Still Life: Dave Broom loses his sense of smell… and discovers a fresh taste perspective


Being struck by illness and subsequently deprived of your tasting senses for a few days can turn out to be a blessing in disguise, as an enlightened Dave Broom discovers

Don’t be worried my gentle friends, but I haven’t been well. Not swine flu, but some form of infection that left my lungs full of gunk and my sinuses totally blocked. Sorry for the detail, but it’s relevant to the story. Now, I know that, ‘I’m a bit bunged up,’ is the default setting for many tasters when they’re confronted by a distiller with a new product, but this time it was true. The antibiotics I was prescribed had the upside of making the head spin if taken with alcohol; the downside was the taste of the alcohol was disgusting.

In other words, I was forced to be off the drink for a while, languishing in my four-poster, surrounded by improving books and cups of tea. I’m very partial to tea. Proper tea that is. Chinese preferably. I’ve been getting supplies from La Cave à Thés in Paris (which sounds more grand than it is) before a friend put me onto a UK-based supplier called Jing. I had always taken ‘Jings!’ as being a Dundonian ejaculation of surprise much beloved by Paw Broon in the Sunday Post. Whatever the case, the teas are very sophisticated and they did this Paw Broom no end of good… though all he could taste was warmth.

That’s the downside of losing your sense of smell. Wandering through the streets being unable to smell is to lose a meaningful way to engage with the world. One of these wanderings took me to the British Museum and the Gardens & Cosmos exhibition, which had a selection of paintings from the Maharajahs of Jodhpur, one of whom became a devout follower of the Nath religion. It was these works, abstract in intent and execution that were the most inspirational; artists trying to paint formless essence, trying to depict a time when the world is washed away, cleansed and re-experienced.

I went to the bookshop to muse on this and ordered, what else? some tea and – Jings! and Help ma Boab! – the aroma of moist orchids arose. Since then it’s been like learning to smell again. Like one of those paintings, all seems sparkling again, there’s been a kind of recalibration of the senses allowing me to look at spirits afresh.

The result of this is that the subtleties, the whispering nuances of spirits have once more been revealed and as they have it’s made me think about how we look at them. Have we become so concerned with mixing that we are forgetting the core spirit’s complexities? In our desire to replicate and better the greatnesses of the past, to make new drinks in new bars and go boldly where no bartender has gone before, do we overlook the fundamental point? This is, that neat is actually often the best, that purities of flavour and aroma are actually what is important. For the moment, I’m taking mine as it comes thank you very much.

What I’ve been tasting…

Well it’s a mixed old bag this month. For starters there’s two Islay whiskies, one of which will be beyond most people’s pockets (it’s £3,000 a pop) but which has to be mentioned in dispatches. It’s Bowmore Gold, the last official bottling of a 1964 following on from the legendary Bowmore Black and the more recent White. Old Bowmore is an interesting beast because as it ages, this peaty whisky often loses its smoke and a tropical fruit character is revealed.

Light smoke, pot

pourri and, in time,

sweet seaweed

That’s the case here where cubes of semi-dried mango and apricot dominate the nose alongside sandalwood, fresh new leather, light smoke, pot pourri and, in time, sweet seaweed. It’s heady and gorgeous. The palate continues this, but for me it’s showing its age and is a little tired.

Much younger and fresher is Corryvreckan, the newest member of the Ardbeg core range. Some of this has been aged in French oak giving a spicy edge to a single malt that’s all about a seashore-laden explosion (with added grapefruit, linseed oil, hot charcoal). The mouth is highly smoked, but there’s a sweet spot in the middle before it dies into a spent barbecue on the beach.

Equally bold is another limited edition, a single barrel of 25yo Rittenhouse rye. Burnished copper in hue with an immensely fragrant nose (like highly polished redwood furniture, balloons, Matchmakers orange chocolates (can you still get those?) and that lifted cinnamon dustiness and powdered rose petal that’s a rye giveaway. The palate is intense, acidic and a little soapy with a mix of allspice and maraschino on the finish.

There’s just space for a quick mention to Atlantico, which is a blend of aged Dominican Republic rums that have been married, re-aged, then given a final run through a solera, which is a lot of work to go through. It’s very clean with light tangerine, tobacco leaf, butterscotch, flambéed banana and toasty oak. The palate is like sweetened café au lait with extra fruit on the side. Pretty sweet, but it will have its followers.

The men in white coats

I was in Paris recently, for a whisky event (and to get some tea… see opposite). A chance therefore to catch up on the burgeoning French cocktail scene. I was filled with good intentions, but, well it’s a long story, and the bar I wanted to get to wasn’t open on Sunday. But Harry’s was. In fact, Harry’s is always open. We go back a long way, though not to 1911 when it first opened its doors, and I suspect it hasn’t changed much. There is a beautiful comfort to this place of elbow-worn wood and red leather. The barkeeps still wear white coats, the cocktails are still simple and classic.

That’s when it gets you. Harry’s is a bar. I’m there with whisky friends, so bottle after bottle of rare bottlings are produced with a certain insouciance: ‘The last bottle? Mais non! We have cases of this.’ But there are also cocktail mavens, and locals drinking beer. In other words it is as democratic as a bar should be, a space dedicated to the serving of great drinks with minimum fuss. One cannot imagine any flairing ever taking place here. The space is for the customers and there’s no pressure to spend over the odds. Fashion, as far as Harry’s is concerned, is something that you wear. There’s plenty who could learn from that.

Harry’s New York Bar, 5 Rue Daunou, Paris

Planet Broom… is currently spinning at a million miles per hour after Dave’s rediscovery of a love of absinthe

Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine – November / December 2009

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