Education, Education, Education

Education, Education, Education

Where do you go to get your whisky knowledge enhanced

Places | 15 Jul 2016 | Issue 137 | By Ted Bruning

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Whisky afiçionados, even those whose cellars bulge with merchant-bottled malts, are a deprived lot. Beer lovers can brew perfectly respectable ale in their kitchens. Ciderheads can have gloriously squashy fun pressing apples in their garages. Even wine connoisseurs can ferment pretty much anything they can grow. But for whisky fans (British ones, at least) it's a case of don't try this at home, or risk the wrath of Larry Law.

And that's cruelly unfair. Not only does it criminalise a harmless hobby (and home distilling is legal in many jurisdictions that aren't noticeably in a state of mass alcoholic meltdown), it erects an artificial barrier between aspirant and actual distiller that doesn't exist in other sectors of the drinks business. And one thing's for sure: there's a substantial corps of whisky drinkers who would love to give it a go if only they could.

But if you're not allowed to try your hand at distilling for yourself, you're more than welcome to watch others doing it. Two thirds of Scotland's 100 malt distilleries now open their doors to 1.5 million visitors a year; and the whisky distillers popping up south of the border - Penderyn, St George's, Cotswold, Lakes, Dartmoor, Chase - all have tourism written into their business plans too. So there are plenty of places where the wannabe maltmeister can gaze longingly through the bars; and in some, you can do more than just gaze.

Distilleries vary enormously in what they offer to visitors. Many provide lavishly for the general tourist; others offer hands-on days when you can pay for the privilege of helping out (or of getting in the way, depending on your viewpoint).

Others still - only a handful, alas - take hands-on a stage further and run three or five-day courses where you do everything and have it explained to you as you do it. These tend to come and go, since the resources that have to be put into them are considerable: three of the best-known, at Bladnoch, Glenlivet, and Kilchoman, have been suspended but Loch Ewe's, Springbank's and Strathearn's, and are still running.

Loch Ewe Distillery

Tel: +44 (0) 1445 731 242

Run by John and Frances Clotworthy, the course costs £1,000 and includes: five days lodging with meals, learning the fine art of whisky making, taking over the distillery, tasting with the Drumchork Whisky panel, UK duty and tax, distilling certificate and five litre cask of Uisge Beatha to take home and mature in your own home or leave at Loch Ewe to mature into Scotch.

Springbank Distillery

Tel: +44 (0) 1586 552 009

Springbank has been offering week long courses - eight a year, with six students at £1,100 each - since 2007, and with Frank McHardy, whose 53 years in distilling include 30 at Springbank, as mentor you should pick up a few tips.

Book now, says Distillery Manager Gavin McLaughlin, and they might squeeze you in on one of the 2018 courses; 2017 is already fully-booked. The syllabus covers everything from malting to distilling, and there's an exam on the last day with a diploma if you paid attention.

"We get all sorts of people on the course, and from all over the world," says Gavin. "For some it's just fun - we've even had people do the course twice! They get to help with the jobs as well as taking the course, and become our informal ambassadors because it's the sort of experience you can't stop talking about when you get home. But others are already working in the industry and see this as valuable professional experience."

Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival Whisky School

Tel: +44 (0) 7789 671 635

Similar in some respects to the distillery-based courses - useful, but as much about pleasure as business - are the three-day courses run every April as part of the Spirit of Speyside (SoS) Whisky Festival.

The SoS course concentrates on production and the school attracts whisky fanatics from all over the world, a few of whom are already planning to become industry professionals. There are only 18 places and there is a lengthy waiting list.

During the comprehensive three day programme, students learn about single malt whisky production from the raw material to the finished product through a series of lectures from industry experts, complemented by site visits.

The school's founding fathers Ed Dodson, Dr Tim Dolan, Charles Smith and Peter Warren got behind the venture in order to give something back to an industry which has been good to them. Dr Tim Dolan has extensive academic and industry experience which as well as management included teaching, coaching and lecturing. He says that although the whisky school could attract many more pupils, its protected size delivers better learning opportunities. "Small is beautiful," says Dr Dolan, "and the essential thing is to give the right experience, for students to be able to speak to lecturers and ask questions, and because space can be restricted on technical visits."

