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Mr Porter Drinks

A Whisky Tasting With Caruso’s Mr Umberto Angeloni

MR PORTER sits down for some rather strong pre-dinner drinks with the businessman, author and gourmand

Prepare for some office envy: Mr Umberto Angeloni’s workspace, a few metres down from the Caruso flagship on Milan’s poshest street, Via Gesù, used to belong to the famed Italian industrial designer Mr Vico Magistretti. On first entering, you’ll note that it’s filled with a lot of very nice things, from Mr Marcel Breuer chairs, to hand-painted ink tiles, to piles of art books and a conservatory of expensive-looking bonsai trees. And that’s just what is on permanent display. In fact, it turns out there are plenty more goodies locked away in various cupboards, all waiting to be brought out for approval. Within minutes of arriving in this calm and private space, Mr Angeloni has shown MR PORTER the outfit he plans to wear tonight to entertain the Japanese press: an exquisite silk kimono sourced from Ginza, Tokyo. It comes with a fan – and, yes, he’s more than happy to whip that out, too. Later, he fetches books (he’s written several), pamphlets (including a dictionary-style definition of his “Good Italian” philosophy – which he has developed, with Caruso, via a series of films starring Italian cinematic icon Mr Giancarlo Giannini) and a bespoke hunting coat he commissioned from Savile Row tailor Henry Poole & Co decades ago (it still looks great – he’s just had the silver buttons repolished).

This, of course, is all very nice – and neatly encapsulates the eccentric energy that has become synonymous with Caruso since Mr Angeloni took over the historic tailor in 2008 – but it’s essentially foreplay. We’re here, in fact, to drink whisky. Alongside food, bel canto opera, vintage cars, exotic formalwear and, admittedly, pretty much everything, this is one of Mr Angeloni’s special passions. It’s also one of MR PORTER’s particular vices. Needless to say, what followed was a thoroughly charming hour, from which we emerged more than a little light-headed.

What was it that first got you interested in whisky?

Well, the top collectors are all Italian, and the top connoisseurs are all Italian. And the reason why this industry started, of whisky aged beyond three years, which is the legal minimum to be called whisky, is because the Italians invested in the casks. They all went to Scotland in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, and they told the Scots they’d buy all these casks. “Here’s the money: you keep these here. See you in 20 years. See you in 30, 40, 50, 60 years.” I have a Macallan 50, which means that it’s been in the cask for 50 years. It was bottled by Italians. The label was designed by Italians.

Is this related to the economic boom in Italy at that point?

Of course; you need wealth and especially the clientele that is going to buy this sort of thing. Because it’s expensive to keep money tied up for so long without a guarantee. Because what if the little distillery goes bust or something happens and the cask goes wrong? You’ve already paid for it. But then, you need another ingredient apart from the client and the money. You need the passion. The vision. The palette. You need “Good Italian”-ism.

How does Good Italian-ism relate to whisky?

Good Italian-ism doesn’t mean that we only like Italian things – Italian art, music, places. It just means that the Good Italians of old – the primary Good Italians were the Romans – would pick the best things from everywhere and, if it was really the best and something new to them, they would bring it and take it back, often improving it. And this is the perfect case. Forget about three, five-year-old whisky. The Italians said: “Let’s start 15, 20 years and up.” And it became their own habit, product, ritual.

So presumably you have a collection yourself of some good bottles?

Yes, but not collectibles. I’ve got drinking bottles up to 40, 50 years old.

How many do you think you have amassed?

Nine hundred. I keep about 40 or 50 here in Milan, and the rest in Rome. I started collecting in earnest in the late 1990s, the golden era for collectors. Whisky wasn’t overpriced then. There were some bottles that were created only for Italy, 40-year-old Macallans that I bought for maybe €400-500, and are now worth maybe €3,500.

Whisky keeps forever. So how do you decide which ones to drink, and when?

Well, when I’m down to two bottles, I stop. The sad thing is that it’s no longer possible to make whisky of this quality because, since whisky production became industrialised, fewer people are distilling the artisanal way. The other thing is the availability of casks. In good, old whisky you see “sherry wood” written on the label. This refers to oak barrels, used to age whisky, that have housed sherry for years and years. Sherry was very popular in England so they would import it from Spain, but after drinking it they would throw away the barrels. And the Scots, who are notoriously thrifty, they used them for whisky, and by chance created the most elaborate liquor ever. Somehow the sherry was absorbed into the fibre of the wood and when it stays with the whisky for several decades it gives it complexity. But, since no one drinks sherry that much anymore, now you can’t find those casks. Now, sometimes, they use Bordeaux barrels. But it’s not the same.

