In whiskey heaven

There’s an open bottle on the table
And an empty bottle on the floor
Last night I thought I’d died
And I went to Whiskey Heaven
” – Whiskey Heaven by Fats Domino

Ex-pats who are friends tend to have excellent if not random stories as to how they know each other. In this particular case, I met Mike through another friend because they had met at a music festival where he used an inflatable giraffe to keep his group of friends together. We recently found out we both have a love of whisky and with my girlfriend and another friend of his, Sam, we decided to make a night of it.

The tavern

Black Rock Tavern is a small innocuous bar. Nearly perfectly in the middle of the Moorgate-Old Street-Shoreditch-Liverpool Street square in east London. If you didn’t know what was inside you may just walk past, but once you know, you know.

On a Friday night, you’ll certainly need a booking for the downstairs bar. It is a small but glowing tribute to all things whisky. You’ll find a mix of banker wankers from the square mile and bearded hipsters but don’t let that put you off, it’s worth it.

Firstly, you’re greeted by one of the two or three aproned whisky experts that work the small bar. I thought I loved whisky but these gentlemen certainly worship it. The bar is simple, there is a table running down the middle that holds two blended whiskeys made in house. Along the wall is three cabinets filled with dram upon dram. The system is that the number of dots on the bottle indicates the price range. Either ask the experts what you’re after or go up and have a gander.

For starters

We thought it best to start with the in-house blends. The two options were a bourbon, flavoured with mint and bitters, or a more traditional blend. I opted for the more traditional blend, while childishly chuckling at the name “American Wood”. You can dress me up and take me to classy places but that is unlikely to ever make me an adult. The blend was a smooth and sugary taste with a peaty after taste that had us guessing at the type of blend. By our estimation, it was a light American rye blended with an Islay single malt. However, we were too excited and forgot to ask. Try it either way and let me know if you find out!

Following that, it was time to explore the library. I love a good book library but I reckon even they could be improved with the addition of one of these.

Three of these beautiful sights line the back wall. Each having a selection that you would need a month just to get through. A selection spread across the major whiskey producers, both well known and lesser-known. I even spotted a bottle of Newfoundland’s own Signal Hill which certainly warmed my Canadian heart.

Another!

For the first round, we covered a few bases right off the hop. We immediately decided that simply trying only the one we ordered wouldn’t fly and after all, sharing is caring. Based on the expert’s description, we dove right into two spectacular peated whiskies; the Lagavulin Distillers Edition, Talisker 8-year-old Limited Release, the Irish Roe&Co, and a boutique American distillery aptly named That Boutique-y Whiskey Company.

I like a good peat from time to time but the Lagavulin and the Talisker blew any I’ve had before out of the water. The Talisker maintained the strength you expect from the Isle of Skye distillery but with a fruit and coffee note that pre-empts the smokey finish. The Lagavulin presented with the smoothest flavoured peat I’ve ever had. Double matured in oak and sherry casks it has a caramel and sugary flavour reminiscent of a Speyside like Aberlour, followed by a punchy smokey finish.

The American boutique and Roe&Co by contrast (perhaps made starker by the peats first), were the most fragrant and fruity tastes. Especially the Roe&Co. The notes were nearly as aromatic as a gin and incredibly flavourful.

Last round

The last round we opted for had even more variety. I had recommended Dalmore to Sam previously as it’s one of my favourites. Mike decided to dive back into the peat world. I had personally had never tried a Campbeltown whisky, felt that I needed to complete the tasting tour of Scotland. We rounded it out with Lot 40 Canadian rye.

I can now say I’ve visited Campbeltown in flavour. The Hazelburn is a nice, relatively budget-friendly choice. The high ABV gives it a stronger after taste but has a slight caramel taste and is unpeated unlike some of its counterparts making it a good intro to the region. The Dalmore turned out to be a rather pleasant surprise being the 12-year-old, bottled in the ’70s though. It lacked the sweetness of the current iteration without the use of sherry casks but still had a smooth taste. The Lagavulin perhaps would have been outstanding if it had come before the Distillers Edition. In comparing the two it didn’t quite stack up. Lot 40 is a staple of mine and makes for a really nice easy drinking Canadian Rye even for the non-whisky drinker.

