Here at DesignMyNight Manchester, we know that whisky isn't for the faint-hearted and can be a bit of a Marmite spirit. So that's why they sent me, a hardened whisky fan whose dram-loving roots lay in tastings at Grant's True Tales in Manchester's Town Hall and Glasgow's Auchentoshan Distillery no less, over to Chorlton to help convince my two grain-virgin companions that it's more than just your granddad's drink.
After many a soul telling me that on average whisky tastings cost upwards of £30 (I was lucky enough to attend True Tales and the Auchentoshan tour during work events), you can imagine my shock at two bespoke concoctions, five kinds of whisky to taste and a serious two hour education coming in at a mere fiver. That doesn't normally get you one cocktail in Manchester. The venue was Chorlton's Proof; a delightful Tardis of a bar that looks like it could be your friend's house from the outside and opens up to a space that manages to be intimate yet not uncomfortably crowded.
We settled onto benches at tables which displayed an eye-catching little platter of ingredients – toast, grains, honey, tobacco and peat to name a few. This was a miniature foreshadower as to what was coming... the whiskies would change in flavour as we went along, starting with a crowdpleaser (toffee and dates) and finishing up with something entirely more powerful and an acquired taste (peat and smoke of course). Proof's Andy is one of the friendliest people you could ever have the pleasure of encountering, darting between fashioning cocktails behind the bar and greeting the tasting attendees.
The Sniff Test
He introduced us to Michael Green of Maxxium, a man who exudes enthusiasm and evidently loves his job. Part of his role in the evening was to educate us, and I don't know about you, but my favourite teachers at school were the ones who were excited to get you learning. Michael knows whisky, loves whisky, and it shows. First of all he talked us through what not to do – when you take a sniff, make sure you don't stick your nose right into the glass. Alcohol's just going to claim your nostril hair. Hold it lower and really start to get those individual scents, and all of a sudden you'll realise what all those whisky connoisseurs are talking about when they reference 'toffee' and 'citrus' instead of whinging that all you can smell is 'whisky'.
A Matter of Taste
The first whisky we sampled was the Naked Grouse, part of the Famous Grouse family, initially as a refreshing cocktail but then without any trimmings. We were advised to add a little water to the whisky to bring out its flavour and dilute some of its proof, and it really did work. The Naked Grouse comes without a label, it's a blended malt and exclusively matured in sherry casks, and apparently makes a great Old Fashioned (the original cocktail in historical terms). This was certainly the favourite amongst my less whisky-hardened friends.
Glenrothes single malt took the spotlight next, one of only three Speyside malts that has top dresser status. Unusually, there isn't any age stated on the bottle but each one is signed by master distiller John Ramsay. Macallan was third, the 'Rolls Royce of malt whiskies' as Michael called it, and it's certainly a popular one. Like Glenrothes it doesn't carry an age statement but it is all about its natural golden colour which comes from the most expensive sherry casks in the world. A bottle was featured in Skyfall and was then sold for a pretty nifty £96,000. Now that's a pricey dram.
In the neat whisky interval we were treated to a classic cocktail named Blood and Sand, made with scotch, vermouth, cherry brandy and orange juice serviced in a champagne glass. It was highly refreshing and something of a palate-cleanser amongst all the rich flavours we were experiencing – not that it wasn't flavoursome, because goodness it was tasty! We followed it up with the more hardcore part of the whisky spectrum... it was time for the smoky, peaty types. Highland Park is regarded as the greatest all-rounder when it comes to these acquired taste whiskies; a good introduction to the group. The flavour, as Michael pointed out, is different to the more well-known Islay peat. This Orkney whisky makes up the backbone of Teachers, a recognisable blended scotch whisky, and the peat in this case is made up of heather. Can you taste it? You actually can. I promise we weren't sozzled at this point. Besides, this peaty whisky was far more well-received by my less whisky-inclined friends as they claimed it didn't 'burn' as much as the others.
Dead Cat Whisky, anyone?
Finally, it was on to the Marmite of Marmite, the whisky that divides even whisky lovers and too much for even Proof's Andy. Let me describe the Laphroaig by quoting my companion Sarah: 'It smells like there was a cat, and it died in a barrel, and they used the barrel to make the whisky, and the dead cat went into the whisky.' Yes, Laphroaig is of the more recognisable Islay peaty family, over three times as peaty as the last one we tried as Michael confirmed. It's a triple wood barrel whisky and incredibly smoky. Besides the dead cat comment, Sarah noted that it was very 'earthy'. It was a grower, for sure, but I certainly leaned more towards our milder friend the Naked Grouse and the thought of that tasty Old Fashioned.
It's one of the most social and inviting events we've ever attended. Andy and Michael regularly made their way around the room between tastings to check how we were doing and get our opinions, discussing different whisky and cocktail options with us and explaining their thoughts on the whiskies. It felt natural and homely, and it was very tough to leave at the end.
I couldn't recommend Lips That Touch Liquor more – their next whisky tasting, focusing on blends and Japanese whiskies, is towards the end of August and having already covered gin they're soon moving on to vodka and rum. We can't wait.