Are You Tasting the Pith? - 15th January 2008
At the wood-aged beers seminar at Thornbridge Hall last year (covered here), James McRorie very nobly condensed his paper due to time constraints. It still made sense, and was very interesting, although I saw pain etched on his face as he had to let sheets of paper drop to the floor for the sake of the schedule. His paper kicked of with the relationship between beer and whisky, specifically adding the dregs of a dram to your beer. "My wife knows never to throw away an empty bottle" he began, explaining that "an empty bottles weeps. It weeps because it is empty". Rather than anthropomorphising a bottle into a lachrymose being, what he meant was that after what seems like the last dram has been poured from a bottle, a small amount weeps down the inside of the bottle, forming a tiny measure in the bottle (a dramette?). The same happens when you drain a shot of whisky; give it a few seconds, and a small measure will reform at the bottom of the glass. You can then do what you like with this. He suggests adding it to the beer chaser that you will be drinking with the whisky.
On our recent Beer-Ritz post-Christmas staff outing, we did a bit of a pub crawl through Leeds, ending up at the venerable institution that is North Bar. We got a round of drinks in; I chose an Anchor Porter (5.6% abv), an example of the style that falls a little more on the chocolate stout side of the spectrum of porters, but a superb beer. Waiting for the drinks to be poured, I was perusing the bottles of whisky behind the bar, and was surprised to the see a bottle of Ardbeg Uigeadail - I thought this had all been drunk long ago? At £5 a shot, it was pricey, but really it was a trifling sum for a piece of history from the most uncompromising of the Islay distilleries.
We passed the glass around. If you've never tried this whisky, it reminds me of a description of the style of wilder Islay malts quoted by Charles Maclean in his book, "Whisky". It is a fearful, elemental drop; smoky, fiery, astringent, the sort of whisky that is almost indecent to keep in the house, but needs to be enjoyed outdoors, on the hills, in bad weather. After the glass had been emptied, a stunned silence fell, punctuated by exhalations through pursed lips, and sighs. Remembering the advice of Mr McRorie, and feeling inquisitive, I upended the whisky tumbler over my glass; two scant drops fell into my porter. Not expecting anything much, I swirled the porter round the glass, and took a sip.
Now, as I tried to make clear above, Anchor Porter is a great beer. Perhaps a little chocolatey for a porter, but great anyway. But two drops of this water of life from the wild island of Islay transformed it into something altogether different. The smoky, tarry, phenolic qualities of the Ardbeg had given a depth and counterpoint to the original nature of the beer. From two small drops! What must my body be like after a large measure of the stuff? Perhaps if you pricked my finger, my blood would smell of peat and seaweed.
So, I suggest that you all heed the words of James McRorie, and don't let the bottle weep in vain.
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