As the Singapore F1 approached, the city was in full swing with preparations, transforming its roads into a Grand Prix course lined with spectator stands. Within the hotels and restaurants, preparations were also underway, with local bar managers awaiting the impending arrival of thousands of visitors in search of fast cars and luxury hospitality. The question is how to make your service stand out enough to gain pole position for punters. Formula One and Champagne go hand in hand, with the iconic front page photos of winners decadently spraying vintage bubbles defining the sport. For this year, however, the Mandarin Oriental decided to supplement their champagne-focus and prepare their staff with whisky knowledge to see themselves and their customers through the festivities.
The Far East is the fastest growing marketplace for Scotch whisky, with 23% of its exports now being sent there. The recent explosion in popularity of Japanese whisky has meant that Asia is now a hub of production and appreciation, with high quality malts being distilled from India to Taiwan, and the prices of all whiskies are constantly rising. This means that the need for educated staff is more important now than ever. Patrons these days are forking out excessive sums for whisky in Asia (for instance I recently spent $500HK on a single glass of Laphroaig), and they need a competent bar team to help make these purchases worthwhile.
I made my way to Mandarin Oriental Singapore to meet Inthran, the beverage manager there. We had been in touch over the weeks preceding my visit, arranging a training session and selecting bottles for a tasting flight. When I arrived I made my way up to MO's Dolce Vita bar, an incredible space looking out onto their pool, with a beautiful view across Singapore's iconic skyline towards Marina Bay Sands. Inside the restaurant we prepared a table of tasting glasses and training material, and set to work.
Inthran is a wine enthusiast, as are many of his staff, so I decided to approach the whisky training from a wine fan's perspective. Barley has been the point of much discussion in recent months and years in the whisky industry (with juggernauts such as Diageo and more independently-minded distillers like Bruichladdich butting heads over its influence on the final flavour of the spirit). However, I chose not to discuss its varietals, vintages and terroir; for this session the focus was on the processes that occur post-harvest. Blending is not only one of the most artisanal stages in winemaking, but it also makes up the biggest sector of the Scotch whisky industry today. Blended whisky is a mixture of malt whisky and grain whisky, and makes up 69% of the volume and value of Scotch exports.
Malt Whisky production is generally broken down into a few important steps: Malting (and Kilning), Milling, Mashing, Fermentation, Distillation and Maturation, with the latter largely considered to be the most domineering contributor to whisky's individual character (provided the spirit is not heavily peated). For the session we selected Glenmorangie 10, with its light flavours and ex-bourbon maturation, Macallan 12, with its rich Oloroso Sherry influence, and Laphroaig 10 displaying its heavily peated phenols from the the Kilning process pre-distillation. These malts are all used in some of the world's most popular blended whiskies, their distinct characters providing a base for their respective blend and defining its character.
Grain whisky production, on the other hand, does not seem to capture people's interest in the same way as Malt, which is understandable. While they contribute serious volumes of spirit to Scotch whisky, grain distilleries largely keep themselves to themselves. The production process is slightly different, Grain whisky being produced in Continuous stills (also known as Patent still or Coffey stills) rather than Malt's iconic copper pots. Grain lacks the glamour that comes with Single Malts distilleries, in the form of their pagoda roofs, distinctive mash, wort and kiln smells and their historic malting floors. Most importantly, though, Single Grain whisky doesn't really exist as a major category, that is except for Diageo and David Beckham's Haig Club, the final whisky we used in this session.
I'm not a particular fan of Haig Club for a number of reasons. Described by The Independent as "exactly what's wrong with the Highlands", Haig Club's bottles look like they should contain overpriced cologne, the product launch advert was frankly ridiculous, and most of all, David Beckham was captain of England. Ok, the Beckham thing isn't really a factor, but the rest stands true. However, when it comes to the spirit itself, I have few complaints. The whisky's flavour is not particularly pronounced, but nor should it be, it is a Grain whisky after all, and behaves thusly. Grain whisky traditionally dilutes the heavy and robust characteristics of a single malt, and transforms them into something more approachable, drinkable and, most importantly, mixable. Haig club is sweet, smooth, velvety, and non-intrusive, just as a blend-base should be.
As we began the tasting in the Dolce Vita restaurant, we noted the subtle flavours of Haig Club, the light sweetness of Glenmorangie, the rich dried fruits of Macallan and smoke of Laphroaig. Having left a small amount of whisky in the bottom of each tasting sample, we began the most important stage of this session. The staff began to blend their own whiskies, adding malt on top of grain, exploring and understanding not only the individual character of the ingredients in isolation, but how they work together. This is key in developing knowledge of Scotch beyond the immediacy of the Single Malt and Blended categories, especially when working behind a bar.
While Champagne may still be the favourite when it comes to Grand Prix, whisky is no longer waiting in the pits. Its sales, much like an F1 car, are increasing at record speeds, and, in my opinion, Mandarin Oriental Singapore's decision to train their staff will give them the edge on other hotels if it comes to a photo finish. Especially now they have had a chance to blend it like Beckham.
I apologise for all of the horrible puns.