Tuesday, 4 June 2019

The Cigar, Whiskey and Tap Water Club - UN Garrison, Lille

Last year I was honoured to have been invited to attend a whiskey* tasting at the UN Garrison in Lille which is situated in the wonderfully historic Citadel in Lille. The Citadel was built in the 17th century and was designed by legendary French military engineer S├ębastien Le Prestre de Vauban (what a name!) and is today the headquarters of the Rapid-Reaction Corps France, a multi-national UN task-force which is stationed in Lille with the focus of preparing for any situation that requires an international military operation. 

Set deep inside the Citadel is the Lieutenants’ bar, a charming (if a little ramshackle) bar that is set up to allow officers to relax and socialise over a glass of something pleasant; which is an especially important facet when you are dealing with soldiers from all over the world - the need for dialogue and understanding is more important than ever. Now it is hardly a surprise that the officers from this task-force like a drink or two, however a few years ago an enterprising bunch realised that they had a core of people who were not only fans of drinking whiskey (in particular) and smoking the occasional cigar, but that they were also keen to learn a bit more so that they could appreciate these things a little more. To this end they formed the “Cigar, Whiskey and Tap Water Club”; the tap water reference is a sage reminder to all of the need to stay hydrated whilst pursuing one’s hobbies. The Club is run on a membership basis, members get access to tastings without having to pay for them and the membership fees are used to buy in the Club’s stock. At the start of the Club the learning consisted of members drinking the whiskies together and comparing notes, however recently they have invited a local whiskey specialist (Guillaume), who works in the wine trade in Lille but has a huge passion for whiskey to come and give them some tutored tastings at the Club in order to develop their knowledge even further. I was invited along to attend the second of these tastings.

At this tasting, Guillaume took us through four whiskies. For each one he really encouraged the group to go through a structured approach to the tasting: firstly, how does it look? what’s the colour look like? is it cloudy or is it bright?; secondly, how does it smell? is it complex? is it sweet? is it smoky?; thirdly, on the mouth how long does the finish last? does it change/develop as you taste it? what are the primary/secondary flavour notes? I am quite familiar with this approach when it comes to wine, but it was useful to try it out with the whiskies too as it helped me to think about them that little bit more.

We tried our way through four very different, but really interesting whiskies through the evening. I really liked the selection that Guillaume went for, plenty of variety and some real curve balls to keep us on out toes. The other thing that Guillaume did to keep the learning experience real was to pour all the whiskies blind so that we didn’t know what we had in our glass; then he asked us to go through the tasting process (sight, nose, taste, finish) in order to get us to really think about the whiskies and what we could tell of them. This really helped me personally to bring a structured approach to the tasting process and I was surprised at how much I got from it. It was only once we had collectively come to a conclusion about the whiskey that he did the grand reveal and announced what we had been tasting.

So, what did we try?

Armorik Whiskey Single Malt de Bretagne; this was a light and elegant whiskey on the nose, quite pretty in fact. On the mouth, however, it really surprised us as it was a lot more complex and profound than we expected. In truth, no-one predicted that this was a French whiskey, and I think that it why Guillaume chose it and out it first. There was clearly some Gallic pride going on here, that they could make a thoroughly decent whiskey that wouldn’t taste out of place in a serious (or maybe semi-serious) whiskey tasting.

One Shot Highland Single Malt Whiskey from the Ben Nevis Distillery (first fill, sherry cask); this was a lovely and rich whiskey that had a much more complex nose than the previous whiskey, I could pick out notes of honey, butterscotch and a little bit of a fruity twist. On tasting, there was a really long finish with a kind of cherry cola sweetness to it.
Laphroaig The Cooper’s Choice; this was served to us blind and we were asked to guess what it was. The group who were at the tasting were pretty knowledgeable - we all reckoned it was an Islay whiskey from the smokiness and a couple went with Laphroaig. They were correct! This was a proper smoke bomb of a whiskey, my tasting notes actually say “like tasting an ashtray”! I’m not sure that I meant that in a necessarily complimentary manner.

Gifted Stills of Scotland Single Malt Scotch Whiskey (bottle 001 of 888). Guillaume saved a special whiskey for the last one of the tasting. This one has a slightly reddish tinge to the drink and had a quite light and pretty nose with red fruits (strawberry?) on it. This whiskey has an exceptional provenance in that it is first aged in bourbon barrels, before being aged further in old barrels from legendary right-bank Bordeaux estate, Cheval Blanc. The tasting notes on this were incredibly complex and deep, with a predominant flavour of cherries.

After the tasting we took the opportunity to explore a few more drams of the excellent selection that the club held (along with some tap water of course) along with a cigar. What a fabulous way to spend an evening!

This was a really enjoyable experience. It was lovely to talk with these soldiers who have come from all over the world (I spoke with people from France, Germany, the UK, the US, Canada), discuss current events and hear what they make of their role as peace-keepers in this increasingly complex world. It was also nice to see this diverse group making real efforts to get to know each other and develop friendships that will help them to serve together better. But more than anything, it was a lovely setting for a group of people to come together and share an evening over a glass of whiskey or two (along with a cigar and a glass of tap water to keep hydrated, of course!) and learn a bit more about the world off whiskey.

* Note: I have used the spelling "whiskey" throughout this piece in keeping with the group's name. Traditionally "whisky" is used by the Scots, whereas "Whiskey" is used by the Irish, but I thought it would be easier to have a consistent spelling through the piece...

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