Some time ago, Cesar da Silva took a holiday from his native Portugal to visit London. Quickly becoming enamoured with the idea of living here, he went to college in the city but found his interest was limited, and subsequently dropped out. Eighteen years later, he is the bar manager at a 5-star hotel in Knightsbridge, and one of London’s most knowledgeable people when it comes to whisky.
After leaving college, all Cesar had to go on was the knowledge that he was a people person (and by my estimation still is), and decided to study hospitality. To sustain himself he started a part-time job at The Capital’s bar. It was during this time that he met a venerable Scottish bar manager, not much older than Cesar is now. ‘It was obvious this man was a lover of whisky,’ reminisces Cesar. ‘He’d talk about it all day long, and I became intrigued by the things he showed me. I understood nothing except how amazing the different colours and flavours of the liquid were. I visited a distillery, became fascinated with the distillation process, and then, at the age of twenty, began collecting whisky. It has been there for me ever since.’
In addition to his role at The Capital, Cesar is one of the mere 2,180 people in the world that are members of the elite society known as the Keepers of the Quaich. He is also the youngest sommelier in the UK to receive the honour, which is regarded as the whisky industry’s most prodigious. ‘If you are one of the very few to be nominated,’ says Cesar, ‘then you need to state in writing what you have done with whisky, what you are doing and what you will do. You submit your work, which could be a 50,000-word essay, and if you pass judgement from the 146 judges on the board, you become a Keeper of the Quaich. If you don’t, you cannot be nominated again.’
Though initially feeling a little out of my depth, Cesar began imparting his knowledge in a way I wouldn’t begin to describe as condescending. ‘You see, the most important facet of any sommelier is that they have to be open. There may be very little not to like about whisky, and I might have my lemma, but I prefer to have an open mind and certainly respect other people’s tastes.’
Indeed, whisky is so different to the likes of wine, gin, sherry, champagne, and so on that it’s no surprise people new to the taste are often so reluctant. ‘Obviously then,’ say I, ‘whisky requires an acquired taste…’ Obviously, rather, I had made a huge faux pas, as a smile appears on Cesar’s face.
‘No,’ grins Cesar, ‘I am interested to hear that. Just yesterday a couple came into the bar. I approached them and said, “all the time I’ve known you, I’ve never seen you drink whisky. Why don’t we try something?” They liked it so much they went home with the bottle.’ It is no overstatement that everyday Cesar introduces someone to the world of whisky, and by all accounts he’s become rather good at it. ‘If your palate is unrefined it won’t be ready to appreciate something pity, smoky, or salty, whereas the person introducing the drink will be used to it. It’s a bit like running a marathon, but the sommelier has a big head start.’
It is at this point that Cesar takes an interest in my experience with whisky. I tell him that though I may be more familiar with the likes of Jameson, Monkey Shoulder, or Johnnie Walker, more esoteric brands are somewhat unknown to me. ‘They are all very trendy brands,’ says Cesar. ‘But,’ he reassures me, ‘they are the reason we are here today. They made the fine and rare whiskies happen and for beginners they are great places to start. I have big respect for these brands.’
Like me, human beings fear the unknown, tending to stick to what we know. Rarely do we ever decide to reach outside of our comfort zone. It is perhaps of some reassurance then that people who come into The Capital with a firm understanding of what they like won’t be disappointed. But it would be wise to not expect Cesar to stop at what you already know. ‘Certainly, if someone told me what they like, I’ll give it to them, but with a little extra – something that has a longer finish or is a bit more heavy on the palate so it stays there longer.’
And so it would appear that the same applies for Cesar himself. ‘This is the part that’s going to sound odd. A lot of people think it’s not normal, but I would say I spend weekly a good 20 hours trying new whiskies. It tends to be a good hour after work every single day, and I’ll work 14 hours a day.’ It’s difficult to not feel at least a twinge of admiration towards Cesar. ‘Passion’ is such a platitudinous word these days, but the passion Cesar has for his work you rarely encounter.
‘I think that if you are into a subject, you can’t just ignore it. You cannot stay still and just say “I have had enough.” If that was the case, you’d have to go back to it because there are other people trying to go forward. With a passion you always need to be on top and know what’s happening. For example, we have one bottle that’s out of 150 in the world. When bottles like that are released, they can be sold in as short a time as two hours. When your passion is like that, then you can’t just give up on it.’