Cesar da Silva, the whisky sommelier and bar manager at the Capital Hotel in Knightsbridge, met Iain McCallum seven years ago at the Auchentoshan Distillery in Scotland. McCallum turned to Cesar and said, ‘if I ever met an Alan Sugar of whisky at your age, it would have been you.’ From that point onwards Cesar has ‘dedicated everything he can towards whisky.
Cesar is one of only 2,180 people in the world that can call themselves members of the elite society the Keepers of the Quaich. He the youngest sommelier ever to receive the honour in the UK which is regarded as the whisky industry’s most prodigious award. It is so exclusive, in fact, that you cannot be nominated twice.
At the Capital Hotel in Knightsbridge, not a stone’s throw away from Harrods, I’m hoping to learn a thing or two about whisky tasting. Given Cesar’s experience in the eld, and given I’m not the world’s biggest whiskey aficionado, I don’t think I’ll go home empty handed.
In the Mood
First off, Cesar tells me, ‘it is imperative to establish the mood of the individual.’ That means a drink must be selected to match the mood of the taster’s palate, as the same whisky can have a very different taste at different times of the day. In other words, there’s chance that one evening you would enjoy the whisky you detested earlier that same afternoon.
Believe it or not, the same goes for your location. ‘If a room is to change, than the taste of whisky will as well. If there were purple orchids next to us on the table, then your brain will see that and will colour your perception and your mind could be that much more open.’ Experienced connoisseurs are not exempt from this effect. ‘If a panel of judges came in, say, from a thunderstorm, and all under the same conditions, then it is likely that they will all fall for the same drink. So each drink will best suit a particular occasion.
For a beginner with a burning sensation in their throat, such noticeable variations in taste might seem a luxury. ‘At first, people should know that the burning is normal, as it is normal to be shocked when your brain encounters something new. That’s not to say there is something wrong with the liquid or the person, but we do know we need to establish an explore zone.’
One way to do this is to introduce an ingredient that will help break the barrier between the person and the liquid. ‘This could be a chocolate, a digestive biscuit, a cheese, certain spices, or many other things that will compliment the whisky’s flavour and open up to you a completely new world.’ Consequently, when the drink is revisited at a later time, the initial ‘shock’ experienced at first taste will begin to dissipate.
The Tasting Process
By this point you may have noticed that Cesar’s best tactic, as any sommelier’s would be, is to gently ease you into the tasting. He starts with a ‘mapping of the palate’. This involves talking about what the taster’s previous experiences with whisky have been, whether they were enjoyable or not, and why. ‘Otherwise, people might never understand why they did or didn’t like a certain liquid, and if the latter, would certainly be reluctant to ever try it again.’
But too much talk and not enough whisky is a bad thing. With an excess of discussion, the palate will become extremely dry and your senses will be overwhelmed by the whisky you try. ‘This is not a good introduction. In order to warm up the palate, I might give you some light flavours such as bread, marmalade, chutney, or maybe some apple before the whisky is sipped.’ Apple, by the way, is one of the best things to cleanse a palate. ‘Then the drinker will be able to refer to his or her original thoughts – was that like the initial stiffness you experienced? Was that like the one you thought was too alcoholic?’
After reintroduction comes the cheese – the perfect accompaniment to balance the sweetness of the whisky. As they both age well, and are fairly limitless in terms of variety, ‘In my opinion, cheese is the most diverse food there is – you can get any type of cheese matured in barrels of cider, apple juice, rum, and just about every other type of liquid you can think of. Much like in life, two strong characters will either go together extremely well, or they’ll clash. In this case, cheese and whisky go extremely well.’
Next Cesar describes a medium style whisky. ‘That is to say something like an ex-bourbon finish, or an ex-bourbon and cherry finish – something quite sweet and not at all aggressive. And that goes with a 36 month-old cheddar which again is delicious and will not attack the palate.’ The important thing about the middle stage is that it’s still within your comfort zone. It’s not until the final step that you try something you’re really going to go home with.
‘This last drink will be one to remember in that the taste of this whisky will be like an explosion of flavours, because your palate will be more used to a whisky you tried before but did not enjoy.’
As the tasting experience winds down, you may want to leisurely finish your drink, listen to one of Cesar’s many anecdotes of grandeur, perhaps mop-up the palate with some apple, or settle with another for the road. Either way, I wouldn’t for a second count on coming out of the Capital in too much of a hurry.
Old & Rare Whiskies – With London’s Leading Whisky Expert
The 5-star Capital Bar in Knightsbridge is home to one of the most impressive whisky collections in London, and is the ideal location for a whisky aficionado to indulge in an exclusive journey through the very best in Scotch single malt whisky. Based within the renowned Capital Hotel, the sophisticated location lends itself perfectly to match the understated luxury of the whisky on offer. Cesar has hand-picked three old and rare whiskies from The Capital Bar’s extensive collection for you to enjoy.
The first whisky on offer for your tasting pleasure is the 42-year-old Strathisla 1964. Selected for its long history and distinct flavour, this excellent cask is considered a timeless classic by those in the know. It has been selected by Cesar as it show cases just how well a single malt can age, as well as holding the distinct tasting notes which are unique to the small but highly respected Strathisla distillery; the oldest continuously operating distillery in Scotland.
Next is the Balvenie 1972, a stunning single malt which is a true rarity; only 150 bottles of this vintage cask have ever been made. Each individual bottle shows the day it was distilled, as well as the day it was bottled. By virtue of the nite amount in existence, the Balvenie 1972 is possibly the rarest whisky on offer for your tasting pleasure.
The final dram as part of the experience is one of Cesar’s personal favourites, the Ardberg Supernova. Selected for its unmistakable flavour (Ardbeg whisky is considered to be amongst the peatiest in the world), the Supernova is the most pitted Ardberg cask, and delivers a taste sensation like no other. The Ardbeg distillery first opened its doors in 1798, from the small remote Scottish island of Islay, and save for two brief periods at the tail end of the 20th century, has been distilling the nest whiskies ever since.
- 0.1 Cesar da Silva, the whisky sommelier and bar manager at the Capital Hotel in Knightsbridge, met Iain McCallum seven years ago at the Auchentoshan Distillery in Scotland. McCallum turned to Cesar and said, ‘if I ever met an Alan Sugar of whisky at your age, it would have been you.’ From that point onwards Cesar has ‘dedicated everything he can towards whisky.
- 1 In the Mood
- 2 The Tasting Process
- 3 Old & Rare Whiskies – With London’s Leading Whisky Expert