Mastering the art of mixing smoky, sweet, spicy cocktails

Friday June 11 2021

The 10-year Ardbeg is the main seller in Kenya. PICTURES | COURTESY


Packing a punch with its raw, smoky power" is how the manufacturers describe Ardbeg Scotch whisky.

That was also my opinion after a recent masterclass conducted virtually by Richard Gillam, the Spirit Brand Ambassador (Luxembourg). After pouring some into my glass I immediately noticed the smoky aroma with an edge of sweetness and spice.

Gillam began by explaining the distilling techniques and the "single malt Scotch whisky" nomenclature. This means that whisky has been made at one distillery, from malted barley and matured for a minimum of three years in oak casks. Ten years is the standard period for Ardbeg, which is aged in American bourbon casks and gives it a noticeable spicy taste and vanilla sweetness.

Scottish law requires at least 40 percent alcohol by volume in a whisky, a legislation that dates back to World War I as part of attempts to control liquor consumption for fear of derailing the war efforts. Ardbeg has 46 percent alcohol content. The 10-year Ardbeg is the main seller in Kenya and coming soon is the five-year Wee Beastie.

This "master of smoke" whisky is produced on Islay island, off the west coast of Scotland. The island has very few trees so they use peat to dry the barley, "which is what imparts the smoky flavour," said Gillam. Peat is the by-product of partly decomposed plant materials accumulated in boggy areas for hundreds of years. The Scots have traditional used peat as a source of fuel. "The barley grains are fermented to beer and distilled to whiskey and then a smoky peat flavour remains."

Moving onto whisky etiquette, some people must have ice in their whisky. I like just a few drops of water in mine. Gillam advised to take your dram any way you like but recommends you "swill your mouth with ice cold water to clear the palette before taking a whisky" There is no need to swirl a whisky glass like wine because, "the alcohol will only evaporate and fire up your nose."

A Penicillin cocktail.

A Penicillin cocktail, essentially a whisky sour, invented by a bartender in New York city. PHOTO | KARI MUTU

What was exciting was learning how to mix drinks using Ardbeg. Due to its bold taste, this whisky goes well with fruit juices like pear or guava, which also complement its natural vanilla-like flavour. I learned how to make a Penicillin cocktail, essentially a whisky sour, invented in 2005 by a bartender in New York city.

The simple but classic aperitif combines equal parts Ardbeg with the non-smoky Glenmorangie Scotch whisky to tone down the robust peatiness. Add two parts honey syrup to one-part ginger syrup made from fresh ginger, and some lime juice. A helpful tip to get the best aromatic impact is to "float" the whisky over the other ingredients after they have been well mixed in a cocktail shaker. Penicillin is a rich, wholesome starter drink with a nice zing from the ginger and lime.

If you are eating grilled prawns or a seafood salad, it is recommended that you have a highball of Ardbeg and soda. The whisky is the first to go into a tall glass filled with ice. Stir a little to cool the glass then carefully pour in your soda. Mix again slowly and finish off by sliding in a strip of lemon zest.

I am usually concerned that lots of ice will dilute my whisky but Gillam corrected us on this. "The more ice you put, the colder the drink and so the less dilution." The Ardbeg highball tasted refreshingly cold with a lemony punch.

Another Ardbeg mix suitable for a main course is a whisky guava, also served in a long glass. In a glass, combine Ardbeg, guava juice and crushed ice. Use a long spoon to swizzle the mixture briefly and it is ready to drink. "You can sip it for 25 minutes even while sat outside on a hot day," said Gillam.

A last piece of advice I noted is that the key to enjoying a whisky for much longer is to hydrate. Keep drinking water with your dram, which helps you to better "appreciate the nuances and flavours."