Thinking about buying a bottle of whisky for Christmas, either as a gift for someone special or, given the year we’ve all had, a well earned treat for yourself? May we recommend Talisker? Sure there are plenty of other whiskies out there but here’s why we recommend this one: it’s bold, it’s distinctive, it’s characterful, which is exactly what you want when you’re looking to make a statement with your gifting choices. Plus, and it’s a massive plus, Talisker tastes just as good neat or over ice as it does mixing magic into all manner of cocktails. Which is why it works like a charm in the taste department with traditionalists and experimentalists alike.
It’s that ability to appease a wide range of palates that Jason Clark finds so exciting. In his role as Talisker UK ambassador, he’s equally at home extolling the inimitable characteristics of this multi-faceted liquid with a team of award-winning bartenders as he is hosting a Talisker tasting with whisky curious consumers. Little wonder really. With 23 years experience in the drinks industry under his belt, he has the confidence and experience to deliver the goods.
Jason caught the bartending bug aged 17 in his native New Zealand. From there he progressed to bar manager before taking on the pressures of bar ownership. And like most who take the profession seriously, he entered and won his fare share of national cocktail comps along the way. His big break came with Diageo Reserve World Class Cocktail Competition. “I represented New Zealand in 2013, the year Diageo held the global final on the cruise ship,” he says. We were there, so we remember. Not just the excitement of the comp but watching him grow in conviction as he rose through the ranks. “It was a game changer for me as I went from casual bartender to being famous,” he confirms. “I was an underdog when I went out there but ended up coming fourth out of 46 amazing bartenders from around the world. When I got back to New Zealand, the offers came flooding in.”
As a result he ended up in Dubai working as Luxury Brand Ambassador before getting the call to join the Reserve team working on Talisker. “I absolutely love the role, my job is incredible,” he says. “I’m so lucky, I get to do some of the coolest things out there, travelling around the country, sometimes abroad, talking about this great whisky, meeting great people and sharing the love for this incredible brand.”
It’s something he enjoys but also takes incredibly seriously, taking the wild spirit that the brand is synonymous with and injecting it into a host of exciting serves and initiatives. “It’s an awesome time to be in Scotch whisky – all whisky really,” he confirms when asked about what excites him about the category. “There’s a lot of curiosity for it; a lot of appreciation. For too long it’s been dominated by the older, leather chair seated, pipe and slipper brigade. While there’s nothing wrong with that, there is so much more to whisky than one particular demographic.”
Enter adventure dramming, wild spirit cocktails and an array of delicious concoctions such as the four seasonal cocktails featured below. Trust us, you haven’t experienced the riches of hot chocolate until you’ve tried it laced with Talisker and a sprinkling of sea salt, and as for the apricot Hot Toddy… Let’s just say, it’s the stuff that cold winter evenings have long been calling for.
But before we get to the recipes, we spoke to Jason about what excites him about the whisky category in general, why he loves being a brand ambassador and why Talisker ticks the box for drinking neat or mixed into cocktails.
Let’s start with the big question: what makes Talisker special?
In my opinion, Talisker is one of the most unique whiskies out there. It doesn’t fall into any of your distinct whisky categories: it’s not Speyside and it’s not Lowlands, it doesn’t fit in to the Highland category either – it isn’t rich enough in grain. Instead it has this salty, smoky, briny character but it isn’t an Islay whisky – not only because it’s not from that part of Scotland but it isn’t so heavily peated.
So you’ve told us what it isn’t, how do you describe what Talisker is?
Personally, I like to think of Talisker as the bridge between the Highlands and Islay. With its balance of grain, terroir and environment, you get the character of where it’s from, both on the nose and on the palate and every time I sip it I get something different.
Upfront there’s sweetness, lovely fruits like apricots and orange marmalade; then you get cereal notes – grain, malt and vanilla and caramel from the wood. That’s followed by the tingly, chilli pepper kick, and lastly, you get this salty, maritime finish. As a flavour experience, it’s hard to beat.
