Lawrence and Stirling arrived at the office at exactly 9:03am on Tuesday 2nd November. Miss York was already there, hands on hips, a pensive frown upon her face. “Chaps,” she said, “I think we have a problem. I can’t be sure, but I think Jonesy is dead.” Stunned (but not entirely surprised), the chaps peeked their heads around the heavy door of the editor’s office; papers were strewn across the room, a half-smoked cigar sat mournfully in a crystal glass ashtray, and one of Jonesy’s Victorian fowling shotguns had a homemade paper sign poking out of the barrel that read “Bang!” And there, in the middle of this carnage, was Jonesy, facedown upon his desk, his pale visage nestled into a bed of erratic notes, his cold, twisted hand still clutching a sterling silver pen, frozen mid-scrawl. “Stand back,” said Stirling, as he cautiously neared the desk, for one must always be wary when approaching a dead or potentially sleeping editor; they are terribly unpredictable beasts. “I think there’s life,” he announced, “just a hint, but life nonetheless.” He slid the notes carefully from under Jonesy’s nose. The three gathered around and began to read. Soon, it all became clear…
I am probably still drunk; plastered, lashed, gazeboed, bookcased. Utterly fountain-penned. This is because last night I attended a marvellous whisky tasting event at Quilon on Buckingham Gate, the Michelin-starred Indian restaurant that has become my new best friend since I declared my love for it in a slurring stupor in the early hours of the morning (with a kebab in one hand, a half-lit cigarette in the other, and a traffic cone for a hat). For Head Chef Sriram Aylur has installed an extraordinary whisky bar with 50 varieties of malt on offer, every one of them chosen by him (his memory of the selection process is distinctly uncertain). So impressive is this bar that it won a bronze prize at the Great Whisky Bars of the World Awards 2010.
Quilon already offers a beer tasting menu that pairs a gourmet beer selection with an assortment of the delicious grub on offer, and next year they are launching a whisky menu along the same lines. Having recently been elucidated to the merits of pairing whisky with food (thank you, Bowmore), this new menu is a splendid idea. If that wasn’t already enough fodder for a fantastic night out, this dinner event – to be offered to consumers on 1st February 2011 – was being hosted by Dominic Roskrow; whisky expert, journalist, and author of a tremendous new book called The World’s Best Whiskies. By all accounts, it was shaping up to be a jolly good night.
On arrival, however, it became immediately apparent that I was a mere kitten amidst more experienced cats. Included in the pride of journalists at this exclusive press event were writers from Decanter Magazine, a chap from The Whisky Exchange, the features editor of The Publican, numerous other wine and spirits writers…and me. Now, readers will know that I am partial to a drop of fine whisky, cognac, vodka and anything else vaguely unholy in nature, but I wouldn’t call myself a whisky expert. I’ve never even visited a whisky distillery. But people assume that I – and we at The Arbuturian in general – are authorities in all things gastronomical; and because we are not stupid, we allow this myth to prevail. So we find ourselves tasting rare 40-year-old whiskies that cost £6,500 a bottle, the finest oysters known to humanity, and wines that belong in the cellars of country estates, as opposed to dribbling down the chins of exuberant, bleary-eyed journalists.*
I made my lack of scholarly knowledge pertinently obvious within the first five minutes. Having been introduced to Puja Khanna, the Taj Group’s marketing manager who also oversees proceedings at the legendary Bombay Brasserie, I was handed a whisky-Champagne cocktail, a recipe from Dominic’s book. After a thoughtful sip, I felt that I was required to comment, so I announced, a little too loudly, “Oh it’s rather nice. I can’t taste the whisky at all; probably a good thing. Whisky and Champagne would be disgusting!” Puja fell silent. She stared at me, uncertain, a frown forming as she wondered who the hell I was, how I got onto the guest list, and how she could best eject me from the restaurant without causing a scene.
Su-Lin, the PR guru behind this event, quickly calmed Puja’s fears by explaining that I am a food journalist so I had been invited along to comment on the whisky and food pairing experience. Ah, so that’s it, I thought. They don’t expect me to be an expert, they just want me to eat and drink and make a few remarks that represent a modicum of interest in the subject matter. That, I can do! I felt a wave of relief wash over me in an awesome way. I glanced at Puja, who also looked reassured. I wasn’t some two-string merchant who’d been dragged off the street to make up the numbers after all. I had a purpose. I had direction. I was a somebody.