We rounded out the evening at the upstairs bar with a smoked Laphroaig Old Fashioned, and in terms of whisky cocktails, a well made Old Fashioned cannot be beaten. We didn’t quite get to an empty bottle on the floor, but Black Rock Tavern is the closest I’ve gotten to whisky heaven outside of Scotland for sure.

Recipe: Rum Old Fashioned

Instead of a long story about how my recipe reminds me of a warm fire on an autumn afternoon. This means you can easily decide if you’re up to it or if you’d rather toss a pizza in the oven.

For ingredients, 1 means you may already have all of them at home and 5 means you may need to special order an ingredient.
For equipment, 1 means the most very basic of tools need and 5 means needing to buy a special piece of equipment you may not use often.
For method, 1 means as easy as prepping and tossing in the oven and 5 means you’ll feel like you’re juggling flaming knives.

Ingredients: 2/5
Equipment: 1/5
Method: 2/5

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • Vanilla extract
  • 1 orange
  • Angostura Bitters
  • 60 ml rum (I use Mount Gay Extra Old or a similar cask rum)
  • Ice

Equipment:

  • 1 small saucepan
  • Slotted spoon
  • Cocktail peeler or regular peeler if you don’t have one
  • Small cocktail spoon

Method:

Making the Simple Syrup

  1. Cut the orange in half and peel
  2. Chop the peeled half into small pieces
  3. Add the sugar, water, orange pieces and a dash of vanilla extract to the saucepan and bring to a boil.
  4. Remove from heat and set aside until cooled. Remove the orange pieces using a slotted spoon
  5. Once cooled, you can store the simple syrup in a glass or plastic container in the fridge for up to a month

Making the cocktail

  1. Add a tbsp of simple syrup and two dashes of bitters to a rocks/lowball glass
  2. Add 3-4 large ice cubes to the glass
  3. Pour the rum over the ice and stir very briefly
  4. Garnish with an orange twist. This video is great for learning how

A beginner’s guide to Whisk(e)y

You see it in glass decanters and crystal glasses on shows like Mad Men, The Crown and in Harvey Spector’s office on Suits. Whisky is everywhere, and often a symbol of high class, powerful people.

It doesn’t have to be.

Ever since my grandfather first introduced me to a whisky when I was a teenager, I’ve learned a lot about it. I by no means profess to be an expert, and ultimately it all comes down to preference. Some of my favourite bottles are not expensive but are the region or flavours I enjoy most.  If you are looking have a dram as your next drink of choice, hopefully, this can help you figure out what you might like best!

Much like math, when it comes to learning about whisk(e)y, the brackets are important. Whisky is Scottish and whiskey is Irish. The e followed Irish settlers to the United States, while just about every other producer worldwide doesn’t use it. The major other producers include Canada, Japan, India. While small in terms of volume, Australia’s whiskies have won numerous awards. Each region has some distinctive processes and ingredients that they use to get different flavours.

Whiskies are made from different combinations of malted barley, corn, rye and wheat. The different mixes determine what the whisky is called. The famous “Single Malt” refers to only one type of mashed malt from a single distillery being used.

The distilled alcohol is then aged in burnt oak barrels, usually previously used to store sherry, wine or even rum. Each region has different requirements and standards for how long to be aged, and which mix of grains to use and each produces a different flavour. The type of barrel and length of ageing typically has the most effect on the flavour.

Scotland

In Scotland, whisky, Scotch Whisky or Scotch is made in five different regions. Scotland is the largest producer of whisky globally and there is a seemingly endless variety to sample. I recommend this guide to dive into the details further if you’re interested.

If you are new to whisky I’d recommend trying Speyside first, from a distillery like Aberlour. They age in Sherry barrels which gives the whisky an easier to drink, sweeter flavour and a deeper red colour. Other Speyside single malts are the readily available Glenlivet or Glenfiddich brands. For a Highland whisky, far and away my favourite is Dalmore, which is also a sherry cask variety with a deep ruby red colour. If you really want to go for it, however, Islay produces the smoky or peaty flavours that are famously attributed to whiskies such as Lagavulin and Bowmore. Islay whiskies are usually the most acquired tastes.

