WHEN Scottish Television held a public vote to decide who was the Greatest Ever Scot, Robert Burns took the title, narrowly beating William Wallace – patriot, warrior independence campaigner and Mel Gibson impersonator. Among others on the shortlist incidentally, were Sir Alex Ferguson, Billy Connolly, JK Rowling and Robert The Bruce.
Burns Night, January 25, is the anniversary of his birth, and more widely celebrated in Scotland even than St Andrew’s Day. While it has never been a major event south of the border, pubs are slowly catching on to the fact that it’s a great excuse to charge their customers big-style for offal and root vegetables and persuade them to try ever-so-slightly-too-many glasses of interesting whisky.
All of which is what brought me back to the Mustard Pot on a chill Tuesday evening, where £25 bought you haggis, neeps and tatties (that’s sheep’s heart, liver and lungs, swede and potatoes to lily-livered Sassenachs) and a host of vintage single malts.
It wasn’t a proper Burns Night – there was no piper, no Auld Lang Syne and no-one reading unfathomable Scots poetry – but the food and drink made up for that. A dish of lovely spicy haggis, steaming swede and a pile of mashed potatoes set us up for a great night on the booze.
The whiskies were laid on by independent wine merchant Latitude which has built a strong reputation for its fabulous range of beers, wines and spirits, and which supplies bars and restaurants across the city from premises built into railway arches in The Calls, Leeds.
Latitude owner Chris Hill was the master of ceremonies, talking the assembled hordes through five whiskies, each drawn from one of Scotland’s main distilling regions. They were each small-batch bottlings from single casks of some of the more hard-to-find varieties.
And though all five were pale, perhaps even anaemic of colour, they displayed a real range of flavours, growing in depth and intensity from first to last.
First up was Rosebank, which is virtually impossible to get hold of, the Falkirk distillery having been closed down following a takeover by multinational conglomerate Diageo in 1993. This bottle was from a cask produced in 1991, and was the easiest-going of all the examples we tried, its soft, apricotty nature the result of its painstaking triple-distillation process.
Speyside is home to some of the big name brands like Glenfiddich and Macallan, as well as the lesser-known Aultmore distillery. It is lesser known chiefly because the vast majority of its output goes into even-bigger-brand blended whiskies, though some is saved for single malt production. Aged in old bourbon casks this one is sweeter and slightly honeyed, and more recognisably a single malt than the gentle Rosebank.
Clynelish from the Highlands was the third one we tried, and the one I found least impressive. The oily, slightly resinous texture, and vaguely salty, briny nature of this 18-year-old whisky make it one for the true connoisseurs, I think.
Fourth up, and my favourite, was the Highland Park, bottled in 1995 from a single cask of a 13-year-old distillation. This was the most northerly example we tried, too, coming from Orkney, and is notable for its firm and peaty nature, the product of the barley-malt being roasted in kilns fired by local peat. Again, thi whisky is largely used for big name blends – particularly Cutty Sark and Chivas Regal – but the single malt example is certainly worth checking out, if you happen to have £48.99 to spare.
The eight distilleries on the island of Islay have a reputation just about second to none. It’s where the true whisky buffs go to get their fix, and from here we were treated to a tasting of the 18-year-old Caol Ila, which is also used to provide the peaty element of Johnnie Walker – the biggest selling brand in the world. If I were an aficionado I might like this, but I found it too intense of flavour, slightly citric, quite harsh on the palate – though I guess if Latitude can charge £58.99 for it, someone must be fan.
Curiously, a drink so pricy might appeal to Mustard Pot customers, given that they are well used to paying over-the-odds for their alcohol. It’s a point readily acknowledged by landlady Nicola Storey when she wanders over for a chat: “The pub is owned by Marston’s and one of the terms of my lease is that I have to buy my beer from them.”
This business model is familiar to most in the pub game – the pub company owns the building, leasing it to would-be entrepreneurs who not only have to pay rent, but can only make their money by selling products which they have first purchased from the pub company. That’s why a pint of bitter at the Mustard Pot will cost you £3.40.
The beer is good, though. I enjoyed a lovely rich, toffee-ish, malty pint of Hobgoblin before embarking on the whisky adventure, and the pub often stocks great ales from the likes of Jennings, Wychwood and Ringwood breweries, though none from Yorkshire, curiously enough.
Nicola is understandably defensive about her prices: “I’m absolutely not trying to rip people off,” she told me. “I have to buy from the brewery and they set the prices. If I charged £2 a pint I wouldn’t last six months.”
Given the extent to which her hands are tied on price, Nicola has to make the pub so attractive a proposition that it outweighs the significant cost of the booze. “It’s comfortable, it’s friendly and we have deliberately made it attractive to groups of women,” she said.
There is no doubt that some simply like the building itself, one of the finest and oldest in Chapel Allerton, even if its true historic character has been worn away by successive refurbishments over many years.
Nicola has been in here for two and a half years, during which time the Mustard Pot has re-established its reputation as a great place to eat and drink, something which had been lost during some years of slow decline which culminated in this beautiful old building standing empty and unloved for months.
It makes for hard work: “December was really hard, I ended up working every day. But I’m loving every minute of it.”
Host: Nicola Storey
Type: Comfortable, up-market real ale pub and restaurant Opening Times: Noon-11pm Sun-Wed; noon-midnight Thurs; noon-1am Fri-Sat
Beers: Changing range of real ales, all £3.40, plus Budvar (£3.80), Kronenbourg (3.60), Carlsberg (£3.30), Guinness (£3.50), Strongbow (£3.10)
Wine: Good selection of wines available from £3.30-bottle and £14.10-glass
Food: Restaurant menu served lunchtimes and evenings daily, special Sunday roast menu
Disabled: Straightforward access
Beer Garden: Large area to the front
Entertainment: Quiz Sunday evening, occasional special themed events
Parking: Large area, which is pay and display for non-customers
Telephone: 0113 269 5699