We settled in around the table where I sat opposite Dominic, who began to take us through a tasting of four very rare whiskies that he had chosen for the evening’s revelry. He gave a quick talk about whisky snobbery and noted that it’s the subjective tasting experience that matters. “Whisky is a simple drink,” he commented, mentioning that his book, too, was written to be accessible and enjoyable rather than highbrow and elitist. I can confirm this to be the case, and a mighty fine book it is too. It should grace the grand libraries of all whisky enthusiasts and experts alike. A copy now sits proudly on my coffee table, and it is reasonable to assume that it will very quickly become dog-eared.
As I necked the remnants of a rather interesting Indian whisky called Amrut Double Cask, a sweet, vanilla-like malt, I glanced around me in horror to find that everybody else was still swirling, sniffing and sipping theirs, but not actually drinking all that much of the stuff. I sheepishly lowered the empty glass to my lap, beyond the line of sight, so that nobody would notice this faux pas and request me to vacate the premises immediately.
The most notable and delicious of the four malts were the Henry McKenna Single Barrel Bourbon 2009 – a toffee-like, velvety whisky – and a Karuizawa 1982, a special bottling from The Whisky Exchange. This was 57% ABV and needed diluting to prevent one having to replace one’s liver after the sampling. It had a curious woody, ‘spent match’ aroma, and was really quite superb. But I shouldn’t be writing about any of these whiskies because they don’t appear on Quilon’s bar list (yet). Not that you would notice, as they have such an impressive array on offer that you are unlikely to miss them. If anything, there are too many to choose from. I am particularly eager to try the wonderfully named Compass Box Hedonism. I’m a sucker for unusual branding.
After Dominic’s very enlightening presentation, the meal was served. Quilon specialise in South West Indian coastal cuisine and the chef’s philosophy is that you should leave the restaurant healthier than when you arrived; he uses no cream and very little oil in his dishes, and the difference is immediately obvious. The spicing is delicate yet multi-layered; bite after bite provided an explosion of rich flavours and sensations to tease and tantalise the palate: curry leaf and lentil-crusted fish with ginger chutney, soya bean ‘chop’ with plum sauce, green peppercorn chicken breasts, tiger prawn masala, tender roast lamb cubes with brown onion, tomato and spices…I could go on, but I am getting hungry writing about it. London has a number of Indian eateries boasting a Michelin-star, and Quilon fully deserve theirs. I shall be returning for a full review meal in the near future, and I have a feeling it’s going to become a regular haunt.
During the outstanding feast, whiskies were sipped, wine was poured, and somehow a glass of Blue Moon beer appeared in front of me, though from whence it came I do not know. Nor do I know where it went, but the empty glass would suggest that somebody drank it. I don’t recall whom.
As the evening drew to a close, I felt at ease in the company of these esteemed wine and spirits writers. I can do this, I thought. I can write intelligent things about drink. It’s a curious fact that the vast majority of food writers have little or no knowledge of wine and spirits beyond a healthy appreciation. Wine lists are barely mentioned in restaurant reviews because food critics don’t have the knowledge to discuss them without embarrassing themselves; they have a hard enough time as it is writing confidently about food. I include myself wholeheartedly in that bubbling cauldron of ineptitude.
Staggering into the bracing night, wondering if I could knock on the palace gates to see if Liz would allow me to bed down in one of her rooms for the evening, or, failing that, the kennels, I decided that I would do my damnedest to learn all that I could about the wonderful world of whisky. I now have just the book for it too, and a bar in which to carry out my research. At the next drinks event that I attend, I shall be the one looking down my nose at the lowly food journalists, with my whisky-goggles and my wine-stained chin.
* I should point out that Tara and Sophie are in fact experts in their field, both being seasoned and well-trained wine writers, while Miss York is an authority on gin and Stirling is the man to see about gourmet coffee. So that remark about being gastronomic philistines applies primarily to Lawrence and me. But mainly to me.
A special whisky dinner hosted by expert Dominic Roskrow will take place on 1st February 2011 for a table of 16 guests. Tickets are priced at £59.50 per person, including a whisky celebration cocktail, tutored tasting of four premium whiskies including a whisky rarity, three-course dinner and service. A list of recommended wines will be offered as an additional option. For reservations please telephone Quilon on 020 7821 1899 or visit the website.
The World’s Best Whiskies by Dominic Roskrow is available from all major bookstores, priced at £30 (hardback). Published by Jacqui Small.