A well-meaning colleague (yes they exist) asked me on my return from Yuletide holidays if my January would be dry. Well I do feel a little more sardonic than normal, I replied, but I think it’s just the time of year hey?
No, apparently I had missed the point, but now I understand. The true meaning of Christmas was explained to me: it’s the last time you can enjoy a ruddy drink before a self-imposed ban on alcohol consumption for a whole twelfth of the Gregorian calendar. What an extraordinary notion! It’s a brussel sprout of a concept: you think you should like the idea but in reality it’s a chewy, noxious little beast foisted upon us by some malevolent unseen force (sorry mum I don’t mean you) according to the season. I might manage a moist March but that’s about it. All awareness is good of course though, let’s not forget.
But then December was not dry either, one high point attending an introduction to the new bairn on the whisky block (can I really say that?), R&B Distillers. Sounds like a Dr Feelgood album thought I when I first heard of them, but no, it’s the coming together of disparate distilleries under one business roof. The company recently launched its first spirits which hail from different ends of Scotland and compile a fascinating if short list of two: Raasay While We Wait Single Malt and Borders Single Grain.
Both whiskies are very different in style and origin although do share one fundamental characteristic – they don’t actually exist yet. Come again? Well here’s where R&B has taken a brave leap, the actual distilleries of ‘R’ for Raasay, the tiny volcanic isle off the west coast of Skye, and ‘B’, for Borders, have not in fact been built yet so in anticipation, and while we all wait for the commercial and real processes to come to fruition, the company has released its first bottlings, blended from various sources.
Our launch event took place in a gloriously murky subterranean bar complete with moribund wallpaper and sweetly sweaty atmosphere (careful, body odour is a smell and a smell can’t be sweet, only reminiscent of something which tastes sweet – didn’t you learn anything at wine school??), in fact so densely evocative was the setting that I wondered to my companion if the Romanov family had been gunned down here by some angry Bolsheviks many years ago. But apparently no that was somewhere in Russia.
Borders Single Grain fetched us attractive, feminine notes of toffee apple and sugared almonds. The marketing and maturing of much whisky these days revolves around its growing up in used sherry casks, and this facet makes itself known here on the nose and palate with polite, elegant undertones of fruit cake oloroso behind the barley and gentle spice. The overall effect is to meld from the various components an approachable and engaging spirit. A breakfast Scotch you might say. That’s your art of blending innit.
When it comes to choosing a dram I generally gravitate towards the horsehair underpants and antiseptic swagger of islands malts and inevitably enjoyed most of all the Raasay for its aromas of hazelnuts and toasted cumin seeds and engrossing flavours of smoke and peaty spice. Here again the barrels used to finish off the spirit play a well-judged and central role to the final flavour profile, Tuscan red wine casks lending an appealing trace of winey red fruit.
For the consumer where will this enterprise fit into today’s whisky scene which is currently vibrant, despite the best efforts of the January droughtmongers and their ilk? Hard to say, but R&B’s whiskies are worth seeking out and voice an interesting comment on the art of blending and the role of provenance in today’s market: even though in one sense they are a creation out of nothing, both drinks stand up for themselves with a confidence and a broad appeal which might elude a newcomer London Gin for example. And that’s a testament to the maker and the whisky category itself.
By Ian Waddington