That fresh, wild, what you call ‘maritime’ characteristic is something that runs through the activities that you do in your role as Talisker brand ambassador. Tell us about some of the projects that you’ve undertaken to date.
Last year I did something called the Talisker Wild Spirit Tour. I started by travelling to Inverness to pick up a Land Rover before driving to Skye. From there I drove the circumference of Britain – covering 20 cities in 23 days. The way it worked was that I would drive to a particular city, host a training/tasting, meet the bartenders then I’d drive halfway to the next city and sleep in the wild on the roof of the Land Rover. The next morning I’d drive to the next city.
It was about embodying the wild theme of Talisker and teaching people a category of drinks called Wild Spirit cocktails which took flavours of your locality – be they home-grown, foraged or something that your region is renowned for – and using them in a drink. In the same way that Tiki drinks embody a tropical lifestyle, Wild Spirit cocktails show off the wild environment of Great Britain.
We had bartenders from all around the country create some exceptional cocktails using wild ingredients, including the team at Scout in London who used fig leaf, pineapple weed and oak vermouth to create a fantastic drink and Drew Grey, formerly of The Finnieston in Glasgow who devised something similarly artistic and well balanced with a drink called The Captain’s Downfall, blending Talisker 10 year old, Scottish cider brandy, strawberry, lemon, Tiki tea and honey and woodruff syrup. It’s a really exciting project which we’ll be continuing next year.
What excites you about the category?
I love seeing younger people – men and women in their 20s and 30s, people from around the world embracing Scotland’s Scotch – it really is for everyone. For too many years the lightness has been strangled out of the category and it was perceived as being very staid, very traditional. Not everyone is going to enjoy cask strength, fiery whisky, which is why Talisker works so well. It can be enjoyed in a number of ways, from neat to going all out in experimental cocktails. It really is incredibly versatile.
Versatile it may be but do you still get people saying they don’t like whisky? If so, how do you coax them out of that mindset?
By getting to understand their palate and finding what’s right for them. We’re lucky that at Diageo we have an incredibly diverse selection of whiskies within the range, which means we can build them up through light and easy-going whisky styles, through to Talisker and Lagavulin. And of course, there’s the diversity that cocktails bring to the mix… That said, for me, the whisky should be the star of the show – you should always be able to taste Talisker in the glass. The key is rounding it out and combining it with other flavours to make it an even more interesting, complex and enjoyable drinking experience.
What about people who think that whisky shouldn’t be mixed?
I say to them if that’s the way you like to drink your whisky, go ahead but there’s a whole layer of enjoyment that you’re missing out on by not trying it mixed into cocktails.
I think of Talisker like seasoning: you’ve got sweet, spice, salty, and smoke – all of which are used to season food, so when you use it in cocktails, it seasons the drink with those complex flavours. Talisker works beautifully in an Old fashioned or Whisky Sour and I love a Talisker Negroni. The smokiness also adds something special to a Bloody Mary – much like mezcal but not too overpowering. Then there are Highballs… In Japan they tend to drink them with plain soda water but that can be a little love or hate over here. Instead I suggest using flavoured sodas like ginger ale or even peach to pick out the fruitiness in the Talisker. Rapscallion sodas work really well but there are many exciting sodas to experiment with, giving you many cool ways to enjoy the complexities of the whisky.
Moving on to the job itself, what are your favourite parts of the role?
Doing events with the on-trade, identifying bars, building a relationship with the teams and planning activations that will benefit them and their guests. It could be a whisky dinner, designing menus, whisky tastings or interacting with the teams and hosting events with consumers.
Early in my career I moved to the UK for a brief period and worked at TGI Fridays in Guildford. That’s where I gained invaluable training and got hooked on the service and entertaining side of the business. One of the many things they taught us was never to use the word customer, it was all about the guest and guest satisfaction and consequently, we prided ourselves on doing anything to create those ‘wow’ moments for a perfect night. I’ve always retained that but there’s a new layer now: the customer is now the venue and I’m helping them to deliver that perfect moment to their guests.
