Grains of truth from an old cask master

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 May, 2011, 12:00am


Ron Taylor is on the side of the angels. They like whisky too, apparently: the precious liquid that evaporates from the casks as the spirit matures is called 'the angel's share'.

That is also the name of a new bar on Hollywood Road, noteworthy for an extensive selection of malts and blends, not just from Scotland and Ireland, but also North America, Japan and even one from France.

The centrepiece of the bar is a barrel of 20-year-old Macallan, and you can have a dram - straight from the cask at a strength of 49.8 per cent by volume - for HK$180. Whiskies from the bottle are priced, according to quality and rarity, from HK$68 to HK$590 per measure. The bar, founded by Charlene Dawes, who also owns Tastings Wine Bar in Wellington Street, has a mission to educate patrons on the finer points of this noble spirit, and has enlisted Taylor's help.

A Scot who is Speyside born and bred, Taylor first came to Hong Kong to work for Cathay Pacific. He was the airline's head of fuel procurement, but devoted much of his leisure time to the study of other even more expensive fluids. 'Whisky is a personal passion for me, but I teach everything in the wine and spirits game,' he says. 'I've been studying it seriously for over 30 years, and lecturing for just over 10 here in Hong Kong.

'One of the great ways to learn is to teach. People ask questions and then it takes you down another path. I love being asked questions I don't know the answers to. You could spend 10 lifetimes studying wines and spirits and still only scratch the surface.'

It's a Saturday night at Angel's Share, and Taylor is addressing a small class of whisky enthusiasts and a few curious beginners, each with four glasses of single malt whisky in front of them. This is the second of four workshops that Dawes invited Taylor to conduct. The first was on the basics of whisky production, and this night he explains the regional styles of Speyside, the Highlands, Campbeltown and Islay.

The four single malts with which he illustrates the talk, while conducting an informal tasting, are The Glenlivet, Dalmore, Springbank and Laphroaig. He explains the individual styles of the regions succinctly and lucidly.

Speyside whiskies such as The Glenlivet tend to be 'elegant, sweet, perfumed, fruity and spicy' but also 'big, rich and robust'. Campbeltown whiskies such as Springbank are 'big, powerful, oily and salty' and Islay whiskies - the love-them-or-hate-them style - are also powerful and salty but have 'medicinal' characteristics and are 'smoky', with a distinct taste of iodine. Laphroaig 10-year-old is a classic example.

Taylor also imparts information on subjects such as the use of caramel to colour spirits (Dalmore), how to store whisky to maintain its stability - in upright bottles away from direct sunlight and heat. And he comments on the extraordinary prices rare old whiskies are now fetching at auction. The record is held by a 64-year-old Macallan in a one-of-a-kind Lalique decanter, which sold for US$460,000 at Sotheby's in New York in November.

Taylor is passionate but down to earth. Is there such a thing as 'terroir' for whisky?

Quite simply and firmly, if disappointingly, 'no'. Spirit distilling is an industrial process. The whisky takes its character from the water, the barley - although it does not absorb character from the soil the way a vine does - the peat that dries the malted barley, the still and the barrel. That's it. 'When you understand the science, I'm afraid it's not quite so romantic,' he says.

He does believe, however, that the casks in which whisky is matured contribute about 60 per cent of their character.

Although the spirit takes some character from the still in which it is produced, its flavour, colour and aroma mostly result from interaction with the barrels. These have previously contained either bourbon or sherry. Subtle differences can be made by giving the whisky some exposure to casks that have contained wine or a fortified wine other than sherry, such as port or Madeira.

In the session on the role the wood plays, he will contrast Glenmorangie The Original with Glenmorangie whiskies 'finished' in sherry, port and Sauternes casks.

He may not believe that terroir makes it into whisky, but he does believe - as presumably the angels do - that it has soul. 'You can taste the passion and the love in it. I'm absolutely convinced of that.'

The next two sessions are on Saturdays, June 11 (Age Matters) and July 2 (Let The Cask Do The Task).

Three entry level whiskies for beginners

Highlands: Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban

Price: HK$550

Buy from: Watson's Wine Cellar, City'super, Olivers, Sogo and Jusco

Speyside: The Macallan 12-year-old

Price: HK$514

Buy from: Rare & Fine Wines; Watson's Wine Cellar; City'super; Jusco; Park'n' Shop; Wellcome.

Islay: Bowmore 12-year-old

Price: HK$515

Buy from: City'super