Whisky expert MARTINE NOUET lives for the pleasures of the peat, and tells GERRIE LIM about finding her island paradise on Islay.
SHE LIVES AMID the briny beaches of a remote Hebridean isle, some 116 kilometres west of Glasgow, where eight whisky distilleries abide. There, the peat spirit is kith and king, resulting in some of the finest single malts infused with smoky charms, and they’ve successfully lured Martine Nouet into making Islay her home – despite being, as she herself says, “French and blonde”, with a self-effacing penchant for blonde jokes.
Already famous as a whisky scribe, she was conferred in April 2012 a Master of the Quaich, a rare feat for a woman in a male-dominated realm. Born and bred in Normandy, and a longtime Parisian until Scotland changed her life in 1990, she has extolled the sensualities of the still as the editor (for six years) of Whisky Magazine’s French edition, the author of the whisky book Les Routes du Malt, a whisky judge at the International Wine and Spirits competition in London, and a collaborator with filmmaker Bruno Carrière in his 14-hour Passion Whisky television documentary series. Not too shabby for someone who grew up with Calvados and only discovered the magic of malted barley relatively late in life.
Making up for lost time is what she’s good at, however, as I noted over a whisky luncheon in Hong Kong that she hosted at the behest of Berry, Bros & Rudd, showcasing their Berry’s Own Selection of single malts (including piquant drams of Bruichladdich 1991 and Longmorn 1992, which I found exceptional).
Do you ever feel weird about being a French person working and living in an area so uniquely Scottish?
I know what you mean. I write about whisky but whisky is not in my culture. And I am French so the language is not mine. Also, I am a woman, which is now not so odd, but when I stared writing about whisky 20 years ago there were not many women. I am still the only woman whisky writer from that time [who’s] still involved in it, though I am always a bit embarrassed when I am called an “expert”, because maybe I have a bit more knowledge than some other people but, to me, it doesn’t make me such a rare thing. I am constantly learning.
You sound quite humble about that, even though you are a Master of the Quaich.
I was made a Master of the Quaich last year, which means a lot to me. There are only about 150 of us in the world. I don’t know how many are women, probably a handful of us, so it’s a great recognition. I like to socialise and so hosting these kinds of events and doing the tastings, they’re all important in terms of educating people and giving people the opportunity to discover whisky in the most sensory way. That’s my main purpose. I don’t talk about techniques too much, because technical information can be found in many books or if you visit a distillery, but just tasting and being in touch with your own body, your own senses, that’s something that many people don’t usually do.
I understand your own whisky epiphany occurred when you went to Scotland for the first time.
Yes, it corresponded with a very big change in my life. I was working as a journalist on social issues, women’s issues and politics, and one day I covered a food show in Paris. Suddenly, I realised that that was what I liked, really. I remembered being young and cooking with my granny and my mother, and how I loved my food. Back then, in my personal life, I was just an ordinary cook but I had done a lot of things with chefs and learned from them, so I then left the political area and completely shifted to writing about food. At that time, I got divorced and met somebody else who was of Scottish origin and he asked if we could go to Scotland together. I was in my thirties and had never been to Scotland, and I loved it. Now, between you and me and your readers, I actually hated whisky at that time. When I was a student, I had overindulged myself at parties with whisky and I got so sick that I didn’t touch it for 15 years. My partner was a keen lover of whisky and he said I needed to try this particular whisky. I was given a dram and I didn’t drink it but nosed it, and it felt like nothing I had ever experienced before! It was Cardhu, from Speyside, and it really provoked something in me. That’s how I moved into spirits, which brought me back to what I drank growing up in France – Cognac and Calvados.
Yes, I’ve read that you started out drinking Calvados.
In Normandy, where I was brought up, my uncle was a farmer and there was a travelling distiller who would visit his farm with Calvados. His grandfather, my dad’s father, also made Calvados and was distilling and bottling it back in 1870. It spent 25 years in casks and had a classic taste. As a child, I was not allowed to drink it but there was this Sunday family dinner ritual at my granny’s, and traditionally the men would have their coffee with Calvados – not the women, who could only drink blackcurrant liqueur, a Cassis. As a child, I thought this was unfair, and probably my feminist streak sprang from that. When the meal was finished, the men would go off and play cards, and the women would take all the dishes and do the washing up. There was one moment when the cups were still on the table while everyone was gone, in the kitchen, and there was nobody. So as I would take the cups and I would sip them. There was a bit of sugar left with maybe two drops of Calvados, and I loved the taste. That came back to my memory later, when I wrote a book on Calvados in French and told this story, of my Proust madeleine, those two drops of Calvados in the warm cup.
We were talking earlier about our personal favourite Islay whisky and we share the same, Caol Ila, but it’s such a cold, windswept area I assume there’s a certain romance for you.
Yes, it is windswept and we say we get four seasons in a day, sometimes. Islay is not very big but it’s very diverse. You get the sandy beaches and the cliffs, such a dramatic landscape, but it’s also very fertile and not barren. There is a lot of agriculture. Cows and sheep are bred, and you have lush meadows and green fields. Then you have the black peat – two-thirds of the island is covered in peat – and also you have the heather and all the purples and pinks, lots of flowers, really beautiful. It’s also a paradise for birdwatchers because, in late September until April, we get the wild geese coming from Greenland. Of course, you have the eight distilleries all around this, but what is really special about Islay is the people. The people are very welcoming, very friendly, and there is a sense of community in the villages. They still have this sense of belonging. I never had a sense of belonging in the village where I grew up in France, and I then lived in Paris for 40 years – I’m now 62 – and I never had that there, either. When I arrived for my first press trip on Islay 22 years ago, I felt like it was paradise. It was September and there were the smells – of freshly cut grass and the sea brine and iodine – and I nearly fainted from all that! This was in 1990, and I eventually bought my house there on Islay in 2001. Later, I came to call that my “love trip”, because that’s what it was. I fell in love with Islay.
How do you identify yourself, as an educator or as a writer?
I’m really a whisky and food writer, because writing for me is important. I write every day, and lately I’m doing more personal writing. I’m writing a novel. It’s a challenge for me but I like to challenge myself, it makes me feel alive. It starts off as a romance and then moves into a political plot, and all I will say is this one has nothing to do with whisky directly, though it has to do with “nosing” because my character is a very famous “nose” in the perfume industry. When I was a teenager, I always thought my nose was too big and I was always trying to hide it but now I’m grateful to have this big nose, which is quite sensitive and picks up aromas. My own career came about because nature gave me a big nose.
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