I’ve asked many Beijing residents about their top five watering holes so for a change of pace I asked Shannon Roy to list the five best whiskeys widely available in our fair city. (If memory serves, the request came as we sampled some of the more than 100 whiskeys available at one of my favorite Beijing spots, Ichikura.) Like a red deer on a far hillside — hmm, where did I read that? — here they are…
Whether you’re getting into spirits because the carbs in beer are expanding your waistline, or you’ve always been curious about whiskey but simply don’t know where to start, or even if you just want to be able to bluff your way through a whiskey conversation, let me see if I can help you with any of those things in our smoky Chivas-quaffing city of Beijing.
To be clear: this is not a “Top 5″ enumerating my personal favourite tipples. Nor is it a list of obscure 100-plus-single-malt bars (although there are more of these in Beijing than ever and most of them are great). Or the obscure name-dropping whiskeys you can find at said bars, or how to pronounce the names of said whiskeys! This is a Top 5 of truly great whiskeys that you can get basically anywhere in Beijing – for reasons as obscure as distributor/barkeep guanxi and as unambiguous as China’s import tax policy.
1. Johnnie Walker Black. Available everywhere. Sometimes things are popular because they are actually great. Forget the Red (which is like being smacked in the mouth with a burning tire) but the Black is all good. I never cease to shake my elitist head in amazement that something so available and so fundamentally 18th Century in outlook is just so reliably good here in 2010. The sweet liquorice or maple syrup is firmly in the velvet-over-iron grip of the Talisker-derived salt. Big rolling-tobacco and vanilla palate (Jackson’s notes: “marijuana”). Sweet fading to mellow in the finish.
2. The Macallan 12. Available at an astonishingly vast number of cafes and eateries in Beijing, which is awesome because it’s a terrific after dinner whiskey. Without ice, of course. Lightly watered, if that’s your thing. Buttery, Christmas pudding beginning. The palate is Mrs Field’s cookies when you’ve left them overnight and heated them up in a microwave — yum! A lovely long wine-like finish with very little “smoke” which, again, suits the after meal theme.
3. Highland Park 21. You may not be able to find the 21 as easily as some of its younger siblings, but anything from the 12 and up is going to be great. Surprisingly available. Although it doesn’t have a cool marketable “Celtic” name like Auchentoshan or Lagavulin, Highland Park 21 took out Whisky Magazine’s “World’s Best” in 2009. It’s just that good. And actually, if you add a (very) little water, “Highland Park” is a great name, redolent as it is with smoke from your campfire, dark chocolate from your hiking rations, heather, venison on the spit, and a glimpse of a red deer on a far hillside to give you that wild unpredictability of nature’s elements.
4. Taketsuru 21. Another blend! And not even a “scotch”! Sacrilege! But this is a great blend that, again, passes the availability test because of Beijing’s huge array of Japanese, Korean, and Japanese-and-Korean themed restaurants. I’ve found this as the only non-sake in even very small places. Stay away from the 12-year-old of the same name (really, it’s utterly unremarkable) but the 21 has lovely coffee-and-expensive-leather notes with a delightfully different finish (like Lao Chen Cu on Bitter Melon).
5. Talisker 10. To return to my theme, I’m always amazed to find this so freely and readily available in Beijing. It is the “Big Skye” I guess, and certainly deserves its place on any list of the truly good and great, but this is about availability in China’s capital, which means the Talisker pips out some of the Islays I could have filled a “Personal Top 5″ with. Jim Murray called this “razor-sharp” and he was right. It’s got a huge build-up, which keeps devolving different complexions as it moves across the palate. A true banked-hearth scotch finish.
Shannon Roy has lived and worked in Beijing since 2002. Traditionally a “software guy” he now earns his whiskey money as an independent board member on a half-dozen foreign-invested Chinese companies, doing his bit to improve corporate governance, one fired rogue CEO at a time.