Whether you’ve found the gin to your tonic or you’re more interested in Ballantine’s than Valentine’s, there’s one thing we can all agree on: when it comes to spirits, our love will never run dry. Here, six drinks industry luminaries share their most cherished booze discovery…
Do you remember your first love? No, not Debbie from Year 9; I’m talking about your first spirit love. No matter whether it was whisky, gin, Tequila, or something different entirely, my question to you is this: what was the first spirit that you thoroughly enjoyed, the one that you’ll always cherish?
Mine was Jameson, which is remarkably unassuming on paper, though I suppose that’s the beauty of it. The experience harks back to my first week of work experience after journo school, at the launch of the brand’s annual St Patrick’s Day bottle. I was dubious; my encounters with whisky both with and without the ‘e’ had been fraught up until this point. When I got there, a friendly-looking waitress offered me a Jameson and ginger beer. The glass was long and thin; packed with clear cubed ice and a wedge of lime.
Alarm bells started ringing, but I politely accepted the drink and figured I’d use it as a prop. Eventually the aroma started wafting up out of the glass and it smelled – okay? I took a cautionary sip. It was ice-cold, refreshing and light, with sweetness balanced a slight tang. I was blown away. When I went to meet a friend at a bar two days later, I ordered another. And another. Not only was Jameson and ginger my gateway to whisky (both with and without the ‘e’), on reflection, it was my first proper education in flavour.
Every drinking experience is emotionally charged, whether we realise it or not. It’s shaped by environment, by atmosphere, by mood. This perhaps is what makes that significant spirit experience so memorable. I popped the question to a few friendly spirits industry faces to discover the drink first had them enamoured…
Alwynne Gwilt, UK ambassador for The Balvenie
The first time I fell in love with a spirit was in February 2008, just before Valentine’s Day as it happens. The spirit was whisky and I will never forget it. It was a freezing cold night and I’d been asked to go along to Milroy’s in Soho for an event for work. There was a whisky tasting going on and – as a financial journalist – I was often asked to attend events with financial companies. I went along with dread – in my mind, I hated whisky, having had a bad experience with it four years before. But there was magic in the air that night, and I was lucky enough to taste some stunning Scotches. I headed out into the biting air after much merriment with a new spring in my step, a wonder at how I’d never discovered whisky before. This was the first step in a journey that would lead me – 10 years later – to being The Balvenie brand ambassador and a moment that stands in my memory so strongly.
Alasdair Day, co-founder of R&B Distillers
My first spirit love was blended Scotch whisky, but probably not as everyone would expect. As a young man of drinking age I did try spirits, at the time vodka and orange and Southern Comfort and lemonade were very trendy but despite trying them (due to some peer pressure) neither hit the spot for me. Being Scottish I wanted to appreciate Scotch whisky, but initially found that it was a taste that had to be acquired. However I stumbled upon what was to be the perfect solution for me. I found that a very small measure of a value-for-money blended Scotch whisky – most probably Bell’s in those days – mixed with Irn-Bru was rather easy to appreciate. Over a period of time the measure of Scotch increased and the mixer of Irn-Bru decreased until I fully appreciated the taste of Scotch by itself. From there I moved on to enjoying single malts: first Balvenie, then Talisker… To this day one of my favourite drinks is a Scotch and ginger ale; when I have one it always reminds me of how I first came to love Scotch whisky.
Sly Augustin, owner of Trailer Happiness in London
I started drinking spirits neat when I was 18 in St. Lucia. I tried some pretty powerful, very memorable local rums from the barrel, which were definitely too strong for me at the time! But on that same trip, I also discovered local coconut rum liqueur. Whenever I went to St. Lucia I stayed in the countryside, so I’d have to take a long bus journey to the city to meet any girls my age. I remember buying a bottle of that on my way to a date and enjoying it on the beach – sun, sand and coconut rum liqueur, what more could you want!?
Alison Bartrop, European brand ambassador for Banks Rums
When I was about 18 in Australia, going out, my friends would all be drinking vodka and mixers. Personally, I found it without a lot of flavour and depth, and I saw an interesting-looking bottle on the back bar, cachaça. I tried it as a shot, and it had a lot more flavour and depth than I anticipated, and soon I progressed to just drinking it with sugar and lime, a basic ‘Ti Punch before I knew what that, or a Caipirinha, was. There was something about the earthy, grassy flavours that appealed to me – little did I know that it would form my love for working with Rhum Agricole, and later, the foundations for my love for higher-ester rums and flavours with funk.
Stroo Olofsson, whisky buff and co-owner of Blade Hair Club in London
It was about the time I started getting curious about spirits when Julia – my wife and partner in ‘hairclubbing’ crime – decided to buy me a nice bottle of bourbon. The guys at the old Milroy’s shop around the corner recommended a bottle. She shows up with a grin and out comes this red velvet pouch containing a bottle with a label featuring some old guy smoking a cigar. There we were, in our Denmark Street shoebox studio looking at this thing and wondering, ‘why would people pay £100 for booze?’. We duly proceeded to crack it and pour it into a shot glass (ouch!). Next thing you know I’m like, ‘something smells like varnish. Is it the bourbon?’. And that was the beginning – after the first sip, Pappy started opening up and, boy oh boy, away I went. I spent the next twenty minutes mostly nosing the stuff and forgot about actually drinking it; I knew it was a game changer. Fast forward ten years and here I am, geeking out behind my own bar, remembering fondly the tiny studio and the times when Pappy 20 was available for a mere hundred pounds!
Spencer Large, bar manager at Nuala in London
It always has to be whisky for me, and the one that made it special as a category was Yamazaki 18 Year Old. It was during a tasting session [at Barbecoa] in 2011 when Japanese whiskies were much more attainable and reasonably priced – in fact I remember we used to pay around £60 for a bottle of it at the time, now you can’t even get hold of the stuff [for less than] £300. It was early morning, as all our training sessions tended to be due to restaurant opening times, and as such my palate was pretty responsive. It obviously just ticked all the boxes that I was looking for at the time. I’d always appreciated whisky but never really had anything before this that actually made me stop what I was doing and look at my glass in appreciation and amazement. It kind of spring-boarded me into tasting more frequently – not only waiting for tastings and often on the job – and although something else may have done, it had it not been Yamazaki. It can be held responsible for my love of the category today.
Where were you when you became besotted with spirits, and what made that moment stand out? Share the love in our comments section below…