The other part that really excites me is our connection to the outdoors. I love going up to Skye and doing tastings in the wild, such as Talisker and oysters on the coast, tastings on hikes or foraging for wild ingredients – it’s something we call adventure dramming.
What have you learnt about Talisker in your time as a brand ambassador?
It’s amplified a lot. The key thing has been going to the distillery, meeting the people behind the whisky and getting a taste of the environment which has a huge impact on the liquid and the flavour and identity of the brand. It starts when you come over the hill into Carbost in the Isle of Skye – the hairs on your arms just stand on end with excitement. It’s the combination of the air, the mountains, the sea breeze, the rain – the importance of environment on the liquid is huge. So too is meeting the people behind the brand who are so passionate about creating something magical everyday.
Speaking of the team, have they introduced any new additions to the lines this year?
It’s been a challenging but exciting year. We’ve worked full steam ahead doing interesting things through the disruptions of a covid-hit 2020, including the Diageo Special Releases whisky range that we unveil each year. This year we’ve finished an 8 year old Talisker in Jamaican pot still rum casks which is a first for us and has made for a really exciting release. It’s youth has allowed the distillery character to really shine through, making it extra smoky and salty but with a lovely layer of banana-ry rum character on top.
We’ve also worked with Coco, a boutique chocolatier in Edinburgh to produce a beautiful Talisker 10 year old & Coco Sea Salted Caramel gift set. The chocolate is 64% and comes from Colombia and the caramel inside is made with Talisker and sea salt from the Isle of Skye, so each smoky, salty bite complements the miniature bottle of Talisker included in the set beautifully. It’s the perfect Christmas gift.
What are your favourite ways to enjoy Talisker?
For a simple drinking ritual around Christmas time I love a dram of Talisker Distillers Edition with a wedge of Christmas cake drizzled with sherry. One of my other favourite ways to enjoy Talisker is to pair it with oysters – it really is a match made in heaven. On a cold winter night, I’d definitely go for a Talisker hot chocolate – it’s awesome, really luxurious, rich and comforting. I make it with oat milk and real dark chocolate, then add golden syrup, sea salt and of course, the Talisker. It’s the ultimate winter warmer.
As are the other three recipes below.
Campfire Hot Chocolate
50ml Talisker 10YO, Skye or Storm
5ml Golden Syrup
25g dark chocolate
200ml oat milk
Pinch of sea salt
Marshmallows to garnish
Steam on a milk wand or whisk in a pan over heat, up to 70c. Garnish with toasted marshamllows
A Bonnie Wee Flip
50ml Talisker 10 YO – infused with Christmas fruit pie filling
15ml cold brew coffee
10ml PX sherry
5ml Golden Syrup
35ml whole egg (pre-whisked)
2 dashes of Black Walnut Bitters
Shake all ingredients hard and double strain. Garnish with toasted cinnamon spiced almonds and shortbread biscuit with whisky infused fruit filling mixture on the side.
3 tinned apricot halves
45ml tinned apricot juice
15ml lemon juice
10ml PX Sherry
2 dashes of Angostura bitters
40ml Talisker 10YO, Skye or Storm
Half a tinned apricot and one star anise to garnish
Add all ingredients except the whisky to a saucepan or milk steaming jug. Muddle apricots and heat on the stove or with a milk wand to approx 80c. Remove from heat, pour in the Talisker and stir. Strain or simply pour all into a mug. Garnish with half a tinned apricot and star anise.
This drink was originally created spontaneously while camping on the Isle of Skye using some apricots originally intended for breakfast. It was cooked inside the apricot tin on the campfire!
A Dram Fine Christmas
50ml Talisker Distillers Edition
A hearty slice of hot Christmas cake
30ml PX sherry cream 50/50 blend
Simply pour, serve and enjoy.
For more details and Talisker gift ideas including the Talisker 10 year old & Coco Sea Salted Caramel gift set, visit malts.com