Scotch whisky has always made me think of two very different — and equally cartoonish — images. There’s the Scot, craggy-faced and clad in a kilt, downing a wee dram before tromping a mere 20 miles in chill wind and rain to the nearest neighbor to borrow a lump of sugar. And there’s the plutocrat in a smoking jacket, raising a rocks glass of the amber liquid in toast to, say, cornering the world’s rhodium market.
Curiously, I never seem to run into these caricatures when I drink this hallowed hooch. Scotch drinkers are typically like the convivial types I met recently at a monthly confab of fellow whiskey lovers at swank Tampa restaurant and bar Grille One Sixteen.
For the fourth Whiskey Society event, several dozen men and women have come together to talk about and taste good booze. On this evening’s menu is a quartet of single malt whiskies from Glenfiddich, along with prosciutto, wild Scottish salmon, and prime rib sliders.
Scottish-born brand ambassador David Allardice (neither craggy, nor be-kilted) is our tippling tour guide through glasses of their 12-, 15- 18- and 21-year-old single malts.
A quick aside: Single malt simply means the stuff was made in one distillery, not assembled from whiskies from several or more different distilleries. Whisky (without the e) is what’s made in Scotland. We start our tasting with the 12-year-old, working our way to the oldest. As we sniff and sip, Allardice talks about how each is made and answers questions.
“The majority of the magic happens in the cask,” Allardice explains, as I savor the raisin flavors in the 15-year-old.
But it’s the 18-year-old that really shines. I marvel at how only a few years longer in a cask makes for a much mellower, more complex whisky. “If the 12- and 15-year-olds are like cousins, the 18-year-old is like the grandfather,” Allardice says. At more than $80 a bottle, it’s also pricier. The 21-year-old, aged in casks formerly used for rum, has a smoothness that would appeal to newbie and hardcore alike. It’s also twice as expensive.
Like any good Scot, Allardice doesn’t pass up an opportunity to good-naturedly rib the English — in this case, Whiskey Society founder, Ro Patel.
Patel, who before heading up the cocktail and spirits programs at both Grille One Sixteen’s locations, did the same for some of the brightest stars in London’s lofty cocktail scene. Soon after he arrived at Grille, local whiskey fans began dropping by to drink and geek out about good booze. Since the society was launched several months ago, membership has jumped to about 40 people.
“We created [the Whiskey Society] to provide access and education to rare and select spirits,” Patel says. “[It’s] a fraternity for those with a heightened passion for whiskeys.”
Admittance is by invitation only, though members I met aren’t snobby. They mostly hail from around Tampa Bay, though a few make the monthly trek from as far as Tallahassee and even Washington, D.C. And while the growing group has its share of older aficionados, many are much younger.
“It’s not uncommon here to see men and women in their late 20s enjoying Scotch sours,” Patel says. Previous events have featured brands such as Salt Lake City’s High West whiskies and Russell’s Reserve. Patel says upcoming meetings will feature makers such as Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve.
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