at the ready when it does hit the shelves.

Next up, I wandered over to the Balvenie stand where Balvenie Ambassador Dr Andrew Forrester was chatting about the mix he and Malt Master David Stewart put together as the “Dream Dram” for the event. I tried it,  the Signature and the PortWood, all of which seriously pleased my palate, with the PortWood being my favourite (if post-drinks-event memory serves me correctly).

Next up was the English Whisky Company – the first whisky distilling company in England for more than 100 years. I was keen to find out more about this distillery based in Roudham (near Newmarket) and spent a long while chatting away to MD Andrew Nelstrop about how it came about. “Our family had been farming for 600 years and we got bored of sending our barley elsewhere,” he told me. And what a good idea that was. The two I tried (Chapter 9: the Peated Single Malt, and the Cask Strength) were both delicious. None have been chill-filtered and all have a slightly sweet flavour, which Nelstrop puts down to the hard water they use at the distillery. An English triumph indeed!

So, the only question then was, where to next? I’d seen so little in the first 90 minutes at the fest, but was already feeling the effects of the spirit – but, with not a sandwich or foodstuff in sight, I could only do the honourable thing and push on!

Glenglassaugh's Ronnie Routledge talks shop at his stand

Running in to Mark Thomson from Dramatic Whisky, we headed over to try a gorgeous Glenglassaugh  –  the Chosen Few (chosen by industry veteran Ronnie Routledge) was a smooth, 35-year-old oakey, appley whisky, which, despite its age, still came in at an impressive 49.6% ABV. Gorgeous! I also had a wee tipple of the Fledgling XB, a 1-year-old, straight out of the cask, taster – it was superb: caramel, soft fruit, with an aftertaste of apricot and camembert.

What followed is a hazy blur of many more delicious whiskies – unfortunately, by this point, my ability to take notes was fading – I know there was a ’78 vintage Balblair, a special edition Longrow Burgandy bottling from Springbank, an ’88 Glenrothes, and a few at the fantastic Compass Box Whisky stand. But after that, it blurs a bit.

Nonetheless, I couldn’t have been more pleased at the range of distillers on show at the fest – unless there had been a really large kebab stand waiting to hand me food as I left. Maybe something to think about for next time chaps? All in all, Gwiltypleasures were satisfied and many a whisky dream followed when I finally got myself home to rest my weary whisky head on my pillow!

Feeling Frisky for Whisky

4 Oct

As many dear readers may know, I rather looooove whisky. So, it is with great eagerness that I have been preparing my liver for the rather exciting TWE Whisky Show, happening this weekend in London – I even went to a bar last night and drank only tomato juice! Not a hint of bloody mary mix or vodka in sight. Shocking, I know!

The Whisky Show is set to bring more than 40 exhibitors to Vinopolis, near Borough Market, on Friday and Saturday. Although, for you unlucky souls without a ticket yet, Saturday is not an option as it’s already completely sold out!

Billy Abbott, who works with The Whisky Exchange – the fantastic online retailer of whisky, cognac and other fine spirits putting the event on – told me recently this show is not only for those already educated in whisky.

“The intention is to create a show that will appeal to almost everyone, with education at its core. The exhibitors on the stands are just as happy to talk general whisky appreciation as they are whisky geekery and combined with our food pairing, an area where most visitors won’t have much expertise, and cocktail bars we’re hoping that there will be something for everyone,” he explained.

Attendees will not only get access to more than 200 (! – did you just hear me giggle in joy?) whiskies, but also get to choose two “dream drams” from a range of 30. This, too, is different from previous years and Abbot says he hopes guests will be impressed.

“Previously guests have had one token that they could exchange for a dram of a super premium whisky, whereas this year we are giving everyone two. In addition we’re making things a bit more fine-grained with whiskies up to £1000 a bottle costing 1 token, £1000-£2000 2 tokens and over £2000 3 tokens. We’re also allowing people to buy extra tokens to give them the chance to try more of these impressive and in many cases exclusive whiskies,” he said.

For those whisky “geeks” heading to the show, there will no doubt be cries of joy when they realise those rare drams to hand will include a 1973, 30-year-old Midleton (bottled eight years ago, which sold out nearly on release) and a bottle of £3500 Drambuie Jacobite.

