London at rush hour heaves, its rhythm stymied by pavements packed with blinkered pedestrians that abruptly grind to a crushing halt at each traffic crossing and tube platform, before a green light or shuttling tube carriage whizzes everything moving again like an exhalation. On the end of a gasp we were delivered to the foot of the Shard, as iconic as it is angular. The lift shot up so fast and high my ears popped. In a matter of seconds we had been cast thirty-two floors in to the sky. When the lift doors parted we found ourselves in an elegant and calming space, low lit, and with full-height windows giving breathtaking views of the capital from a perspective that one rarely gets to experience. I was looking down on the exact roads and pavements I had minutes ago occupied, but everything was different with this addition of height. Suddenly, they became extraordinary.
We had arrived for an event for which I had waited with rapturous anticipation: ‘The whisky dinner to end all whisky dinners’ as it had been billed. Colin Dunn, the Diageo Reserve Ambassador was teaming up with Oblix at London’s The Shard to pair whiskies from his Diageo Special Releases portfolio, some of the finest and rarest whiskies in the world, to a fine dining experience.
We are seated, menued, and handed welcome cocktails with all the customary deference of a ‘very expensive bar’. A cursory glance at the menu shows the cocktail to be a ‘banana & nut old fashioned’. While an Old Fashioned is my cocktail of choice, I am unkeen on the idea of involving banana here. However, on sipping I discover it to be a triumph. Caol Ila 18 year old unpeated is balanced with banana, coconut water, tonka and Angostura bitters. It delivers none of the cloying over-sweetness that normally follows where banana is used, but rather a profound freshness, from almost under-ripe banana notes. The coconut water lengthens the body and keeps the cocktail crisp allowing the Caol Ila to shine. The whisky, unpeated, exudes straight-up farmyard notes, grounded by the bass note of hay from tonka, which also adds an elegant vanilla and sweet almond note. It surrounds a gleaming ice ball in a rocks glass, upon which is poised a sesame tuile. It is a magical delight of a cocktail, and the bar for the evening is set very high.
Our starters arrive, with a suitable amount of theatre. A trio of oysters, nestled among crushed ice and seaweed, suspended within a bowl of dry ice which billows icy smoke from beneath our dishes as though they are arriving on a cloud. Our host, Colin Dunn, who manages to be an embodiment of cheeky directness and effortless charm talks us through his concept for this whisky pairing. This is a man who deals exclusively with profoundly expensive whisky. His portfolio of whiskies for Diageo are some of the most pricey on the market. They are elegant, cost the earth, and Colin makes you feel completely at ease with them. There’s no haughtiness or exclusion, Colin loves what he does and he wants you to love it too; and I very much doubt anyone has walked away from him not considerably more in love with whisky than they were before they met him. And that’s exactly what this dinner does, it doesn’t just pair a whisky with each course like is customarily done with a wine. Nope, each pairing is an event, a small act of theatre, there’s a point and a reason, and it works.
Colin explains that this course is paired with Teaninich 17 year old 1999, which has gentle caramel sweetness, good wood structure and lychee on the finish, and that each oyster offers a different way of experiencing the whisky pairing. With one, we are asked to put a few drops of the whisky on the oyster, another we are invited to sip the whisky first and then eat the oyster, the last to eat the oyster and then taste the whisky. The idea is so to test-drive people’s palates, to see which way they enjoy pairing their whisky, which speaks to them. The first oyster is with dashi and nasturtium leaves, the second is yuzu gel and cod roe and the third is topped with wasabi granita which is an awesome foil to the saltiness of the oyster. Each oyster offers big, bold flavour punches that can stand up to the pairings, as despite the whisky being cask strength it has enough sweetness to hold its own without overpowering the oysters.
