USING whisky as an aperitif is completely out of favour these days but that, I fancy, does our national drink a serious injustice. To test that instinct, I conducted some practical experimentation with the help of Darren Leitch, general manager of The Whisky Shop, which has 20 branches across the UK.
I accept that the portents are unpromising. Whisky’s alcoholic strength and the assertiveness of its flavours argue against the idea – so does the sweetish edge it often contains. Unlike bitterness – which has been an aid to digestion for centuries – sweetness is thought to cloy the palate.
With pronounced sweeter sherry influences – especially from Pedro Ximenez – that point is valid. Equally, whisky with generous peat or smoke components will be too powerful as aperitifs. So, too, will many cask strength versions but, with other whiskies, if you add a little more water than usual you can restrict the abv to the 24 per cent many consider the maximum for aperitifs.
Undaunted by those omens, we started our testing with a whisky containing floral and citrus fruit influences but only limited sweetness – viz that excellent all-round malt whisky gateway, Dalwhinnie 15-year-old. (£47.49). It did not let us down. The smoothness and medium body met the textural requirements while its fruit had the right type of citric edge embellished with only very gentle hints of vanilla or sweetness.
Similarly successful as a potential aperitif is The Glenlivet 18-year-old (£58.99), which has more intensity but skilful blending mitigates its effect. Any extra richness or fullness is counterbalanced by herby touches and, in particular, by the orchard flavours and fragrances that mingle amicably with food rather than compete with it.
Moving away from the Spey, try Auchentoshan 18-year-old (£77.99). After an early richness, it is interesting to see how the freshness, citrus fruit and flowery backdrop, gradually take over and ensure the finish works peaceably with food, regardless of the whisky’s considerable length.
If the Auchentoshan was a mildly surprising inclusion given its richness, my next nominee is a staggering one. Confounding all intuition about strength and sweetness, The Arran Malt Sauternes Cask Finish 50 per cent (£57.99) turns out to be a very effective aperitif – and with a rich first course, a sensational one. The influence of the dessert wine comes through as richness rather than sweetness and the whole thing opens out into a vanilla-driven zestiness and spicy crispness that activates (rather than smothers) your taste buds.
Finally, let’s turn to one of the premium blended whiskies that, rightly, are currently acquiring prominence. Great King Street, The Artist’s Blend 50cl (£34.99) is certainly richer and rounder than some of the examples here but it has the polish and elegance needed to keep everything, smooth and creamy and even adds an appetite whetting suggestion of orange. If you like a slightly more robust opening to mealtime, this could be the one for you.
With matches and whiskies this good, I think the point is made about their use as aperitifs. Perhaps every Scottish restaurant really should give diners a specialised whisky menu the moment they walk through the door, exactly as Darren Leitch suggests.
2013 Innocent Bystander Moscato Rosé, Victoria, Australia, 5.5 per cent
An unusual, light moscato with a fair slug of residual sugar which provides a toffee-style background but the sweetness is skilfully balanced by clean, fresh raspberry fruit and an attractive, fun sparkle.
£6.99 for half bottle, Valvona & Crolla, Edinburgh
2009 Santa Rita Medalla Real Carmenere, Leyda Valley, Chile, 14 per cent
Pile some hearty steaks on the barbecue and open this big, burly red to sit beside them. Naturally, the bramble and black cherry flavours are deep and intense but they are neatly complemented by smooth freshness and a spicy, vanilla and chocolate finish.
£8.79 until 2 September, Majestic