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We should start by saying that we are not great consumers of many modern cocktails.

So those of you who live for the lengthening list of drinks with crazy combinations of bottled liquids and even crazier names perhaps should look away now.

We accept that innovation keeps the world spinning and you may well scoff at our simple-mindedness. We generally like looking forward but we’re mightily reassured to find so much comfort in the classics.

Whisky This Magnificent Life
The magnificent Manhattan under construction

TML respects and remembers the classic Martini from the Knickerbocker in Manhattan. And the G&T at Dukes of St James. A Bloody Mary has saved our lives more than once at Harry’s in Paris when nothing else will chase the morning-after away.

But that’s about as mixed as we get.

We love our spirits straight.

Whisky This Magnificent Life
Thor’s eye view of the tasting glasses and nibble matches

How thrilled were we to be invited to a very special lunchtime tasting of some of the world’s finest.

Spirit Heaven
Whisky This Magnificent Life
You don’t have to try them all, but it’s nice to know they’re there

A ‘Viking Restaurant’ is perhaps not the first place you’d expect this presentation, but this is Mjolners in Sydney. Apart from a magnificent menu of hearty meat platters, host Sven Almenning has stacked the shelves in his two bars with 400 or so whiskies.

Spirits This Magnificent Life
Thor’s hammer summoned us to gird our loins for a mighty tasting

A powerful statement. But quite compatible with the name of this sturdy cellar. Those of you who were paying attention during Norse lessons would know that is the moniker of Thor’s mighty hammer.

Whisky This Magnificent Life
Dan is your go-to enthusiast for anything spirity

A mighty man was to take us through this tasting. Dan Woolley, National Whisk(e)y Ambassador for The Exchange. Dan has 800 whiskies in his cellar, so really knows his stuff.  The distilleries of the world in Scotland, Ireland, the USA, Japan and Tasmania are as familiar to him as the back of his hands. He actually has WHISKY tattooed across his knuckles. Commitment? We think so.

 Starting at the top shelf

OK, on the day we did start with a cocktail. But it was a classic. An Old Fashioned, made with Maker’s Mark. It was served alongside braised beef short ribs with kale and mushroom. Now that’s a good kick-off.

Spirits This Magnificent Life
Sven’s beef ribs open the scoring for the Food Team

The spirits were served half-sized and all with matching food. We had quite a programme ahead and we needed to stay alert. We were there for the tasting not for the swigging.

Number two was the drawcard of this day…. a taste of Booker’s Rye, the 13 year old winner of the title of 2017 World Whisky of the Year. The award was handed out by the latest edition of Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible.

Whisky This Magnificent Life
So powerful and so rare. Booker Noe’s legacy

From a very limited edition, only three of these green-labelled bottles made it to Australia.

A small shot glass was served neat.

How to describe it? At 58.1% it certainly has a powerful burn, but all the complexities are there. Fruit spice, nutmeg, cinnamon. Also a confectionery sweetness “like walking into a lolly shop”, herbaceous, peppermint. “I could go on and on” says Dan clearly enraptured.

Jim Murray recalls speaking to Booker Noe (grandson of the Jim Beam) not long before he died, who told him in a Kentucky accent thick enough to paint a warehouse door that there was a higher rye percentage in the mash bill than their standard. “ A very big unforgettable whiskey from a very big unforgettable man. What a legacy…”

We tasted it with thin-sliced speck. The oiliness helped to cut the heat, providing not quite a balance, but a very unctuous companion.

 Something stirring in the East

To follow that we were whisked to Japan where Dan reckons some of the world’s great whiskies are already emerging with many more to come. The Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2016 has spent all its life in Spanish oak casks and it shows. Released in 2016 it contains single malts up to 25 years old. At 48% it is soft smooth with rich and lasting sherry aromas. It is warm on the palate with hints of muscat, raisins and sultanas, like an oloroso sherry. It sold out immediately it was released. We enjoyed it served with a slice of wagyu bresaola.

This was followed, almost as a palate cleanser, by a Whisky Sour made with 12yo Canadian Club deliciously paired to creamy ocean trout with pickled cucumber, horseradish and linseed crisp. Yum.

A single malt to be sure, to be sure
SpiritsThis Magnificent Life
When Irish eyes are smiling. The unique peated malt

Many of you will have enjoyed blended Irish whiskey under popular labels such as Bushmills, Old Paddy and Jameson. We went dancing with the unique Connemara Peated Single Malt from the west coast of Ireland where the peat bogs lie. Poured over a single piece of ice, the smokiness gave an introduction to what was to come at the end of the tasting. Soft smoke on the nose but light on the tongue, almost lemony. Not very old, some 4, 6 and 8yo. Orchardy with green apples and pears. Touch of honey.

This was served with chunky orange Reypenaer cheese from Holland.

Smelling the tangle o’ Isles

Not far across the sea from Ireland are the islands of Scotland. We home in on Isla in the Hebrides to their oldest distillery Bowmore dating from 1779. The bottle presents Bowmore 10yo. Dan describes it as more salty, savoury and medicinal, predominately aged in American oak barrels rather than sherry. It adds vibrant life to a cocktail, the classic Manhattan. The pairing is spiced pigs head terrine with bronzed fennel, fresh pistachio and cauliflower leaf. A brilliant mouthful, thanks Sven.

Scotland the Brave

We come to Dan’s favourite.

It is, he says, the most distinct and uniquely flavoured whisky on the planet.

“In 220 years no one has ever said ‘I think I’ve tried Laphroaig’. You know. You know.”

Our Laphroaig 10yo is aged exclusively in American oak, barrels from Makers Mark. They add a touch of vanilla.

Spirits This Magnificent Life
Lucky shot glasses lining up for the Laphroaig

It is served neat of course. It is a heady rush of smokiness, saltiness, iodine, seaweed, “hospital” says Dan. The smoke in your brain is pure white mistiness not brown backyard burning. Sumptuous. What to pair with it? We stay beside the sea with a single oyster sprinkled with magical meat powder. (Ask Sven’s chef).

What an event! Will we see its like again? The smoky peatiness stays with you the rest of the day. The memories a lot longer.

You may find some solace by following up these spirits at

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Ian MacTavish

Mr MacTavish is a celebrated writer and one of Australia's more respected Wine reviewers, appearing regularly in national magazines, in print and on line. So far, he has never been heard to say 'no' to a wee dram.

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