Whisky: Straight talking

How Scotch and style don't mix
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The fashionable young men of Milan, movers and shakers in their mid-twenties and thirties, drink single malt Scotches, especially the hazelnut-tasting Glen Grant. They like it at a spirited age - a mere five years old. The Parisians are especially fond of Ballantine's blended Scotch, soft and faintly smoky. The young of Barcelona and Madrid go for J&B Rare, with its hint of raspberries. Fashionable folk from southern Europe have been here all summer, buying English Barbour coats and Scottish tweeds, and exploring the banks of the Spey in search of salmon and whisky. To them, Scotland is stylish. So is the country's most famous product. Its fashionability will reach an annual landmark this weekend, with the Glorious Twelfth.

Where have the fashionable young of Britain been? Somewhere else, I suppose. Somewhere else is always more interesting. The English and Welsh at least should be able to see Scotland as somewhere else, but that is not always the case. For us, Dufftown, Banffshire, does not have quite the romance of, say, Lynchburg, Tennessee (I know where I would rather spend a weekend - Lynchburg is in a dry county). If the young, are drinking whiskey, it is spelt with an "e", made by Jack Daniel's and served with cola. And those in their thirties who cruise the narrow streets of my London neighbourhood in all-terrain four-wheelers seem to prefer Pimms. Perhaps it is just that the images of Scotland offered by the whisky industry have too often been tired tartan.

Some drinks can come from anywhere. Scotch can be made only in the country whose name it bears. Its flavours come from the melted snow of the Grampians, the peaty, heathery moorlands, the briny shores. In an age when we prize the outdoors, what better selling points could a drink wish to have?

The whisky that for me best communicates Scottish stylishness is The Famous Grouse. The name is right, and so is the elegantly traditional label. The company has also been shrewd in sponsoring Rugby Union, a sport with strong local roots in the Scottish Borders.

Even as a Rugby League man, I can put aside my antipathy toward Union when it comes to enjoying a Grouse. After a long, hot working day, I want a drink that is a refresher but also a restorative. Sometimes I shovel some ice into a glass, pour on a generous measure of the whisky, and top it up with ginger ale.

I do not feel at all guilty. When I really crave the unalloyed, wonderful flavours of Scotch, I take it straight, usually in the form of a single malt - but do not let anyone tell you that an already-blended Scotch cannot be mixed. A Scotch and dry ginger is a truly refreshing drink. Because of its heathery, oaky and toffeeish flavours, Grouse blends beautifully with the ginger.

The notion of using ginger in mixed drinks always arises when the producers think their drink lacks popularity with people in their twenties and thirties. It is not that the whisky-makers believe all young people like mixed drinks (though cosmopolitan Glasgow has for years been rather keen on cocktail bars - another facet of Scottish style). What the producers are trying to do is to make whisky more approachable. The danger, I think, lies in making it seem like Scottish mutton dressed as lamb. For many drinkers, the barrier to Scotch is the fullness and complexity of its flavours. Yet those flavours are what distinguishes Scotch from lesser spirits.

If Scotch is to be used in a cocktail, its flavours have to work with the other ingredients. I recently heard of a men's fashion show in London at which a cocktail called a Scottish Monk was served to great acclaim. It was made from Bell's blended Scotch, Kahlua coffee liqueur and cream. I would have thought Bell's was a little smoky and salty, but apparently it worked.

On a summery weekend, for a mid-afternoon drink, I made a variation on the Tequila Sunrise, using J&B Rare and raspberry cordial with the traditional orange juice. I called it a Scottish Sunrise. In the United States, Dewar's blended Scotch is beginning to be served in the Margarita, the classic cocktail made with Cointreau and lime juice. Dewar's has an aromatic, orangey, freshness. In flavour, if not heritage, it may add more to the Margarita than the original Tequila does.

The most chic bar I know in New York is the Rainbow Room, at Rockefeller Plaza. The head bartender, Dale DeGroff, has a substantial collection of early cocktail books. He has been enthusing about a mixed drink he spotted in several works from the Twenties and Thirties. It is called Blood and Sand.

"I was really taken by that name," he admits. "I wondered whether the drink would really work. To my surprise, it's delightful, and is now a hot item here." The Blood and Sand is made from equal parts of blended Scotch, cherry brandy, sweet vermouth and orange juice. DeGroff serves the drink in a martini glass, and deftly flames it with a zest of orange.

He cautions that the orange juice must be freshly squeezed and the cherry brandy of good quality - he insists upon Peter Heering. His choice of Scotch is J&B Select. As well as having that J&B raspberry tinge, it is notable for its sherry character. Unfortunately, the Select is not available in Britain.

The Rainbow Room recently presented America's first cocktail dinner. The main course was a juniper-crusted venison chop, roasted and served with black olive mashed potatoes. The accompaniment to this dish was the Blood and Sand cocktail.

I might try a Blood and Sand one day soon with an M&S roast duck in orange sauce. Grouse (the bird, not the whisky) needs to be hung before it can be eaten, and I shall not be ordering venison and Scotch at the Rainbow Room until after Thanksgiving. Then, when ritual-conscious Americans swap linen suits for tweed (even if it is cut by Ralph Lauren), I shall drink a toast to stylish Scotland. And stylish Scotch

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