I love Edinburgh. It is a beautiful, upside-down and inside-out Rubiks Cube of a city, forever shifting and changing, and not just because of the trams and the excavations they wrought on its beautiful landscape. As the writer Murdo Macdonald said, Edinburgh is a city that makes you think about what a city should be. It has incredible history, architecture, modern, functional planning, and a sense that you will never know all its mysteries. I’ve been going there every year since an ex brought me over to meet her folks about 20 years ago. We parted, but my love for the city burns brighter every time I visit. And since I turned into some sort of whisky cult member, the city has revealed another piece of its puzzle to me. So this year was like a trip to Jonestown for me.
First up was a visit to the Scotch Malt Whisky Society for a bite to eat and some drams. Operated as a members club, they offer their own bottlings, all with the same intriguing labels describing the flavours in the most bizarre and esoteric ways. The original site of the society, founded in 1983, was down in Leith in a venue known as The Vaults, but that seemed a bit far away so we visited the Queen Street branch, which – like almost all the buildings in Edinburgh city centre – was rather beautiful. After an especially classy burger and chips, we settled down for a few tastings, randomly selecting them with the help of the staff. The bottlings are anonymous save for the tasting notes and titles, and are presented at cask strength and without chill filtration. This is what R. Kelly might call real talk – pure and honest whisky, stripped of all the marketing bumpf, the spiel about the days of yore, the recalling of some pre-industrial Never Never Land. This is the beast in its natural state; naked, growling, unchained. These iconic, relatively anonymous green bottles let the drink do the talking: They all look the same, save for the number and the notes. It is pure whisky served in a place of worship – we spend the evening sipping, nosing, sharing, laughing and just kicking back and geeking out. The photos show some of the bottlings we sampled, and this is the one I brought home:
Who could resist that? Certainly not me, but then I’m fairly sure that I am at least 34% bumblebee.
Next on the list was WM Cadenhead’s, a shop that refuses to modernise – and is all the better for it. The recent online lottery on Master Of Malt for the new Yamazaki Sherry Cask makes you realise that Cadenehead’s is special – they just about have a website, do not sell online and have all their stock on a chalkboard – or an old ledger that looks like something from Hogwarts. They stock rare and valuable whiskies, some from silent distilleries, and they don’t charge the world. I bought a 23YO Ledaig from Tobermory, a steal at about the 100 mark. If this was an official distillery release I would have been paying double that – at least.
The shop also offers cask ends – they put any drops left into small 20cl bottles so you can try a few different samples without breaking the bank. I bought a 13YO Springbank ‘Green’. The ‘green’ part is a code for ‘organic’, but they can’t officially call it that as – according to the staff member I spoke to – someone in Springbank screwed up the paperwork and they were unable to get it certified organic. I tried the organic Benromach at Whiskey Live Dublin, and was not overly impressed – but then, it was late in the day and I was become overwrought from all the great drams. The Springbank is great, that sherry cask kick is something my bumblebee tastebuds crave, but it has an aniseed, liquorice sweetness in the aftermath that really takes it beyond standard issue. In both the SMWS and Cadenheads I asked for Irish whiskey – both places had bottlings from an ‘unnamed’ Irish distillery. Can you guess which one it was? Here’s a clue:
We also stopped off at the St Vincent, not far from George’s Street, alongside the church yer man from Rockstar Games bought because he had stacks of cash and sher why not.
The guys in the Vin have started offering grub as well as a decent selection of whisky, bourbon, craft beers et al. I opted for the Dutch Rudder – a burger with peanut mayo and edam. Yes I eat a lot of burgers. Yes I used to be a chef in an upmarket bistro. No I don’t feel any shame. Yes a Dutch Rudder is a sex thing. And yes it was a great burger.
On my way back from Scotland I had a few hours to peruse the whisky in the airport. It was like a zombie film, except non-age statement whisky was patient zero and everyone had been bitten already. I actually found it hard to locate age-statement whiskies, and when I asked a staff member about the epidemic of NAS, they gave the usual spiel about how age statements were the real scam, that the NAS movement was about getting back to how it used to be, and blah blah blah. It seems I am the only one who hasn’t drunk the Kool-Aid on this matter. Or maybe I’ve just been drinking the wrong Kool-Aid, maybe there is less well-aged Kool-Aid out there that I just haven’t tried yet and that will change my mind. Or maybe I am just too insecure to rely on taste alone and live without a number on the label telling me how much I should appreciate the liquid within. Or maybe I simply spend too much time thinking about these things when I should be helping my kids with their homework. In fact, one of my daughter’s homework tasks this evening was coming up with metaphors to complete statements; one was ‘Chocolate is….’. My suggestion was ‘chocolate is getting punched in the face with happiness’. Which is actually the title of one of the bottlings we sampled in the SMWS.
I have no shame. And I also have no money, as I came home with this lot:
Me explaining my purchases to my wife: