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How can a simple Highball cause offence?

  • I was amused by the linguistic convolutions that Willie Grant’s has had to go through with regard to identifying the type of cask used for their newie (which I haven’t yet tried, just sayin’ guys…). ‘French cuvée casks that once contained the liquid that goes on to become some of the world’s most extraordinary sparkling wines,’ which, let’s face it, is a lot to try and fit onto a label.

    I know why they have done it. After all, Bunnahabhain rightly got a polite warning earlier this year for naming said cask type. The Voldemort of wines is not aged in wood, meaning that there can be no such thing as a ‘that which shall not be named’ cask.

    It does make me wonder whether this could be the start of something. Rather than simply saying what cask type has been used, give the punters clues instead. ‘A red wine which has been fortified before it is fully fermented’, ‘a fortified wine from the largest island in the Mediterranean, allegedly created by an English wine merchant’, and so on. Now that the industry is brimming with a new spirit of honesty maybe we can now name correctly the ‘Sherry’ casks which have been seasoned with wines from outside of the delimited region.

    Glenfiddich Grand Cru: The new whisky is finished in casks used to ferment a wine which should not be named

    I was musing on this and other things on the way to the pub the other night. I wanted a long refreshing drink that wasn’t beer, or still wine, or even liquid that goes on to become one of the world’s most extraordinary sparkling wines. There had been enough of that the night before. A Highball would be perfect.

    I scanned the back bar. Smoky whisky and soda, that would do. It’s a great combination – all to do with the way in which dilution heightens smokiness while the mineral element of soda latches on to any salinity. Highballs work – but I suspect you might have heard me say that before.

    ‘A Caol Ila Highball, if that’s OK,’ I said to the generous person buying. The conversation turned to Brexit and whether David Frost had been as good a negotiator for the Scotch Whisky Association as he is being for Boris. The drinks were taking a while. Eventually my friend returned.

    ‘Sorry,’ he said, ‘they refused to make you a Highball. Said that they never allow malt whisky to be mixed’. This took me by surprise. Especially as he then handed me a Highball. ‘I had to buy a dram and then a soda water and do it myself.’

    ‘Haud me back!’ cried one of the party. ‘I’ll sort him out.’ We calmed him down. No need to make a fuss. After all, we had drinks. 

    Scotch and soda: Is serving malt whisky in a Highball really such an affront?

    In my time, I’ve had a number of discussions with barmen over the Highball, but have never been refused one. Sometimes it’s led to a chat about why the mix works, sometimes it’s just a raised eyebrow and an infinitesimal shake of the head, but I get the drink. The customer is always right… or thinks they are always right as I used to tell staff. 

    So, this was an exception, but it made me pause. Any resistance I’ve met over the Highball has come in the UK, and more so in Scotland and yet one reason whisky has long struggled in this country is because generations have been inculcated with the belief that whisky has to be taken drunk neat. If they tried it for the first time that way, I’ll wager that most didn’t like the taste and never tried it again. You get one shot at this if you pardon the pun. If it doesn’t work you’ve lost a drinker for life.

    I looked round the bar. The tourists were all on drams (served neat) while the locals were on anything else. Yes, you are seeing more Highballs being served and becoming bartenders’ favourite mixed drink. It’s all heartening news, but we are only at the start of a long road to get whisky seen as a drink that is a versatile as its competitors.

    Standing there arms folded, saying: ‘No. This is the only way you can drink it,’ will not help whisky’s cause. Making one while being obviously irritated by the effrontery of someone asking for their whisky to be lengthened, while gaily serving gin and tonics hardly sends out a positive message either.

    If whisky is to make new converts, if it is to show that a Highball is as good a drink as a gin and tonic, then Scotland should be leading the way in demonstrating whisky’s versatility rather than being a bastion of outmoded and reactionary thinking. The fight continues… Next time I’m going to ask for a Smoky Cokey and see what happens. There might be a small explosion.

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