Tasting makes drams come true

BY SARAH BERMAN, VANCOUVER SUN

Before I knew what a dram was, I’d already sat down to share one with local scotch educator Darryl Lamb.

“It’s funny, dram is a term the Scots use for a drink of whisky, but there’s no formal amount,” says Lamb, also the general manager of Legacy Liquor Store in False Creek.

“You can have as many fingers as you want.”

I had just finished explaining that as a 25-year-old with a taste for gin cock-tails, I’m an unlikely candidate for aged scotch appreciation. But tucked away in Doolin’s private tasting room—a traditional shebeen, I’m told—this writer was ready to breathe it all in.

“We don’t want to swirl,” Lamb warns as I raise the tasting glass to my nose. “With whisky you’re kicking up a lot of scent.”

An amateur mistake, nearly made with a 12-year-old Glenkinchie distilled in the Scottish Lowlands. “I’ve hosted whisky tastings where people just jam their nose in like it’s a wine glass,” Lamb recalls.

“They basically singe their nose hairs off.”

As part of this year’s Celtic Festival, beginners and lifelong connoisseurs can taste more than a century of tradition at the Cellar next Wednesday. Lamb and his celebrated associate Mike Nicolson hope to raise the bar for whisky appreciation in Vancouver, while increasing the spirit’s approachability.

“Nicolson is a pioneer in the business,” Lamb explains of the former master distiller for the Diageo brands of scotch. “To get a guy who distilled whisky for 35 years in Scotland, and to have him come to a place like Vancouver is exceptionally rare.”

Nicolson retired to Vancouver Island a few years ago, but the whiskies on the Cellar’s table are all from his time in the business. “A guy like Mike was the one who developed these house styles,” says Lamb. It’s the sixth year Nicolson is offering his expertise to festivalgoers, and the third year he’s collaborated with Lamb.

“Now roll it around your mouth for every year of the whisky,” Lamb instructs. “Feel that warmth first off—warm but not hot.” The Glenkinchie has a grassy, citrus taste, but I struggle to find the barrel notes described.

I had to ask Lamb why the spelling of whisky changes based on the country of origin. “It’s spelled ‘y’ in Scotland and Canada and ‘ey’ in Ireland and the States,” he says, citing business cards he’s seen with the letter “e” bracketed.

“One of the biggest fundamental differences is the Scots use peat—the Irish don’t really use peat,” Lamb says as he pours our second dram, a Speyside Cragganmore aged 12 years.

Peat, I soon learn, refers to the boggy mosses burned in the Highlands as part of the distillery process.

“It’s got a very smoky scent to it. That will infuse into the barley and thus into the whisky.”

Lamb compares the Spey Valley to the Okanagan’s ideal wine conditions—snaking its way through the highlands producing temperate microclimates. It’s also where Lamb’s family is from.

“The Spey River valley is very warm, you do get a bit more of an elegant style of barley than you will from the wind-swept plains north of Glasgow all the way up to the top of Scotland,” he says. “I like this whisky a lot – very rich, very gentle.”

Our tour ended with a 10-year-old Talisker from the Isle of Skye, though the festival event boasts six whiskies total. I left Doolin’s with a warm belly and a thirst to learn more.

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun. Originally published March 8, 2012.

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