Random Play by Graham Reid


Whisky, suits, me

Sometimes life just works out, doesn’t it? Like late yesterday afternoon when I got a call from Russell Brown. It hadn’t been a great day until that point but fortune -- and Russell -- smiled upon me, and my decision to wear something approximating a suit.

I don’t tog up often but yesterday had to appear at a Tenancy Tribunal hearing as a witness on behalf of friends and former neighbours.

So as one who had put some time into supporting their case I thought I’d look the part: dark trousers, dark shirt, dark jacket, vivid blue tie -- I looked like I was Someone Serious.

After the very long hearing -- during which I had to wait alone in an empty corridor for almost two hours with nothing to read but case notes -- we adjourned to the Shakespeare Hotel for drinks and the debrief.

It was around 5pm when Russell called with an offer I couldn't refuse: I had to take his place at an exclusive whisky tasting event to be held at the British Consul office about 50m from where I was standing.

So I was suited and suitable, and half an hour later was happily re-introducing myself to a very fine whisky connoisseur and importer Michael F. Fraser Milne from Christchurch where he runs Whisky Galore. His business card reads “for all your spiritual needs”.

I had first met Michael a few years ago when he brought Charles MacLean, Scotland‘s leading whisky writer, to the country. MacLean and I had a very enjoyable chat in a leathery and book-lined room at the Northern Club -- and despite the early hour we enjoyed a wee dram. Or two.

MacLean wasn’t a whisky snob, just a man passionate about the art of distilling, the nuances of flavour, and the culture of whisky. He was also a man who enjoyed a drink and said he had no problem with people who wanted to splash Coke into their glass. He didn’t do it and felt it often spoiled a good drink, but if that’s what you want to do at 2am in club then . . .

Last night the handsomely moustached Milne was introducing another such expert from Scotland, Ian McWilliam from Glenfarclas Distillery, a company which writer MacLean notes in one of his guides as making “whisky of classic status; usually it is numbered among the top handful of Speysides by professional tasters. The fact that it is available at so many ages (and at cask strength) makes for fascinating comparative tasting”.

I can only second that, because that is what McWilliam and Milne generously offered last night to about 30 connoisseurs from around the country. Five single malts -- from the Family Cask collection of bottlings every year from 1952 to 94 -- to be compared and enjoyed.

Glenfarclas has a fascinating history and has been in the same family, the Grants, since 1865. A family “well in the know” about whisky as the softly-spoken McWilliam wryly noted. There was watercolour in the family collection of what looked like a distillery in the late 18th century he said -- but the company was legally established in 1836 under John Grant.

Amusingly they might know a lot about whisky but are unimaginative when it comes to naming their sons: there was John the founder then his son George and his son George and his son George and his son John and now his son George. Or something like that.

Still, maybe it is a Scottish thing: I was born in Edinburgh and my Dad was a Graham and so was his father. (My mother was a Margaret and so is my older sister -- so I leave it to you to figure out how bewildering that could be in the house.)

While taking us through some Grant family history and the distilling process McWilliam also offered the tasting samples of single malts from casks of ‘94, ‘84, ‘77, ‘67 and finally ‘57.

This was a remarkable and rare opportunity to sample some of Scotland’s finest -- the first time these had been opened outside the United Kingdom apparently.

To be honest, I am no financial position to explore some of these further: the ‘94 is the cheapest at $290 a bottle through Whisky Galore, the ‘57 goes for $1618 -- but to great guffaws of appreciation Milne said he wouldn’t charge for postage on orders. "Scottish discount," some wag hooted.

Yes, I could bang on about colour and nose and finish and so on (it would all be true) but really it was also the sense of occasion and the company I enjoyed as much as anything else. I met a guy who spent three years in Antarctica who told me that when they came back to or went through Christchurch that Milne’s Whisky Galore was always their first stop for provisions. I could understand that.

I’ve done wine, sherry and tequila tastings in the past and one thing always comes through repeatedly: it is never the top one I like best. The ‘57 last night was of course a treat, but I much preferred the hot fullness of the ‘67 ($732.20 a bottle) and the spicy, thoroughly intense ‘77 ($508.30).

But sitting there in a room full of intelligent, knowledgeable and very friendly people -- just outside the door of the Pitcairn Island Office if you ever wondered where it was -- I was amongst those who not only appreciated a good single malt, but also savoured the whole culture around it and the camaraderie it brought.

Many had been to Scottish distilleries and had stories to tell, others just used their Scottish heritage as an excuse to have a decent drink. I reckon Charles MacLean would have approved of us all.

When I finally left around 9pm I was famished so went to the Belgian Bar for bangers and mash and a Leffe blonde.

There were lots of guys in dark suits -- I fitted right in -- and braying office girls, and young men in fashionably faded jeans with their striped shirts untucked and sporting what I call All Black hairstyles.

Everyone was having a noisy good time and beneath the clamour I could hear Lou Reed singing Perfect Day and then the Smiths’ This Charming Man.

Yep, sometimes life just works out.

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