The next course is a joy. Mirin glazed pork belly is accompanied by a raw langoustine which brings a sweet sushi note; a crunch of pork crackling, tart rhubarb chutney and pickled rhubarb, with a coriander and sesame dressing. This is paired with the Glen Elgin 18 year old 1998. The whisky starts straight up with a nose that delivers vanilla fudge, honey, caramel and lots of light muscovado sugar. On the palate there is immediately lots of wood, very nearly too much. There is sweetness there but the wood leads, ripe strawberry arriving with hints of bruised mint. The finish is treacle, but without aniseed, and instead lots of tannins, a puckering finish. It pairs beautifully with the dish, the sweetness meeting the fattiness of the pork and lifting it off the palate. After tasting everything together, Colin invites us to play with the whisky a little, and water it down to fifty per cent water. The effect is astonishing – on the nose notes of leather suddenly emerge, latica tobacco cigar leaves, and a note of sweet decay like mulching leaves. On the palate there are massive mineral notes like sauvignon blanc (French, not the bigger new world ones), earthy, soft and delicious. This is an astonishing demonstration on how the addition of water can transform a whisky, here from heavy, sweet butterscotch to soft, mineral and earthy. It’s a revelation. Colin tells us that when he meets someone who claims to dislike whisky and is an avowed wine drinker, he presents them with this in a wine glass, 20 per cent whisky to 80 per cent water. He is yet to meet someone who isn’t converted.
The next course is paired with Linkwood 37 year old. On the nose there is stewed fruits, lots of rich banana, orange oil and considerable oak, with an almost floral note, like stewed rhubarb and honeysuckle as well as daffodils, almost on the turn. On the palate it is wood-heavy with a light peat and green vegetable sulphur notes. The pairing is a loin of venison, red cabbage puree, Jerusalem artichoke crisps, pear poached and torched, juniper jus and topped with a fine grating of 70 per cent dark chocolate. The dark chocolate acts as a bridge between the whisky and the dish, bringing out a sweetness that plays against the sulphur notes. The red cabbage and the burnt pear strips the sulphur from the whisky leaving instead gentle spice notes. Colin arrives at our table and asks us to indulge him in a little game. He asks us to take a good amount of the whisky in to our mouth, hold it there, and close our eyes. As it begins to burn our tongues and cheeks he tells us to start to ‘chew’ it, moving it around our mouths. This makes our mouths create extra saliva, which thickens the whisky and works on it, slowly tuning it in to a thick syrupy liqueur in our mouths. The textural change is astonishing, and it is sweet and no longer burns. He finally invites us to swallow it and then take a deep breath in through our mouths. On opening our eyes with delight and surprise he tells us that we kept the whisky in our mouths for 37 seconds – one second for every year the whisky was matured. In that time it transformed completely in our mouths – both in terms of flavour and mouthfeel. “I try to change people’s perceptions of taste” Colin tells us. He certainly does that. My mother always told me not to play with my food, but there is so much to be gained from playing with my whisky.
And so to dessert… a Mont Blanc, all rice-pudding-sweetness and chestnut cream. Fine, but nothing to write home about. The whisky, however, stole my heart. ‘The Cally’ Single Grain 40 year old 1974, the oldest release from the long since decommissioned Caledonian Distillery in Edinburgh, which back in the 1900s was responsible for ten per cent of the overall output of Scotch whisky. The whisky is full of Christmas cake spice, dried apricot and plum, beautifully integrated oak notes, mountains of plump soaked raisins and cognac notes; absolutely not what you would expect from a grain whisky. Astonishingly elegant wood integration from the cask influence, which can often have gone too far at this age, is instead a rhapsody of balance. This is one of the finest whiskies I have ever tasted. A further surprise came when I tasted the dessert and the whisky together. Suddenly, wheat and cereal notes burst forward, like digestive biscuits warm from the oven, malty flavours reigning large and everything coming together in an enchantment of a pairing. This is illustrative of how a food pairing can add so much to a whisky. Those wheat and malt notes that are distilled out of a grain whisky are pulled sharply in to focus by the malty flavours in the dessert, bringing a new perspective on an already gorgeous Scotch.
Whisky pairing dinners are becoming quite the thing these days, but they are very divisive. Many people find that whisky is too short and too intense to do anything other than dominate food, or even that food is an unwelcome distraction from the imbibing of a dram. This can indeed be true, and there is a very fine line with whisky pairing dinners which if crossed can put people off the concept forever. In expert hands, however, it can be a thing of beauty – a playground in which to delight in a whisky, and a framework in which to explore it. The elusive aim, is to become more than the sum of its parts – to bring a new dimension to both the whisky, and the food, and that through this prism of new perspectives we can achieve a fuller and more sensuous pleasure and ultimately… joy.