You first descend into a low-ceilinged basement. There is a distinct aroma of oak smoke, and the air feels heavy as though tempered with the vigour of a pre-industrial past life, harkening you back to the workmen who built this little chamber beneath the Royal Mile. A mature pine table lies before you, eloquently decorated in candles that cast dancing shadows across the paintings and staghorn plaques adorning the walls. Before each chair there are black rock slates with three small dishes atop them. And before these lie three curious glasses, each containing a dram of Uisce beatha: the water of life. A soft Scottish voice breaks the silent air of curiosity as your turn to face the head of the table: “So, shall we begin?”
Through the expertise of the hosts, you are gently guided on how to smell and taste whisky, and match it with excellent food pairings.
Robert Graham 1874’s Scotch Whisky and Artisan Food Experience is, in itself, an indulgence in Scotland’s best-known export but with an accompanying guide to keep you right and make you aware of the long, rich history that is Scottish whisky. Three men take you through this journey: Ewan, Keith and Finn, the latter being our main host for this tasting session. The others vanish quickly near the start after the introductions have been passed around; they’ll reappear towards the end.
The whiskies that are offered in this tasting are all by Wemyss Malts, with a premium range of blended whiskies. The first whisky offered is the fruity and sweet Hive: a light, honey-flavoured whisky with an amber-rich colour, with an overarching Speyside bouquet. Accompanying this is a crème brûlee dusted with brown sugar. Not overpowering in sweetness, it is nonetheless torte enough to compliment the Hive’s natural delicacy. The second whisky is Spice King, a collaboration of up to ten different single malts of the Highlands. It does not go well with water, diluting its trademark spice too rapidly. On its own it is passable, but when met with its accompanying dish (quail’s egg and sea salt), it widens the flavour arc that replicates the wave-beaten rocks of Scotland’s Northern coast. Two types of salt are provided: seaweed salt and celery salt, both unique in their flavours yet go well with the whisky in their own way.
As you test the golden glasses in front of you, the expert host Finn regales you with the history of whisky distillation and the production methods now used. You are taught both the formal method of tasting whisky, but, as the host states, it is ultimately your choice in how you enjoy it. The water to whisky debate is opened up to the floor, but no judgement is passed off. And in discussions on single malt versus blended, the whisky guide takes no sides.
Finally we reach the last dram of the day: Peat Chimney. As the name suggests, this is a peated whisky with a rich smokiness on the palate, but the name belies its subtle character. Don’t be mistaken: this isn’t Laphroaig or Ardbeg. It packs a punch, but not a haymaker, and behind the peat there lingers a vague note of apple crumble and fresh pear. The final whisky of the session is appropriately matched with an Arbroath Smoky profiterole, a sensible choice that, when joined with Peat Chimney, beckons you to memories of North Sea crab and smoked kippers toasting on Montrose Beach.
Given the timeframe, one might think that the guide would just ramble incessantly. But don’t assume Finn is there just to talk at you for an hour straight. The host allows room for questions, discussion and for guests to bond over their drinks before them. Through the expertise of the hosts, you are gently guided on how to smell and taste whisky, and match it with excellent food pairings, before you are offered the chance to purchase bottles at the end of the tasting.