How do you like to drink your whisky?

Well, speaking of that, whenever you’re ready, we can drink some?

Well, it’s past 6.00pm… That’s fine, right?

OK, we’re having an old, fine sherry-casked Glen Avon 25-year-old whisky. It was bottled in 2001, so put in the cask in 1986.

What is that you’re using to drink?

It’s my whisky glass – I bought it in an antique shop. It has the word “Hubert” engraved on it, which is the closest I could find to “Umberto”. I’ve used it for the past 20 years without ever washing it. That means it retains all the smells. Now, smell the whisky first. You’ll notice it’s kind of flowery. You may suspect just by the smell that it’s going to be somewhat sweet and mellow. But then when you actually taste it, it’s very dry.’

Oh yes, absolutely.

The combination of the colours, the smell, reminds you of flowers and honey, right? Imagine, they have identified up to 400 different potential smells in whisky. Of course not every smell is going to be there in every whisky – there are peaty ones, smoky ones, all kinds. It depends on the wood, how many years, the bottling conditions, the water, the ageing process.

It’s got a very sweet aftertaste.

This is called the “finish”. In a good whisky, the finish will stay with you for at least three or four hours. You see why it’s a drink that we’re offering to you before dinner. Imagine having this after you have prosciutto, pasta… You lose a lot. It’s still good, but you don’t fully appreciate. So before anything, we start with this.

What came first for you – was it food or clothing?

For us Italians, it’s food. We have had proper food, or exquisite food, some of us with a silver spoon, since birth. And of course we don’t have any limits on how early we can teach our children to appreciate wine. It’s not that uncommon to give very young children wine. That comes first. Then, probably, comes dressing up. You have your First Communion at nine or 10. You have to dress up – they used to get a bespoke suit and tie for that. Then you have school, graduation, university, and from there you start to build up a wardrobe for occasions, because the family may have anniversaries, weddings or something important, and also the kids have to dress up. So I suppose dressing up, formally, for celebrations, comes second.

Travelling is also important as regards clothing. Everywhere you go in the world, you meet Italians – we are a nation of discoverers, conquerors. Italians like to travel, like to visit places. And that’s where they pick up things and bring them back. Just like how we adapted whisky, we adapted the modern lounge suit. It’s a British invention, derived from the riding coat. And then, through the Grand Tour, it came from England to Europe. France added embroidery. Italy added the suppleness and the fit, perhaps, making it less boxy. So again, the suit was invented by the British but then it was perfected along the way.’

This 25-year-old Glen Avon smells almost caramel-y now. It was floral in the beginning and now, very different.

Ah, you have a good palate! Now would you like the 35? It’s very strong.

OK… the tiniest bit… just for the taste.

This is a completely different whisky… look at the colour.

It’s almost black!

Because it hasn’t been filtered. And it hasn’t been diluted. Normally whisky is brought down to 40 per cent. Instead, this is cask strength. Which means it’s bottled as it comes – they don’t even filter it. It happens to be 41.2 per cent, because over the years it evaporates. In the beginning it’s 100 per cent alcohol. Because it hasn’t been filtered or diluted, and it’s so old, the taste is a lot tougher. This gives also, in time, more flavour, but in the beginning, it’s more powerful.

Oof! You can say that again.

[Laughs].

MR UMBERTO ANGELONI’S RULES OF WHISKY DRINKING

01. Eating is cheating

“Don’t have any food before your whisky. Possibly even drink it in the morning. That’s probably not politically correct, is it?”

02. Sipping is ripping

“Don’t drink much whisky, and drink it slowly. Take as long as you wish. People see movies with John Wayne and think you should knock it back – but no, no, slowly slowly.”

03. Cleaning is... demeaning?

“Don’t wash your glass if you have a special one. If you leave your glass out, unwashed, sometimes you’ll go out and come back in the room, and come back to a wonderful, rich fragrance. The morning after, it will smell different again.”

Sip in style

  • Caruso Olive Slim-Fit Stretch-Cotton Twill Suit Jacket

  • Caruso Navy Slim-Fit Mélange Wool Trousers

  • Caruso Blue Butterfly Slim-Fit Unstructured Striped Cotton-Seersucker Blazer

  • Caruso Charcoal Slim-Fit Unstructured Puppytooth Alpaca and Wool-Blend Blazer

  • Caruso Sand Stretch-Cotton Twill Suit Trousers

  • Caruso Slim-Fit Camp-Collar End-On-End Cotton Shirt