Battle of the bottles: do spirits have a place at the Christmas table? Yea


Photograph: Jason Lowe

Photograph: Jason Lowe

In the spirit of Christmas, we have pitched two heavyweights against each other, both attempting to defend the place for their bottles in your festive spread. Here Ronnie Cox – Brands Heritage Director for the spirits side of our business – traces the changing face of the spirits drinker, and praises the wonders of whisky.

Fifty years ago, when Uncle Charlie came to pre-Christmas drinks with my parents, his favourite ‘two-fingers, only’ tipple was a blended Scotch whisky. Yes, gracing the drinks cabinet was just one bottle of blended Scotch whisky and a litre of gin brought back all the way from duty free in India. Compulsory stocking in the same cabinet was Drambuie, Kummel, Triple Sec and, unusually, Parfait Amour (the only thing William Pitt the Younger and my mother had in common), all gathering dust, wearing abraded labels like the threadbare clothes of the once well-to-do.

A bottle of blended whisky in the 1970s would cost the equivalent of three days’ pay for the average man. Today the same bottle can be paid for in less than 2.5 hours. Bob Dylan and The Beatles heralded an era of the pop ‘classics’ in the world of music: at the same time, the consumption of spirits and, indeed, wines in the UK was also changing, thanks to prolific and effective advertising and – most importantly – education: how can one forget Jilly Goolden with her fantastically effusive descriptions of wines?

With increased prosperity in those decades the nation had better access to quality wines and spirits. The regard for spirits changed as well. Uncle Charlie, once chided by his wife for his enthusiastic spirits intake, might in today’s world have descendants who savour a single malt, a dry Martini or sip tequila. Quality spirits have taken their rightful place: before, during or after a meal. They have become a pleasure to be enjoyed for their flavour. Vodka has declined and the more complex gin has taken its place. Cocktails have made a startling come-back. Less is more.

Social media, a generic professionalism of the bar trade, and a tendency toward ‘knowledgeable’ (as opposed to conspicuous or image-led) consumption has helped shift social attitudes from the once-labelled ‘heavy drinker’ spirits imbibers, towards someone now ‘in the know’. As with wine, it takes time, experience and exams (!) to become a recognised expert today. Berry Bros. & Rudd always had a selection of spirits but never one that is more carefully and expertly selected than today.

The ‘noses’ or people who select and offer spirits know their stuff and can ably recommend. They have embraced the versatility of spirits. I’m always one to experiment and to test the taboos of my forefathers. Try for instance, foie gras with a non-smoky single malt like The Glenrothes Vintage Reserve, or chocolate mousse with a non-peaty Sherry cask single malt from Berry Bros. & Rudd’s own-label range and I’m almost certain that not only will you be surprised at the marriage but be left with a wonder as to why our forefathers didn’t rave about it. As Dylan wrote all those years ago: It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls/For the times they are a-changin’.

Keep an eye out for tomorrow’s post by our Wine Buying Director, claiming the Christmas throne on behalf of the fermented grape; in the meantime, browse our range of spirits on