I really like whiskey. I like the taste of it, but I also like the associations that go with it, the masculinity and ruggedness of the drink. When cowboys saunter in a saloon and throw a gold piece on the bar, you know the barkeep is getting out a bottle of whiskey. I like the smoky flavor, which makes me think of sitting in a bar somewhere that stills allows people to rip cigarettes inside, and blues from an old jukebox finding its way through hazy, stagnant smoke to a man quietly sipping on some whiskey, thinking about some lost love. When I drink it, I like to imagine myself as some famous writer, whiskey in a glass with an ice cube sitting next to a type writer, ripping sheets of paper from the typewriter in frustration, and throwing them into a hotel trash can.
I like the mythology, the ambiance, the kind of associations with the underdog fighting the world, dirt on his boots and dangerous ideas in his skull, that come with whiskey. These associations, however, are all kind of cheap. Whiskey, to me, always glorifies the have-not. That will no longer be the case for me after taking a Whiskey Master Class at the Capital Hotel
in London. Now I've got a whole new batch of associations with whiskey, and they have a lot more to do with elegance, sophistication, and crazy good food then they do a brooding hero in some Hemingway story or Mad Men episode.
I went to the Capital Hote
l in London, which is in Knightsbridge, close to Harrod's, and immediately was hit with the realization "oh, this is what a five star hotel looks like." I'm not used to such elegance and swankiness, and since I'm not Ron Burgundy, I didn't know how to handle the smell of rich mahogany. I told some absurdly polite, well-dressed, and attractive person I was here for the Whiskey Master Class and was directed downstairs to the restaurant and bar.
I assumed there were whiskey experts, but I didn't know how regulated and strict the title of expert was. Wine has sommeliers, which have to pass some real rigorous training before they can officially use the term. True whiskey experts are known by the awesomely medieval moniker "Keepers of the Quaich
." This guy in the picture below, Cesar Da Silva
, was one of them. He was Portuguese and to say he knew he was stuff would be to insult him. He didn't know his stuff, he owned his stuff.
But before we even got to drinking the whiskey and eating the food pairings, we were served a new cocktail that the our expert had created after what sounded like weeks of tinkering. It's a whiskey cocktail called The Glentini. The primary ingredient is delicious 18 year old Glenlivet Scotch (which in the UK is just whiskey, as far as I can tell. If you want Bourbon you have to ask for Bourbon). But listen to the rest of the stuff in it: rose wine jelly, Krupnik honey liqueur, vodka liqueur (yes, apparently they made a liqueur out of vodka, which I don't really understand), grapefruit juice, and orange oil, which is oil extracted from orange peels.
It was sweet and smooth and had just the perfect Scotch finish. I'm getting misty just thinking about it. Look at her, all dressed up for the ball.
I'd also like to direct your attention to the toothpicks. They were the nicest toothpicks I've ever seen. I imagined some carpenter handcrafting each one.
Cesar greeted us, introduced himself, (he was the youngest guy to be awarded membership to some prestigious Scottish whiskey organization) and then he started talking about whiskey.
His enthusiasm was infectious. He made it clear that he only thinks about whiskey from when he wakes up in the morning till when he goes to sleep at night, constantly looking at the world around him for new combinations of flavors. Each bottle pictured below is ordered by price. Some bottles cost up to 800 pounds.
This was a serious whiskey selection. There were a good amount of us in the class, and he expertly poured drinks for all of us. In whiskey and wine glasses, I'll have you notice. Later I learned that every whiskey was served in slightly different glass, each chosen to compliment the strengths of each individual whiskey.
After our cocktails we all sat down. This fantastic book and three glasses, so promising in their emptiness, were in front of me. I quickly realized there were serious whiskey and food writers in my class. There was also a woman who strangely kept comparing everything to wine. I would describe her as "medium bodied, with hints of self-importance, strong tannins, and a pretentious finish."
After some basic whiskey history, as well as a bit of an education on all the major kinds, we received our first course, accompanied by three kinds of whiskey and some distilled water to add to each glass, and more water for cleansing the palate.
Here we have some poached salmon, some smoked salmon, and a crisp, green salad. The whiskeys were a ten year Benromach, Ardbeg Uigeadail, and another you will just need to try when you sign up. They were both fantastic. I had no idea whiskey could be so smooth. And the food was really, really good, which is to be expected when it is made in a Michelin award winning kitchen.
Our second course was a cheese plate, and of course, more fantastic whiskey.
Each whiskey was paired with a cheese. There was a Springbank whiskey with the Fourme D'Ambert, the Kilchoman Vintage 2006 with Livarot, and the Macallan 18 year with some Beaufort. Also, there were grapes and celery. Classy. At some point the hotel's Marketing Director came in and told us that if we needed anything at all, she would get it for us. She also reminded us that if we drank too much whiskey we could spend the night at the hotel, which left us all laughing, and me wondering just how much that would cost. I looked later. Let's just say it would have been cost prohibitive for yours truly.
Finally, we had dessert in the form of a decadent chocolate lava cake and a sweet whiskey dessert cocktail.
Afterward, the Executive Head Chef Jérôme Ponchelle came out and introduced himself, said a few words about the food, and answered some questions. Then the Quaich Keeper (not sure if that’s how you use the term, but it just sounds so awesome I can’t help myself) answered more questions. I can't even begin to tell you how cool the staff was.
The class was supposed to be an hour and a half, but it stretched close to two and a half hours because of the many questions our group asked, and the Keeper patiently answered. We had coffee and tea as he described his strategies for picking whiskeys for the bar, and he gave tips on how to create a truly great collection of whiskey. The way he described tastes, I could tell he had some sort of superhuman palate. He showed us the bottles of everything he had given us, which ranged in price from eight to eighty pounds.
We even got party favor bags at the end, which contained samples of whiskey and a tiny jar of mysterious rose wine jam.
I can't recommend this class enough. You can do it in a big private group or sign up to be part of a bigger class. It's really something else. And as much as I still love drinking my Jack Daniels out of a dirty glass while listening to Townes Van Zandt, I'll never be able to do it quite the same way again.
22-24 Basil St, Knightsbridge, London SW3 1AT
+44(0)20 7591 1202.