Dry January? Pah. Who could countenance such a thing whilst celebrating The Bard’s birthday? No not that Bard, the other one, the Scottish one! Yes dear Rabbie’s birthday, more widely celebrated in Scotland than St David’s day, has scuppered the plans of many a want to be teetotaler. Which means that we at The Whisky Lounge have been hard at work, please don’t laugh – I am assured it is work. Organising events up and down the country in venues large and small, trying to fit in a wee dram where possible. Eighteen events later and we’re still lovin haggis, neeps and tatties. At least I am after attending four! Fortunately, Burns-athon is now over, the Haggis are roaming free and dutifully replenishing stocks ready for next year’s hunt!
A baptism of fire for my first Burns-athon indeed. Four Burns tastings (with one extra private tasting to spice it up) in three cities, more than a dozen different whiskies showcasing some of Scotland’s finest, with a few internationals thrown in for good measure.
So incase you are wondering just who on earth I am, let me introduce myself! I’m Guy and I have recently been radicalised by The Whisky Evangelist! Now fully committed to the cause of The Whisky Lounge’s mission of preaching and drinking whisky. After years of hovering around the edges, affectionately known as freelancing, at TWL I have had my arm twisted and have come aboard full-time. Didn’t take much twisting to be fair and after having worked with Eddie and some of the team before at Oddbins, where my first steps into the dark world of whisky began, the idea of working with The Whisky Lounge was too good to pass up. So here I am, with my big #WhiteWhiskyWolf in tow. Check twitter and facebook, I’m sure you’ll be able to spot us. She’s much better looking than I.. although I do possibly have the longest dreadlocks in whisky!
First up, a full blown four-course dinner served in the wonderfully atmospheric candlelit medieval banquet hall at Blackfriars in Newcastle. With entertainment, poems and stories from the extremely vibrant David, in full kilt and regalia and armed with an inexhaustible verve to deliver, as well as several knives. It can be dangerous in Newcastle I hear. Fortified by the excellent whisky on offer David was keen to ramble on! Alongside David was our very own Whisky Evangelist, Eddie, who was unarmed I can assure you. Providing insights and anecdotes about the whiskies when he could get a word in. Benromach, indeed whisky in general, on your haggis was a revelation to many!
Next up York, a slightly different affair in the more relaxed, cosy and slightly brighter confines of Brigantes. After a slight bout of interior redesigning we managed to get enough tables and seats for our sold-out tasting. Glasses out, whiskies poured and all other sundries in place it was time for a pint. Safely ensconced within the city walls of York, which contrary to the historical comedy Braveheart, have doughtily withstood attacks from ravaging Scots over the years. We allowed an incursion of fine whisky, a nod to Burns, the dour and mournful sound of bagpipes and yes, you guessed it, more haggis, with whisky! Despite claims by certain parts of the congregation that I had an inexhaustible supply of drams hidden atop the door frame. I can assure you I was closely monitoring our Evangelist as I knew I would soon be proselytising to my own flock.
After a couple of days recovering from Newcastle and York, digesting an overload of haggis and whisky, Eddie and I set off for the big smoke. Off to hob-nob it with the high fliers of that there London in Mayfair, I’d even ironed a clean white shirt for the occasion. Several hours and a few hundred miles later we’d arrived in central London. Stopping to procure supplies we braced ourselves for the bitter cold. At least we imagined it must be cold outside as the person walking past was wrapped up like an Eskimo, in full parka (with the hood up), gloves, hat and scarf. Being hardy northerners we nearly fainted from heat stroke as we left the car in our t-shirts.
The Red Lion in Mayfair’s Crown Passage was to be our venue for the next three nights. It’s definitely cosy, especially at clocking off time during the week. So, the sanctuary of the upstairs room was a blessing indeed. Yet more furniture arranging for me, I thought this was a job revolving around whisky. Not about renovating rooms. Once the room was set to physically seat the congregation and everything was in order Eddie and I waited. Then waited some more. Did we have the right day? Were we in the correct place? Time rolled inexorably on. Maybe they were at the wrong Red Lion we theorised at one point. There being two within close proximity to each other. Better check downstairs again. Nope. Nobody there except the suits downing flat beer from earlier.
