Friday, 14 February 2014

A Soho Club

I want to tell you about a little place I've discovered in Soho. It's not widely known and I suppose you could say it's a kind of gentlemen's club. Located about halfway along Old Compton Street is a door, set slightly back from the street. There's no sign on the outside to tell you. You just have to know. This discreet door, next to an off-licence, opens onto a steep, narrow staircase up to a first-floor room. I was met there on Tuesday by a slim girl with blue hair called Zoe who, over the course of a couple of hours, transported me and my friend Nigel to some amazing places. It was an education in every sense and worth every penny.

I'm talking of course about the Soho Whisky Club and one of their tutored whisky tastings -- why, what were you thinking?

The tickets for this were a birthday present from my daughters. A deal they had found online. And it specified that I should bring a friend. Nigel and I have always enjoyed a dram or two, setting the world to rights and so on. And I know of few other friends locally who have embraced the whisky journey as much. So naturally, he had to come on my Soho trip.

And it has to be said that this was a whisky tasting with a difference. Over the course of the evening, we learnt how to marry perceptions and expectations in a whisky, how the senses of sight, smell and taste need to used in sequence in order to get the most from each drink. The evening was orchestrated to take us from the low lands, with their smooth understated simplicity through to the peated sea monsters of Islay and their smoky, salty, craggy beauty. From lowland Auchentoshan and what, for me, was too meagre a flavour, we rolled north to Blair Athol, as typical a Highland malt as there is. Not outstanding in any particular dimension but representative of the genre. From the Highlands to the islands and specifically to Orkney and Scotland's most northerly distillery. And despite this bleak terroir, the distillery produces one of the most perfectly balanced of all whiskies -- soft, lingering, slightly sweet and honeyed, with the peat held in dignified proportion. A lady's whisky I have often thought and certainly one that Claire enjoys too. From Orkney, we stepped back on to the mainland, lurching our way down the east coast to Clynelish in Brora. A clean dry whisky, a little more peaty, but elegant and slightly nutty. Of course no tour of the whisky landscape would be complete without a visit to Islay and its smoky beauties. And this for me is what whisky is all about. Even the names -- Bowmore, Bunnahabhain, Bruichladdich, Ardbeg and Laphroaig -- are Celtic poetry. And on that Tuesday, our journey ended at my own favourite, Lagavulin. From its fortress on the coast, the distillery produces a whisky that bowls you over with flavour. Powerful, muscular, peaty, salty and yet somehow also fruity and perfumed. This is Renaissance Whisky.

Our guide on this tour was as improbable an expert as you can imagine. I think we were all expecting perhaps a portly, middle-aged man of ruddy complexion in a Harris tweed jacket as our guide. Nothing prepared us for the effervescent brilliance of Zoe Toolan, pierced nose and blue hair topping a catwalk model's physique. And Zoe, self-styled whisky missionary, clearly delights in turning the conventional on its head. A spirited artist, she shook all our preconceptions about whisky, its character and the people who drink it. Her no-nonsense approach and playfully iconoclastic delivery helped make our whisky journey so enjoyable. She is a rising star. And I have no doubt we will hear more of her in the future. Personally I think she should have her own TV series!

It got me thinking as well. If I could sum up the Scotch Whisky industry in five drinks, which would they be? Any choice is of course always going to be personal but here goes.

Springbank -- one of only a couple of Campbeltown malts left. Perfectly balanced, clean and elegant.

Macallan -- simply can't be ignored. Their sherry cask philosophy led away long before it was fashionable.

Caol Ila -- stops short of the awesome smoky brutality of Ardbeg. But not that far short.

Glenfarclas -- the archetypal Speyside malt. Full flavoured, open and welcoming

Talisker -- I still regret the passing of the rough, edgy eight-year-old bottling but, even in its Sunday best at 10 years, it is still the one whisky I would take to a desert island. A whisky of happy memories and wonderful friends.

A wonderful evening in Soho. I suspect Nigel and I will be back for more.

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