All in all, it sounds very impressive. And I can’t wait to get myself to the show on Friday and immerse myself in (vats? barrels? casks?) of whisky! As I’ve told my liver…this is all in the name of writing! And also in the name of indulging in Gwiltypleasures…bring it on!

Tickets cost £95 and include entry to the festival, all tastings, two “dream dram” tokens and a two-course meal at the show brasserie, with a menu designed by whisky and food writer Martine Nouet. For more information, visit: http://www.whisky-show.com

“Pure”ly Brilliant

28 Sep

Things have been rather manic over here at Gwiltypleasures! As such, I have much catching up to do on exactly all the loverly events I’ve been heading out to in Londontown that have been really floating my pleasure boat.

Last weekend I was delighted to finally attend the Pure Festival which I wrote about a few weeks ago. I wasn’t sure how exactly a music and whisky festival would be pulled off, but I’m glad to say I was very pleased with the result.

The Garage in Highbury was absolutely buzzing when I arrived with “the boy” in tow – the queue stretched along the side of the building and the most exciting bit: everyone was young! Now, to many people familiar with North London bars and events, this may not seem such a big deal. But, to someone familiar with older, stuffier whisky tastings (where I normally feel like I could be the child of most attendees!) this was a big deal.

Upon entering the event, it proved to be just the same – loads and loads of 20- and 30-somethings mulling around in checked-shirts and skinny jeans, drinking and learning about whisky.

People mull around the Seventy% stand, waiting to try pairings of whisky and chocolate

The boy and I got down to tasting just as soon as we could fight our way through the throngs of people at each stand – heading first to taste some rather delicious whisky from a distillery I’d not heard of before called Stonedean, which produces the Tweeddale Blend. Director Alasdair Day told us about how he inherited his Great Grandfather’s recipe book and how he established the company in 2009 to start reproducing it!

Next we headed off to try out another newbie to the whisky world, the Isle of Mull blend, brought to the festival by founders Neil Morrison and Calum Maclean. The company, which only began in August last year, has a beautiful blend made of Highland malts and grain whiskies, and I was impressed with its intensity and flavour.

After trying out some “edible peat” at the Ardbeg stand (a mix of hazelnut, cocoa powder and sugars), and a few shots of single malts at the fabulous Seventy% stand (which demonstrated how perfectly chocolate and whisky can be paired together), we tried the always favourite 10-year old Talisker – brought down by the guys from The Whisky Exchange – and continued with a rather special 30-year old bottle (hidden below the counter) at the Whyte and Mackay stand.

Finally, we finished up the day by sneaking in a couple of tasters of 12- and 16-year-old whiskies from Ancnoc (another new one for me), and had a chat with Darren Rock (aka: The Whisky Guy) who told us about his upcoming project for Movember, in which he will sell bottles of single malt in aid of prostate cancer. Stay tuned for updates on this soon!

All in all, after all of these rather delectable tipples, the boy and I wobbled out – unfortunately we couldn’t stay for the music, which was a shame because I heard great things afterwards about the headlining bands. Regardless, it was a great event filled with a young, fun crowd keen on becoming knowledgeable about my favourite tipple! And I must say a big congratulations to the chaps who pulled it off! Bring on the next one!

Dramatic Whisky

15 Sep

One of my favourite things to indulge in is whisky. Its diversity of flavours and smells makes my tongue wiggle in happiness with each sip and I am finding myself ever more keen to develop my knowledge of this gorgeous spirit.

Over the years of enjoying this drink, I can clearly say I have learned that whisky is dramatic. In fact, seeing as Mirriam Webster defines the word as “striking in appearance or effect” and seeing as whisky is, most often, both – especially the latter after too many top-ups – I was glad to stumbleupon someone seizing on this fact to promote greater education about the drink to the masses.

This person is drinks-industry veteran Mark Thomson, who heads up the aptly named company: “Dramatic Whisky“. Its goal: “To break down the stuffy, dusty walls surrounding the mystique of Whisky and allow everyone the opportunity to discover and understand this fabulous liquid…”

I was curious to find out more and, after an invitation from Mark, headed to one of his latest tastings at the lovely Liberty Lounge on Bell Lane, just down from Spitalfields market.

