Back in December I visited the Worship Street Whistling Shop for a very special, two hour long ‘multi-sensory experience’: the final Diageo Whisky Theatre of the year. The project is the work of irrepressible Diageo brand ambassador Colin Dunn and the Fluid Movement duo of Tristan Stephenson and Tom Aske who have presented similar experiences in the past, for example with rum, but the mention of whisky certainly caught our attention immediately! I believe Tristan also has a whisky book coming out this year too – one to watch out for.
There is (just) room for nine people but I was joined by a fab four of Gin Monkey, Imbibe’s Laura Foster (recent winner of the Alan Lodge Young International Spirits Writer of the Year), Siobhan Payne from Difford’s Guide and London Cocktail Week and Alex Kratena off of The Artesian (named The World’s Best Bar for the second year running in 2013).
The theatre takes the form of a history of whisky and whisky drinking from its earliest origins right through to modern, innovative serves with a selection of drinks, foods and experiences along the way. The idea is to give people a grounding in whisky as well as teach them that not only is there is no right or wrong way to enjoy whisky, but that there’s enormous scope for bartenders and consumers alike with this most fascinating and delicious category of spirits.
A man who’s truly dedicated to the spirit.
We began our journey in 5th Century Ireland, with monastic music filling the room and a backdrop of the Giant's Causeway. Our very own authentic 5th Century monk then took on the role of spiritual guide…
It was explained how the art of distillation dates back millennia, with 18 references to strong liquor to be found in the Bible. The distillation of grains for drinking, however, probably reached Scotland via the Irish missionary monks. Important stuff this water of life you know, ‘medicinal purposes’ and all that.
The first drink of the evening awaits us.
The first drink of the evening was made with new make spirit (a particularly delicious Lagavulin new make spirit), honey, herbs and spices, poured from a miniature pot still into clay vessels alongside some equally humble dried fruit and nuts.
Blended whisky – a look at the men who made Scotch ‘a thing’, in Scotland and around the world.
The whole thing is a single take. Robert Carlyle, take a bow son.
And so, onto the blenders! The chaps who brought consistent, branded whisky (an important guarantee of quality in the early days) that was created to appeal to the palates of drinkers everywhere, putting Scotch on the map in the process.
Look who’s just walked in!
Having read and heard the facts, what better way to get your head around blending than to create your very own blend? Let’s jump right in then! First we evaluated the available ingredients, each of which (to avoid a degree of prejudice) had been labelled only with brief tasting notes based around Scottish personalities such as Lorraine Kelly, Billy Connolly or erm, Frankie Boyle (who was a well-oiled fishing net on fire)! Having decided that Frankie is probably best enjoyed in moderation, we entrusted his addition to Alex’s steady hands before enjoying the fruits of our labour with a choice of soda or ginger ale and a (chocolate) cigar.
Next up, Colin talked us through the use of different casks as the aroma of charred oak filled the room. This was accompanied by a ‘cooper’s lunch’ of cured meats and our next drink, served in a hip flask.
Inside was a Brine and Sand, a delicious take on a Blood and Sand that was made with cherry brandy, sweet vermouth, grapefruit, brine and Cragganmore Port Wood Finish - selected as a representation of a more traditional style of whisky, with port casks de rigueur prior to the end of Prohibition and the subsequent availability of large numbers of cheaper Bourbon casks.
The single malt whisky regions of Scotland, as you’ve never experienced them before!
Whisky jellies? Now this really is a novel whisky tasting! A fun way to experience whiskies from the Highlands, Lowlands, Islay and Campbeltown. It may seem like a scary new world, but holding each in your mouth for a few seconds, you’re able to appreciate each familiar whisky on the palate, tremendous stuff. Speyside, meanwhile, was represented by the Singleton of Dufftown in a far more traditional manner (you know, as it comes from the bottle – still a great serve, of course!).
A whisky cocktail – straight from the cask!
Talisker 57° North, a no age statement release bottled at cask strength was the next expression to get the Whisky Theatre treatment. The barrel-aged cocktail also contained sherry as well as salt and pepper bitters, an ingredient that could have been created solely for use in Talisker cocktails... (I was actually disappointed when I found out it wasn't.)
Tokyo. A very modern ‘metropolitan prefecture’.
What could be left? Why, the future of course! Don’t let the Whistling Shop’s Victorian decor fool you, this is the perfect place to taste a little slice of the future as Tristan and Tom continue to tinker with their molecular mixology. The final drink of the evening was the whisky cola of tomorrow: Caol Ila Moch, soda and a homemade cola-flavoured Berocca-style tablet made with essential oils...
Philippa Forrester would be proud.
Aimed at bartenders and mixologists, but good fun and an educational experience for anyone, the Diageo Whisky Theatre should be back in 2014, with tickets costing around £70 per person. Taking the drinks, the experience and the opportunity to interact and ask questions in such an intimate environment all into account, we think this is very reasonable and well worth a look.
Like a number of my blogs, this one ends with me clocking off with a relaxing drink nearby - still in excellent company - this time sampling the new menu at Callooh Callay, who are now overdue a post of their own!
An Ike & Cynar at Callooh Callay
If you can work out exactly why it’s called that, then well done you. Although, you’re probably also going to hell. I know these things, I’ve met a monk you know.