Oops. Looks like I have offended someone else now. I am, and this was apparently said with more than a petit frisson of contempt in the deliverer’s tone, “a purist”. As insults go, it was a particularly pleasing one. And it came about after a friend of mine met with someone who, I am told, earns a crust by matching food with whisky. Somehow my name cropped up in the conversation and soon it became apparent that I was not on this particular chef’s Christmas card list.
From all accounts, effigies of me began being put on gas mark 9 when I refused to play ball and agree to throw in my lot with the movement that believes food and whisky is a union blessed in heaven.
This has turned into a mini-industry in recent years and, for me, one of the most bemusing. My genuine belief is that if you want to have something to compliment your meal then there are any number of excellent-to-stupendous wines….and sometimes even beer and traditional farmhouse cider does a great job.
Part of the reason is not just flavour alone: wine, beer and cider can slake the thirst that builds while eating. Whisky, unless heavily polluted with water, does not.
Contrary to what I am sure some believe, my stance is not one based on traditionalist resentment. It is one based entirely on experience. Once upon a time, I was married to a Scots girl. And I can assure you that from about 1983 onwards there was not a meal known to man, either cooked in the Murray household or devoured at some restaurant or other, that was not tested with varying types of whisky.
And the disappointing conclusion I came to was that both the food and whisky were better off without each other. During the very early 90s, now as a full-time whisky writer, I continued the experiments, albeit with less enthusiasm, and still occasionally do. Not for writing about or monetary gain, but simply to learn. And, as experiments went, they were not particularly enjoyable.
So, by the time this new wave of whisky chefs fired up their ovens, egged on by magazines looking for things to fill their pages with and whisky marketing guys in the hunt for fresh ways of selling their product, I had long since been there, got the gravy-spattered T-shirt and had made up my mind from, quite literally, bitter experience. And that was if you really wanted to enjoy the whisky and fully understand what it was all about, then taking it on its own, warmed by the hand and giving git a good 20 minutes of quality time was the way. And great food should be cherished with no less care.
Does that make me a purist? Probably. Though that might also as much reflect my personality as it does my views on whisky alone.
For instance, as a cricket lover, I utterly abhor the money-spangled Twenty20 game. You will see me at my beloved Oval only for first-class cricket, either county or Test; you have more chance of seeing me match a 10-year-old Fettercairn with fried sheep brain than getting me to watch the slam-bam pyjama stuff.
I remember when first visiting India in the mid-90s stopping just to watch the kids play cricket on some dusty ad-hoc wicket. Their shoeless footwork would be sublime as they balletically danced to the pitch of the ball to drive it along the ground, left arm classically raised. It was touching that amid obvious poverty there was something to truly beautiful to behold. Yet in two visits to Bangalore and Delhi in the last year, this artistry, this purity if you like, was nowhere to be seen. Instead, everywhere fielders formed a distance circle while the batsman slogged at the ball mechanically. It was a depressing, if inevitable, sight.
What is wrong, then, in standing back from the hype and offering a voice that is entirely free of marketing clutter? To give an honest view based on experience and, in the case of whisky, or whiskey, sticking to the principles that the industry long held?
That is why, for instance I will rail at any cask or bottle which shows signs of sulphur and will brook no argument, as some ambassadors in the Far East are now saying, outrageously, that this note is a
“tradition” in sherry butts. Nor will I in any way support the sue of the word “bourbon” on the label of any flavoured whiskey sold in America.
Equally, though, some might genuinely love whisky and food combinations – and good luck to them. I simply won’t join in a happy-clappy throng all because other people are. I will write or broadcast only what I honestly believe to be true.
If all that makes me “a purist”, then I make no apology. Anyway, as author of the Whisky Bible perhaps I am more a fundamentalist…
This column by Jim Murray first appeared in Unfiltered in July 2010