But every now and again I do find myself flirting with temptation elsewhere, playing away so-to-speak. Whether it’s a super cold fino sherry enjoyed alongside charcuterie, or a blood-thick Bordeaux with a heavily charred ribeye, some situations call for something other than beer.
My latest obsession is Scottish single malt whisky - or to be more precise, big peaty, smokey Islay whiskies. Whisky that bursts forth with seaweed and salty air followed by the sweet, warming crackle of smouldering wood.
It’s a world of flavour I’m gingerly shuffling into, eyes blinking against a rush of smoke filled air, discovering new favourites somewhat blindly as I sip my way across the plethora of flavours. From the rich fruitcake, orange and raisin of some whiskies to the delicate grapefruit or burnt wood of others, there is a dizzying spectrum of sensory signposts to follow.
For me, my ‘gateway’ whisky was Highland Park 12 Year Old. It’s frequently cited as one of the best all-rounder single malts in the world, all at once fruity and complex, but with a long, sweetly smokey finish – I was hooked from my first sip and went through a bottle in a liver-flexingly fast couple of weeks.
It’s still a whisky I love, an amazingly balanced dram that I don’t think I could ever get bored of. Drank with just a few drops of water (less really is more), it’s a whisky that is approachable yet explorable, which you will appreciate more and more as time goes on.
But as with all things, tastes move on and recently it’s been the massively intense flavours of Islay whisky that have been grabbing my attention. Perfect for sipping during the cold winter months, Islay whisky occupies a flavour spectrum which runs through smoke, peat, salt, seaweed, ash, wood, burnt toffee and even in some of the more ‘medicinal’ examples a touch of TCP and iodine. My tastes certainly lean towards the smoky, peaty section of the spectrum rather than the medicine cabinet, but all are interesting and attention grabbing in their own way.
There's just something of the magical about single malt whisky, even the terminolgy is full of colour and poetry. "The Angel’s Share" is a case in point - it refers to the amount of whisky lost from the barrel each year as it matures, either through evaporation of water or alcohol which can, depending on the climate, increase or decrease the abv of the whisky.
It’s a beautiful piece of imagery that for me perfectly aligns with the magic and alchemy of whisky - how something as simple as distilled malt could, with the benefit of wood and patience, become something so much more than the sum of its parts.