In another time, it could have been a moment of intrigue and high espionage. There I was in Munich signing books and a man with a splendidly curling moustache presented me with a Whisky Bible 2010 with fitting Teutonic earnestness and a request: “Please, if you will, for me write ‘Best wishes, The Fat Lady of Limbourg’. Thank you.”
This might once have been a sign for me to switch books and hand him back the one with microfilm concealed in the spine. But instead, having spotted the laughing azure eyes above the spiralling galaxy of whiskers, I simply chuckled and complied. He was not the first person to have played this joke on me over the years, but no-one had delivered it with such starched politeness or matter-of-factness. I am laughing even now at the memory of it.
Some of you, Brian Eno fans of a certain vintage mainly, will be in on the joke already. Others will be wondering if the 829th new whisky which I have just tasted for the Whisky Bible 2011 is the one which has sent me over the edge. Well, it has given me the chance of yet another sulphur break – something that happens more often on a daily basis now than it ever did – and the opportunity to write this column.
And it also reminded me of the Fat Lady. Or rather, Eno’s surreal lyrics which include: “The Fat Lady of Limbourg/ Looked at the samples we sent/ And furrowed her brow…/ Her sense of taste is such she’ll distinguish with her tongue/ The subtleties a spectrograph would miss…”
I well remember when scientists first claimed that they had come up with a machine that could give tasting notes on wine. And therefore, presumably, whisky. I fielded phone calls from the press around the world asking if I thought it a threat to my living. I told them that the day a machine was invented which didn’t break down, then I might start to worry. And, besides, it might even have its uses.
With my taste buds succumbing for the umpteenth time to the evil viciousness of a sulphur-treated sherry butt, I was seriously beginning to wonder just where I might be able to get an Eno spectrograph from. Because the time it was taking to recover my senses – literally – for the next whisky is now seriously impacting on my ability to hit the printing deadline for this year’s edition.
The instructions to my staff would be as follows: “Right. All the bourbons, ryes and world malts matured in American or Japanese oak or finished in rum, Madeira or Sauternes, over here on my tasting desk. Anything post 1984 in a butt from Jerez, been finished in French wine casks other than Sauternes, or just sounds a bit poncy and suspect, use the robotic gloves and tip 2cl into the Eno Spectrograph: just can’t take chances. Especially with all these health and safety Johnnies around these days. Actually, as you were: sherry casks pre-1984 – yes, even from the 60s – into the Spectrograph for defusing: just don’t know if there’s a trip wire of being ‘freshened’ in a new sherry butt to contend with.”
But no, on second thoughts, I think I might better invest my money in a new printer and fax machine, especially now I’m moving my headquarters. For, really, can a spectrograph furrow its brows when presented with a sample? Can it rage at the inadequacies of a bottling?
Can it stare in wonderment and love at a particularly stupendous Speysider or Irish; a sherry butt that’s for once fondling your palate? Can it actually squeal with surprise when it realises that a whisky which is likely to win a Bible Award is a supermarket-own label? Can it emotionally engage with the spirit that will occupy its glass over a half-hour period, or feel a microchip miss a beat by discovering a nuance that it had not been offered first time around?
No, probably not.
You see, the enjoyment of whisky, the fulfilment of your relationship with it, is all about passion. And that can include anger…and occasionally loathing. Which, as we know, are close relations to love. The only passions belonging to a machine have to be artificial ones, inserted by programming. Yet the enjoyment – or otherwise – of a whisky is rooted in spontaneity.
So, no. No Eno Spectrograph to help me finish The Bible this year. Or for my new offices, period. If the whisky is a dud, then I must take it on the chin. Or, rather, in the mouth.
Right. Where’s New Whisky Number 830? There it is. It’s very dark. It’s from Speyside. It’s dated 1998. And it’s from a sherry butt. I am going in… alone.