My birthday present from MLW was a day at the Scotch Whisky Experience on a taught course on the Sale and Marketing of Whisky. This touches two of my interests. Whisky and the whisky industry.
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The Scotch Whisky Experience is a visitor, heritage and education centre for the Scotch industry on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. It is owned by the Scotch industry, or most of it.
The building is lovely and well situated in Edinburgh.
Of the eight people on the course 7 worked in the drinks industry. Two of us were on birthday presents and one was a visitor from Canada who worked in the drinks industry and I think had come out of a mix of professional an personal interest. There were three staff from the Scotch Whisky Association, the trade body. As always on these things it’s fun to meet people and they are generally on their best behaviour so the interaction is good natured. Also, the camaraderie of putting enthusiasts of any subject in a room to talk about that subject is pretty joyful.
The course included a good session on the production of whisky. For anyone who has been on a distillery tour there wasn’t a large amount of significantly new information. The process of making whisky is not a very complicated one. However, this session was pitched at the kind of knowledgeable amateur who had been on a few tours in their time. This went into more detail about the process than I’d been into before with lots of additional information about the details of individual steps in the process. For example, the temperatures of the water used in each stage of the mashing process. It also talked about the commercial and marketing implications of the production process. For example, the shape and height of the still affects the taste of the final product in a way that is not well understood. For this reason distillers are very reluctant to experiment with the shape of their still in case it goes wrong and they only find out after ten years that they are making gut rot.
I came away thinking I could make a pretty decent go of producing my own whisky given a decent budget. I think the session on the production process would have been improved by having access to a working distillery. A problem with this is that there aren’t any working distilleries in Edinburgh. One could build a micro distillery at the SWE but I’m not sure how practical this would be. Cool, but very impractical. The other problem is that looking at the processes and the kit would have taken up a lot more time and the course would have had to be run over two days. I think the answer would be to book onto one of the Bruichlaiddig master distiller course.
I definitely came away from this session with a much enhanced knowledge of how the making process affects the taste of the product. I can start to read the blurb on production and see how differences in production would affect the final product. In particular the role of different types of wood in the maturation process was fascinating. One of the most interesting pieces of this session was a comparison of new make spirit (straight from the still before going in the barrel) from two distilleries with the final product. You could experience how flavours and smells in the new make spirit carried through into the final product and how different amounts of time in the barrel changed the intensity of these flavours, added to them perhaps, but left the essential quality behind.
We also got to nose and taste six competitors and try and guess what they were. I did okay at this but it’s pretty tricky to tell and Irish whiskey from a cheap Asian knock off. Ironic. One of the guys on the course was telling a story about how the distillery tour at one Irish distiller ended with a comparison of their finest premium product and some gut rot cheap Scotch strained through a sock. I wonder if the same trick was being played in reverse on us. I do hope so.
We also did some comparison in process and marketing of blended whiskies and near competitors for whisky such as brandy, sherry, Irish whiskey and bourbons. This involved a very interesting group exercise where we were asked to come up with a marketing strategy and a product description for a blended whisky and given some parameters. My group were to come up with a premium blend for the USA market’s 50-65 year olds. I am surprisingly self-satisfied with our Presidents’ Dram, featuring once and future King of Scotland Sir Sean Connery. A work of joy.
We had a ride on their virtual tour of a distillery and a look at the frankly magically collection of over three and a half thousand bottles of whisky collected by a Brazilian gentleman. More on this anon I think. It deserves a more lyrical post than the “what I did on my holidays” style of this one.
Before lunch we had a quiz (mock exam). My team scored 43/45. Not bad.
Lunch was delicious. The Amber restaurant gets a thumbs up from me. I had a beef casserole. The banter about landladies in Campbelltown was hilarious.
After lunch we had a tutored tasting. Again, folk who have been on a few tasting nights won’t have learned a huge amount but the extra details were well worth the effort. (Tips for me; smell the whisky before and after adding water, if nosing whisky add more water than you would for tasting, nose the whisky with your mouth open – prevents you nose being overblown by alcohol, it’s easier to nose two glasses than one).
We tasted an Ardbeg, a Balvenie Double Wood, an Auchentoshen and an Old Pulteney (my favourite of the tasting) and a 15 year old Drambuie. All of them very nice and good examples of the regional differences in Scotch.
We then looked at international markets for Scotch and who Scotch is perceived as a drink in different countries. A big difference from the Japanese view of whisky (a premium crafted drink) to Spain or Latin America (most sales between 1 and 4 am). We also looked at various adverts from different markets. No surprises once you got your head round the fact that most consumers in Brazil don’t know Scotch comes from Scotland. Turns out the French drink more whisky than brandy by about ten to one and the UK consumes about one tenth of the total production of Scotch.
Then it was time for the exam. This is an industry standard course so the exam was meant to be pretty robust. It was. Not difficult but if you hadn’t been paying attention and didn’t have some industry knowledge already in the bag you would struggle. It is possible that I have scored 100% i.e. I am not aware of having made any mistakes. I hope I have done well.
We rounded off the day with a few (well three) well chosen whiskies in the excellent whisky bar. I had an Edrabour (I’ve never had one – it was okay but not special), a Bunnahabhen but a little more aged that usual (lovely) and a Leddaig (the peated variant of MLW’s favourite Tobermoray – delicious and my second favourite dram of the day).
I’ve now been round between 6 and a dozen working distilleries. I’ve been on about a dozen tasting sessions. I’ve been on a learn to be a blender session at Glen Goyne. I think this course rounds out me formal training until I’m able to go on the Bruichlaiddig courses.
What I need to do know is to find a good book on the science of distilling covering things like the impact of the shape of the stills and the evolution of yeasts.
I also need to taste more whisky in both a structured and unstructured way.
If anyone would like to help me with this I’m open to offers.