Ireland

Generally speaking, the main difference with Irish whiskies is that they are distilled three times instead of two. Irish whiskey was once the most popular but is only recently undergoing a renaissance. Jameson is probably the most famous worldwide and although the bottom shelf bottle is a bit harsh, some of the other vintages are easier drinking. My personal favourite of the Irish whiskies is Writer’s Tears, partially for the taste and partially for the irony.

North America

In North America, whiskies are commonly known as Bourbon or Rye, although other less common wheat, corn and malt whiskies are also made. In Canada, whisky or rye must be aged for at least three years in barrels and must be entirely produced and aged in Canada. Outside of the common ones like Crown Royal, I thoroughly enjoy Pike Creek’s 10-year-old rum barrel whisky. It’s cheap and has really nice vanilla, caramel and spice flavours. Rye is made in the US, with similar rules to Canada. Bourbon whiskey is made with at least 51% corn maize and a special distinction is made for Tennessee whiskey which must be filtered using sugar maple charcoal. This most famous of these is, of course, Jack Daniels.

Japan

Most people who are unfamiliar with whisky would be surprised by the next fact. Japan is the fourth-largest producer of whisky in the world. Japan’s whisky is heavily influenced by Scotland and produces a similar style of Single Malts. Yamazaki is Japan’s oldest distillery and was founded in 1924, while it’s two most internationally well known are Nikka and Suntory. I find Japanese whiskies to be a little more acquired tastes and a bit harsher at first so I wouldn’t recommend starting here.

In terms of an introduction to regions, let’s stop here, not because whiskies from other countries aren’t great, but because this is an introduction and let’s be honest, you’re already overwhelmed.

To ice, or not to ice

One final, important question to answer. How should you drink your whisky? Single Malt purists will gasp at the thought of on the rocks for a nice scotch. How dare you. They insist that a “few drops of spring water” is all that’s needed to activate the flavours. I not only think that’s pretentious but also for the average whisky drinker, you’re not having top-shelf stuff very often. Also, to be honest, I can’t say spring water is often at hand and you wouldn’t catch me dead saying that at a restaurant or bar.

The exception to this rule is if you are drinking a Scotch in Scotland. Using ice, having a whisky cocktail or anything other than scotch, neat should probably be listed as a travel advisory. Especially smaller towns and rural distillery towns.

Ultimately most drinkers, experts and even distillers will tell you it comes down to preference. My personal preference is generally to have it neat when trying a whisky for the first time, or for really smooth bottles. After a lot of acquired taste, more often than not I will drink a single malt neat because I genuinely enjoy it that way. When I first started though I almost always had a small cube of ice. For cheap whiskies, I still tend to use a little ice as chilling it can cut down on the harshness of the alcohol.

Recommendations

Finally, here’s a shortlist of whiskies for each region I think are good starting points for people looking to get into it:

Aberlour 12-year-old, Speyside, Scotland – matured in both sherry and oak casks, smooth drinking and has fruity notes

Laphroaig 10-year-old, Islay, Scotland – A peaty Islay classic whisky with a rare sweetness to it for an Islay

Dalmore 12-year-old, Highlands, Scotland – Double barrel-aged in both bourbon and sherry casks. My all-time favourite.

Nikka Coffey Malt Whisky, Japan – Spicy with a bit of fruity taste from one of Japan’s most well-known distilleries.

Pike Creek 10-year-old, Canada – Going a bit off the board with this one as it’s not one of the biggest Canadian distilleries, however, it’s a great starter one as it’s cheap and aged in rum barrels giving it a sweet vanilla taste.

Maker’s Mark Bourbon, USA – The classic bourbon for making Manhattan cocktails is also great on its own.

Writer’s Tears Copper Pot, Ireland – A traditional copper pot Irish whisky that’s easy to drink with honey notes.