The acclaimed photographer always thought he hated whisky. Until one morning on Islay…
For just a moment, Billy Leighton is lost for words. ‘That’s a revelation,’ he says, with more than a hint of awe. ‘I can’t believe how good that is.’
The Irish Distillers master blender has just sampled a whisky he made – Jameson Bow Street 18 Years Batch 1 – with a sliver of Derg Cheddar cheese from County Tipperary.
It’s not the only epiphany: the core Jameson 18, with its sweeter character and lower abv, bounces off the creamy, citrus brightness of a St Tola goat cheese from County Clare; the tangy, acidic power of a Creeny sheep’s milk cheese from County Cavan teases out the understated spice and length of this year’s Jameson Bow Street 18 batch.
The pairings, created during the launch of the latter with the aid of Dublin cheese and wine shop Loose Canon, achieve what every great food and drink match should: they deliver new flavours that you won’t find, in isolation, in either of the base components. In the case of Derg/Bow Street, big, savoury, salty notes; umami-like, alchemical.
(That, come to think of it, is exactly what a great blend does: takes an assortment of components and, thanks to the skill and experience of the blender, creates a transcendent final product that mightily exceeds the sum of its parts.)
Perfect pairings: Great food matches, like great blends, transcend their constituent parts
That good whisky and the right cheese (or vice versa) go together isn’t news, but the fact that this exercise is being played out on behalf of a blended whiskey is, I hope, instructive. There are signs that companies are paying a bit more attention to blends – and it’s about bloody time.
Four weeks later, more blended whisky and another match. Two matches, in fact. First, there’s Dewar’s ‘Double Double’ range of age-stated blends, paired with an infographic detailing the intricacies of their maturation: age and marry single malt and blend components; combine and marry them again; finish them in ex-Sherry casks.
The ‘four-stage process’ seems a wee bit over-complicated, while the age statements (ranging from 21 to 32 years old) hint at the inexactitude of numbers – for me, there’s an imbalance between maturity and price tag – but that’s quibbling. The liquid is still wonderful.
The second match? Berry Bros’ Perspective Series, which the long-suffering Dave Broom has already partially described, while battling beard-related frostbite. You can read Dave’s full verdict on the range on Scotchwhisky.com this Friday, but for my money it’s another excellent line-up, enhanced by the presence of Lindsay Robertson’s highly evocative landscape photographs on the labels.
For those of use who care about blends, the entry of so much new liquid into the marketplace in such a short space of time is a welcome event, although one that is annoyingly newsworthy because of its very rarity.
Too complex?: However intricate the ageing of Dewar’s Double Double, the whisky is wonderful
Compare that to the never-ending conveyor belt of single malt launches and is it any wonder that malts continue to generate headlines and online chatter way out of proportion to their share of the whisky market? We’ve probably had more new Highland Park whiskies in the past six months than new blends in the last five years.
If that’s changing, so much the better. And if the way that these whiskies are being treated by their owners is also evolving – building a story around them, making broader cultural connections – that can only help in terms of elevating the reputation of blends in the world at large.
Forty years ago, beyond a bland, mass-produced monoculture, Irish cheese was dead. Slowly but surely, fuelled by the presence of German and Dutch immigrants missing the cheeses of home, a renaissance began – one that has now given us the likes of Derg, St Tola, Creeny – and purveyors like Loose Canon.
It’s hard to ignore the parallels with Irish whiskey, which has escaped the doldrums to stage a renaissance of its own, but why not expand the analogy beyond Ireland to the bigger family of blends out there?
The more we all talk about what makes these whiskies special, the more likely it is that, in the eyes of the world, they’ll become exactly that.
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Latest news 13 March 2019
The bottler has partnered with a Scottish photographer for the blended Scotch whisky range.
New Whiskies 29 March 2019
Blends take centre stage with Berry Bros’ Perspective Series, with a malt cameo from Scapa.
From the editors 28 February 2018
A trip to Israel reminds Dave Broom of our need to blend spices, tea, music – and whisky.
From the editors 28 November 2018
A visit to Cognac reminds Richard Woodard that ‘single’ malts aren’t quite what they seem.