As we were about ready to concede defeat our congregation started to arrive. A multinational group of French, German and North Americans. After a hard day of business, they were ready for their evening’s treat. A private tasting with The Whisky Evangelist. Some were new to whisky; some were old hands with collections of their own. With a choice selection from TWL’s vaults, Eddie soon had them all singing from his hymn sheet. Highlights being 18yo Auchentoshan, Single Cask Glenlivet “Gallow Hill” and an Ardbeg “Dark Cove”. With an engaging flock, the Evangelist answered questions on whisky and indeed whisky scripture. Leaving full of the blessings of Uisage Beatha we wished them well, or so we thought. However, the Entente Cordiale was in danger come the cleanup, when I discovered that nearly two pints of the whisky poured to taste had been left behind! Heathens. Philistines. Heretics indeed. The force was not strong here it seems. Either that or a strong work ethic and dedication to abstinence had prevailed. Nursing our sorrows and lamenting the most expensive impromptu whisky blending I hope never to again be a part of, we left.
Eddie performed another excellent Burns service… I mean tasting… at the Red Lion on Wednesday night. After a slight delay, I managed to get food sorted thanks to the wonderful people across the passage at Il Vicolo. A Yorkshire twist on traditional Burns Night fayre. Haggis, neeps & tatties served in a Yorkshire Pudding with whisky gravy. Authentically made in Yorkshire, by Amanda, an Irishwoman. Does it get any better or more convoluted? Alas due to my having to arrange the food I missed most of Eddie’s sermon. How was I supposed to plagiarise now? With my first solo tasting fast approaching I had two choices, panic or drink. So, I went for my first pilgrimage to Milroy’s of Soho, met Eddie the bartender had a chat and had a dram. And then another.
Waking the next morning with a slightly fuzzy head I made my way to another of London’s whisky institutes, The Soho Whisky Club, to meet Eddie. It was at this point the other of my two choices began to materialise. Panic.
What do I know about whisky? Who’s going to listen to me anyway? What whiskies are we even supposed to be tasting? Why am I walking in the wrong direction? If I screw this up, I’m out of a job! Only kidding! A veteran of bars and restaurants for nearly 20 years, having survived a stint working at Oddbins with Eddie and Vicky (who works in TWL HQ) nearly 15 years ago and having consumed various whiskies in quantities my doctor doesn’t like to hear about. I was certain I could waffle my way through a Burns tasting. Unless of course they expected Burns, as in poetry and strange sounding words. Damn, I didn’t have a skirt or a knife. Remiss of me.
Eddie wasn’t at Soho Whisky Club which allowed me to better prepare and augment my knowledge with actual facts. Not alternative facts as seem to be popular nowadays. Nope, the cold hard truth for my first tasting. George, the manager, was a wonderfully informative and convivial host, despite him also suffering post Burns Night blues. Armed with my facts, sustained by a curried bratwurst and feeling human again I set off for the Red Lion to deliver my first sermon/tasting! Luckily my first tasting was attended by a friendly and easy going group. At least that’s what I kept telling myself as they listened, with rapt attention I’ll have you know, although Eddie lurking in the wings like a bearded Gollum or the Sword of Damocles was slightly nerve wracking. “It’s mine” & “my precious” seemed to drift over everytime I touched a bottle. Easy to break the ice with the first whisky, the imaginatively named Yer Aunt Fannies Cats Ar$*h&|£ from the Whisky Blenders. From there it rolled on nicely into a Balblair 04 showcasing nicely the effects of bourbon casks on malt whisky. International spice was added by the Paul John Edited and then it was time for more haggis in Yorkshire puds, served by the Evangelist himself. Copying a trick, I suggested the Benromach 100% proof with the haggis, which went down a treat. Rounding things up with a Distillers Edition Cragganmore and a lovey Lp6 from the Elements of Islay collection for a hefty dose of peat. And breathe!
Nobody died. Which is always a bonus as the paperwork involved otherwise is extremely tedious. I survived i.e. Eddie didn’t kill me, which is even better news and means I’m one step closer to being released upon the unsuspecting whisky world at large. So watch out for the big guy with dreadlocks possibly with a rather large #WhiteWhiskyWolf in tow!!
Slàinte, and I hope to meet you all at an event soon!