The Whisky Virgin wonders what the gold, silver and bronze awards adorning some bottles really mean.
When walking through Washington DC recently, I passed a tobacconist, door open, enticing scents drifting into the street. I don’t smoke, bar the odd cigar, though even that has slowed considerably. My buddy Nick, who works for part of the year in Cuba, says cigars only really satisfy in tropical or sub-tropical climes. I know what he means. There is something about smoking a cigar in Cuba which cannot be recreated when you take the same stogie and flare it up in cooler Britain.
It’s one reason why I rarely ventured into Burkitt’s, the old-style tobacconist at the top of my road which sells loose tobacco, cigars, snuff, and accoutrements. I may not have been a regular, but I always admired it for being resolutely old-style, for standing up for the societally reviled, for proudly stating, ‘Dammit, this stuff is good. It speaks of quality and aroma and flavour, it has heritage and resonance. You might not smoke, Mr Passerby, but there are people who appreciate all of this. I am a tobacconist and proud of it. I’m not selling 20 Woodbine, I am part of an ancient mongering tradition.’
Quite how it kept going I know not. Given the walking sticks for sale in the window, I suspect its clientele was ageing. Every time I passed it I felt both pride and a slight shame for not buying something I wouldn’t use just to keep the Burkitts' of the world trading.
And now it’s changed. Not, amazingly, into a coffee shop of which there are 16 within a 1.5-mile radius. There’s probably more, coffee shops are springing up like distilleries. Quite how people have the time to drink all of that coffee I know not, but that’s a different rant.
Anyway, driving past Burkitt’s one day, I could have sworn there were bottles of whisky in the window. You develop that skill of bottle spotting after years in this game. I recall with a strange sense of pride, curdled with disappointment that the bottle of Rare Malt briefly glimpsed in Tom Ford’s A Single Man couldn’t have existed in the 1960s setting. I felt like writing to Mr Ford. He should know. He should, I bristled, have known.
Anyway, like a tracker finding a chameleon by torchlight from the front of a speeding jeep I’m tuned into whisky bottle shape. I knew that, even at 20mph [this is Brighton after all] in the dark and the rain that what I’d spotted out of the corner of my eye was a bottle of Douglas Laing's Rock Oyster. The passing of a proud old tobacconist would be sad, but having a whisky shop at the top of the road would assuage the pain.
A couple of days later, the wife reported that my father-in-law needed some shaving soap for Christmas. Trumper’s of course. Even though I bear beard these days, I revere the shaving products of that fine establishment. I made a note to pop in on my next journey to London. ‘No need,’ she replies, ‘we can get it at the top of the road.’
Logically enough, I presumed this to mean that yet another barber’s has opened – they are as plentiful as… well… coffee shops. She stops the rant mid-flow. ‘It’s not a barber’s. Burkitt’s sell it.’
Brighton & Hove's humble Burkitt's has transformed into Havana House, stocking everything today's modern gentleman needs.
What was a tobacconist has mutated into what can only be described as a gentleman’s emporium, part of a five-strong chain of such establishments called Havana House. There’s still cigars, there’s tobacco, there’s Cuban coffee (of course there is), there’s whisky, there’s a smoking room – though of course you can’t drink there because that would then make them a bar meaning you couldn’t smoke. I’m already planning an afternoon retreat. It’s all very St.James’s. It’s very… whisky.
I know what you are about to say. ‘Hang on Dave, haven’t you always ranted about getting rid of the rules that have consigned whisky to a world of gentlemen’s clubs, after-dinner drams, and cigar smoke? Of how we need to make whisky modern and relevant?’ Well, yes, and I still do.
This topic came up, in a reverse kind of way, when I was having an email conversation with a rum blogger recently. ‘Should rum stop playing up the fun angle,’ he wrote, ‘and start becoming serious?’
‘No,’ I replied. ‘As soon as Scotch stopped being fun it went into a precipitous decline in mature markets. Ironically, at the same time, it started to grow in Spain because there it was promoted as being fun.
‘Fun is good, fun is what you want. What rum needs to do is retain the fun but also show that it can play at the connoisseur level.’
Whisky needs to find the fun once more. It needs to find new drinkers, new ways of talking, it needs to stop being wholly masculine and the preserve of gentlemen’s clubs, but at the same time there is nothing wrong with retaining what seems to be timeless. What I want is a widening of whisky’s world. Burkitt’s is one way among what should be many. It should be welcomed.
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