Does Scotch single malt’s absence from a leading bar show speak volumes about cocktail snobbery?
For once in Glasgow the taps were on. ‘What beer do you have?’ came the question.
‘None tonight pal, it’s only whisky down here.’ The questioner looked bemused.
‘Smoky Cokeys on three taps – you can have one made with Caol Ila, Lagavulin, or Talisker’.
There’s a moment’s hesitation, to see if this is a wind-up – it is Glasgow after all, a city where even the simple act of asking for a drink can be the start of a comedy routine. ‘Which one would you recommend?’
‘Well, Lagavulin is considered the classic mix.’ Another slightly quizzical glance.
‘Sure… OK. I’ll have four.’
…and so it started. Frank Murphy (of the Pot Still) and I in a pop-up whisky bar situated in the basement of Finnieston’s superb Kelvingrove Café (is a basement takeover a pop down? Answers on a postcard please).
Cocktail evolution: The Singleton challenge required a solid or gaseous element
There were was an extensive range of malts behind us – arranged by flavour, mixers on the shelves and a steady stream of punters.
Perhaps some context is required. This was an evening’s entertainment within Diageo’s World Class global finals, the Olympics of the bartending world (full disclosure: I am one of the judges). This year the finalists, representing 55 countries (and selected from 10,000 entries), were put through five days of challenges, which tested their product knowledge, bartending skills, storytelling ability and quick wits.
Whisky has been slowly becoming more prominent. In the early days it was an option (and one rarely taken). Then it got its own challenge. This year, there were three: one at Talisker with a mystery box of ingredients which had to be transformed into a drink, then one each for Singleton and Johnnie Walker Black in Glasgow.
The last two were deceptively simple. The Singleton challenge asked for two drinks, one using two liquids – one of which was homemade, the other creating an ‘experience’ with the malt served either neat or on the rocks – accompanied by two ingredients, either in solid or gaseous state. It’s how I ended up toasting the duck fat marshmallows made by Canada’s Jeff Savage over a fire of flaming spices and beeswax. Did it work? Of course it did, the duck fat softening the potentially nippy whisky, the aromas taking you into a new space.
The Johnnie Walker ‘Striding Can’ (geddit?) Challenge asked for a fizz aligned with occasion and place followed by a canned cocktail (which the bartender had to design) containing a Highball made from one part home-made cordial, one part whisky and three parts mineral water – also made to fit an occasion.
Simply effective: Canned Highballs prompted bartenders to consider whisky’s flavours
The challenges were about the drinks – of course they were – but what was more significant for me was the thinking which lay behind them. The simplicity of the task at hand means that there was nowhere for the bartender to hide. It demanded that they focus on a deep understanding of the whisky’s flavours and showing how they could be tweaked, elevated and transformed.
This wasn’t a shot of amber liquid in a glass. Neither was it an overcomplicated drink made to showcase a mastery of technique, but a way to show a deeper understanding of whisky and flavour – the sort of thinking which sticks in the bartenders’ minds.
Back in Frank & Dave’s basement, we were running out of Highball glasses as the Smoky Cokey orders kept flooding in. The Linkwood and Glen Elgin and Mortlach were taking a hammering (though the Royal Lochnagar distillery team remained resolutely brand loyal) – and that’s the point. Nips, Highballs, mixed drinks: whisky can play in each area.
The same was being repeated across the city, whose top bars and pubs all featured global bartending luminaries doing a guest slot. In The Gate, Tristan Stephenson (of Black Rock fame) was putting in his hardest bar shift of the last few years just to keep up with demand, while across The Gallowgate, Crucible’s Stu Bale had taken over The Cabin (Glasgow’s smallest pub), turned up its karaoke machine and started rocking out Roe & Coe mixes. Whisky was running through Glasgow’s veins (in a responsible fashion of course).
No-one is taking away your right to have a neat dram or add a little water. Equally, no-one is saying that cocktails are now the only way to drink it. The days of a blind adherence to the ‘right’ way are over. Instead, slowly and steadily whisky’s possibilities are being widened – not just how to drink it, but when to enjoy it as well.
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