Review: Robert Graham 1874’s Scotch Whisky and Artisan Food Experience *****


Robert Graham 1874’s Scotch Whisky and Artisan Food Experience

Robert Graham Tasting Room, 254 Canongate, v141

13.00, 16.00 (ends 27 August)

***** (5 stars)

Admittedly, this is being written through a slight haze caused by the ingestion of a number of samples of Scotch whisky: nevertheless this was an experience I am so glad to have had! Robert Graham 1874 is an independent whisky bottler as well as purveyor of whiskies and cigars: one of their five shops is on the Canongate and Holyrood, and this year they have ventured into the heady world of the Fringe show. You descend into the tasting room, a wonderfully candle-lit wee cavern in which you will be introduced to a carefully chosen selection of whiskies with – lovely touch! – a piquant selection of amuse bouches chosen to complement the whiskies.

Scott Grierson, our host, was introduced by Steve Johnson, the owner of Robert Graham 1874, who was joining us for the afternoon session. Robert Graham 1874 is an independent bottler as well as a purveyor of fine cigars and splendid whiskies. Scott works for White & Mackay – they started life in 1844 as whisky blenders in the Glasgow docks area, and now ‘look after’ some distilleries, although 90% of their business is still the blending.

Scott made us most welcome and rapidly made us into a group of friends rather than a collection of strangers. No previous experience or understanding of whisky was necessary, though it turned out that most of us had more than a passing acquaintance with the Water of Life and very varied experience and tastes.

As we were introduced to each other and the session, we were invited to nose and sip a new blended whisky, launched on the market just two weeks ago. The Woodsman, made from grain whiskies, was specifically designed to appeal to the younger drinker and be mixable with whatever takes their fancy: but it was more than good enough to drink on its own or, in my case, with a few drops of water from the readily available [and oh so classy] pipettes. It was very palatable on its own, and a good introduction to the afternoon’s session.

We then learned about two of the distilleries in White & Mackay’s portfolio and invited to sample three single malts, all of which had been paired with carefully selected artisan food, the ingredients of which were thoughtfully printed out for anyone with allergies. The whole experience was extraordinarily enlightening: who would have thought of starting a tasting with crème brûlée??? Bizarre as this may sound, the experience was exquisite – the creamy sweetness of the dish was the perfect complement to a newly-released Fettercairn 12-year-old, which was smooth and very slightly sweet itself. While we enjoyed it we heard about Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone’s connection to the family who started the distillery in 1824, just after the legalisation of whisky stills, and the measures he introduced in Westminster to assist the new whisky industry.

We were next introduced to two Jura malts new to me: in fact all of the whiskies we tried are very newly on the market and I urge you to lose no time in getting hold of some. The Jura Seven Wood, matured in casks made from six different French regions’ oak wood was gorgeous and matched with – my goodness! – a quail’s egg, with celery salt and chilli salt as optional dips. Again, it was a match made in heaven: the creamy piquancy of the salted egg being a perfect foil for the smooth golden warmth of the whisky and bringing out the tiny touch of smoke in the malt.

Finally we had another Jura newcomer – the 12-year-old, which was paired with a ‘seaweed encrusted profiterole with Arbroath Smokie pâté’ [just typing that again is making my mouth water…]. The salty profiterole was a fascinating foil to the slightly smokier but still very smooth malt, which is finished in oloroso casks from Jerez, giving lovely sweetly sherried overtones.

While sampling these delights we learned yet more about whisky history, distilleries and their differences, and about Jura itself. Did you know that George Orwell went there in 1946 to recuperate from tuberculosis, that he finished 1984 while on the island, and was rescued from certain drowning in the Corryvreckan whirlpool by the timely action of a one-legged fisherman? How’s that for increasing your historical, geographical, and literary knowledge?

The entire experience was delightful, and I’m not just saying that because of all the whisky! Admittedly, they were all gorgeous, and definitely in the spectrum of ‘these I really like and would be more than happy to see again’… but it made an extra-special session because of Scott’s ability to entertain while imparting information and to respond warmly and interestingly to comments and questions. He obviously loves his job, loves his whiskies, and was delighted to be sharing his knowledge with us.

This is not the first tasting I’ve been to, but I think in many ways it was the best – I particularly liked the introduction to the concept of marrying food and whisky, and devoutly hope that it won’t be too long before someone invites me to a whisky dinner. This was a hugely enjoyable and very satisfying way to spend a couple of hours sheltering from a sudden and very determined Edinburgh downpour!

Mary Woodward