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Sweet sipping

By Mike Peters | China Daily | Updated: 2015-11-10 07:39

Sweet sipping

Savory bites prepared by chef Daniel Jia were matched with Johnnie Walker's color-coded brands at a British Menu Week tasting.[Photo provided to China Daily]

The world's most popular blended Scotch struts its stuff with three Johnnie Walker Houses in China. Mike Peters seeks out the malty essence at the Beijing establishment.

The silver-stoppered bottle in front of us costs more than 5,000 yuan ($781), and we've just splashed a bit of the golden elixir on our palms and rubbed it into our skin.

It's the end of an elegant Sunday brunch with a more down-to-Earth price (358 yuan or $56). My host, Reto Kistler at Beijing's Johnnie Walker House, has just brought out some of "the good stuff". It's the Scotch whisky's s Private Collection 2014 Edition-one of 8,888 bottles made. The string of eights is a portent of good things to come on two sides of the globe: The liquid is smoky and smooth as silk, though perhaps an expensive choice for hand lotion.

"The master blender might cringe if he saw us doing this," Kistler acknowledges with a boyish grin. But rubbing just a drop or two into your palms vigorously, then cupping your hands to your nose, unveils the essence of the malt.

"You can do the same with bourbon," he adds, to get a sense of the corn at the base of that spirit.

Soft jazz washes over us as Kistler, the director of operations here, explains how a smoky, peaty blend like the 2014 special edition we're drinking-or the brand's top-shelf Johnnie Walker Blue-pairs well with salty foods, or a fatty morsel of fish or pork.

The Johnnie Walker House is a cozy, burnished copper cocoon, a warm oasis on a weekend that's seen the capital's first snow of the winter. It's my second visit in a week to this temple to the whisky-blender's art. A novice to this noble Scottish spirit-the distillery proudly bears a royal warrant, I'd taken advantage of an introductory tasting session and come back to sample the brunch.

The earlier tasting, offered during the British Menu Week promotion at about a dozen capital restaurants, had been a chance to sample the brand's rainbow of staple blends-from Johnnie Walker Gold to Red to Black to Blue, colors repeated in the richly stained wooden planks of the floors.

The gold-label pour, inspired by a blend made for the brand's centennial in 1920, has a patina of vanilla and caramel that the chef, Daniel Jia, matched with a delicate smoked salmon mousse in puff pastry. ("It's also great with desserts or anything on the sweet side," Kistler confides.) The mass-market Red sings with fresh fruits like apple and pear, while the smokier Black has an aura of richer fruits: dried fig, stewed apricot, winter oranges. More ethereal still are the Blue and the King George V, a premium blend with hints of all of the above.

The top blends, whether purchased for drinking or collecting, are not really about the age of the 40-to 43-proof spirit but the quality of the blend, Kistler says. "It's about taste, but also rarity and the pedigree of the whisky."

That can mean the inclusion of a reserve barrel, or a now-closed distillery from a famous producing region. Areas like Ilsay or the Clynelish highlands impart particular flavors treasured by connoisseurs. As a novice I can't put my finger on the special notes in each blend, but I enjoy the rich smoothness and appreciate the subtleties apparent when you taste them side by side.

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