Some of the evening's whiskies stand at attention while Dramatic Whisky founder, Mark Thomson, sorts last-minute details in the background

I was not disappointed, nor were the 21 other people who, later, all seemed to compliment Mark’s lecture as they wobbled out the door.

But back to the start. The venue was perfect for the evening: trendy but cozy, all dark-wood, dark-banquettes and dark couches, mood-lit by flickering candles. The guests made small talk over the lounge music bubbling across the stereo and the whole place felt far from anything stuffy or old-school.

Soon enough, we got down to the evening’s main event: the tasting, which comprised six whiskies. Interestingly, Mark started us out – after a comedic talk on how whisky is made and its history – with a Grant’s, something I haven’t drunk since a rather unfortunate evening as an 18-year-old when I glugged a litre of the stuff with a friend during a beach party in England’s south. It put me off whisky for a good six years, and I was doubtful of trying it again. Luckily, I was pleasantly surprised: it had nice caramel and vanilla notes, was smooth and left a subtle pear taste of the palate. This was certainly due to the fact it wasn’t any bog-standard Grant’s but a posher, sherry cask finished blend, and my memories of one of my worst teenage hangovers were not brought back. Putting this whisky first was part of Mark’s goal to de-snobbify whisky drinkers who think supermarket-shelf stuff is no good and I think it did the trick.

We continued with a light, young, appley Glen Moray; Penderyn’s delicious peated malt (still one of my personal favourites); a rich, sherry-casked 12-year-old Highland Park; a nutty, oily 18-year-old Highland Park; and, finally, a Christmas-cake-in-a-glass 18-year-old Glenlivet.

Throughout the event, Mark tried his best to get the crowd chatting and spent much time joking about the attempts of the evil English to control and regulate distilleries in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was an evening choc-a-bloc with interesting information delivered in a relaxed manner, using the latest technology (he brought up pictures to illustrate points on his iPad) in a fantastic hidden-away bar I was very glad to discover. There was even a large plate of flavourful Moroccan food to finish.

And finally, it was dramatic in as much as it was the antithesis of what many whisky evenings can be: older, stuffy, aristocratic and snobby. We had fun, drank lots and got to love new whiskies. Gwiltypleasures was definitely satisfied…she can only hope Mark will continue to get the “water of life” flowing to even greater numbers of the UK population…

Pure Whisky

5 Sep

I have recently returned to London after 3.5 months away travelling around the Americas. I was eager to catch up on all I had missed in my favourite city during that time, and was ecstatic when I learned of an exciting new festival celebrating my most beloved drink – whisky – to take place at the end of September here in London.

Titled the “Pure Festival” – the event will celebrate both whisky and music. And with the moniker: whisky not wellies, it sounds like my kind of happening.

During a press briefing for the event at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society near Farringdon, I met some of the chaps – all young, north-London types – who have brainstormed this exciting new venture.

“What we’re about is trying to bring whisky to a wider audience,” explained Perre Thiebaut, host for the evening and also director of website Whisky Connosr.”It’s about bringing whisky kicking and screaming into the 21st century. The industry is ignoring the younger generations a bit. But there is a younger audience for it.”

The event will take place on the 24 and 25 September at the Garage, near Highbury and Islington in north London, and will feature bands such as The Ravonnettes and Electric Soft Parade on Saturday, and James Yorkston and the Smoke Fairies on Sunday.

Best of all: the whiskies. There are 10 distillers confirmed, including Ancnoc, Whyte and Mackay, Cooley and Talisker. Famous whisky critic Dominic Roskrow will also be on hand to doll out some very special drams from the World Whisky Master medal winners.

The hope, the organisers say, is to take the festival on the road, bringing good tunes and better tastings to others. New York and Dubai are rumoured to be interested in hosting versions.

“The reason we call is Pure,” added Thiebaut, “is that whisky is about three things: grain, water and yeast. This is really pure stuff. It’s like really good music. Pure and simple.”

That sounds like the perfect Gwilty Pleasure to get this whisky lover back into the swing of London life.

The Pure Festival takes place on the 24 and 25 September at the Garage in Islington from 4-10pm. Tickets are £28.50, and include 8 tastings – allowed to be done from 4-7pm only – and entrance to the music festival.

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