Strathearn Distillery

Tel +44 (0)1738 840 100

"There are only two people each on our three and five-day course so the syllabus can be bespoke for them," says Strathearn Distillery Manager Stuart McMillan. "If you do the five day course you experience at least four distillations and at the end you do the cuts yourself."

"But it isn't something you can learn in a week. There are a lot of short courses you can take, but are you a distiller after attending one? It's an intensive experience but no, you aren't."

Strathearn's 22 years old brewer Laim Pennycook agrees. He'd already been mashing and fermenting for months when he was sent to attend a week-long brewing course.

"That's the only formal training I've had," he says. "I'd been doing the work already but the course gave me an understanding of the theory behind it. I found it easier that way round because the technicalities make a lot more sense when you've already gained a practical understanding.

"It's a small team here. But we're always innovating and trying different things, and it's mastering the theory that puts you in control." Strathearn offers:

One Day Whisky School at £145 with a maximum of three people;

Three day Whisky School at £390 with a maximum of three people;

Five day Whisky School at £840 with a maximum of two people.

This is the point where the two paths - those of the serious pro distiller and the civilian whisky enthusiast - finally diverge. Liam is about to follow his colleague, distiller Zak Shenfield, up the rungs at The Institute of Brewing and Distilling.

The Institute of Brewing & Distilling

Tel: +44 (0) 2074 998 144

This is a three-stage career ladder:

Fundamentals of Distilling (distance-taught, £290);

General Certificate (four days, £900);

Diploma (distance-taught followed by three three-hour exams, £915).

The IBD runs schools and exam centres all over the country, so you need never stray too far from home. The Fundamentals course describes itself as suitable for non-technical personnel (eg. sales and HR) who would benefit from some knowledge of production and for newcomers who have just started a technical career; but a quick look at the 17 headings covered by the course suggests that the description is too modest because it covers such areas as raw materials, theory of fermentation, maturation, co-products, quality control, distilling and extensive coverage of the environment.

Registrations for the General Certificate, which has 20 modules, have increased 80 per cent in five years, and growth in demand is accelerating. "We had 500 registrations in 2015 and 450 by May 2016," says CEO Jerry Avis. "What it shows is how important it is to fill the 'I don't know what I don't know' gap." The diploma has an extensive syllabus which runs to 34 pages and is available to download from their website.

Until now, the IDB was the only body filling that gap. But this year a commercial competitor, The Edinburgh Whisky Academy, opened its doors with a curriculum rather less technical and more business-oriented than the Institute's.

The Edinburgh Whisky Academy

Tel + 44 (0) 7771 367 580

The Academy offers three Scottish Qualifications Agency accredited two-day diplomas which are designed - rather like the Scotch Whisky Experience's certificate - more to give retailers, brand managers and other professionals (as well as connoisseurs and enthusiasts) in-depth knowledge of malts, blends, and tasting. The diplomas are taught at Arniston House near Edinburgh to groups of up to 20 at £950 per student.

Behind the Academy is former Glenmorangie and Ardbeg brand ambassador Kirsty McKerrow. "When I was appointed I found there was no basic training available," she says. "I had to scour the internet and buy a mountain of books to find and then collate the information I needed as a professional, so I decided to put together these two-day packages."

All these institutes, schools, courses, and experiences thrive in the shade of one of the world's greatest food and drink educational institutions, namely:

Heriot-Watt University's International Centre for Brewing & Distilling

Tel: +44 (0) 1314 495 111

The ICBD teaches the undergraduate and postgraduate degrees that power the world's brewing and distilling industries, and while you yourself might consider the years of toil that go into an MSC a little excessive, you'll be glad one day of the services of Heriot-Watt postgrads like Abhi Banishek who wander the wide world dispensing the technical expertise distilled from his years in Edinburgh.

Abhi has worked on product development and project management on a number of start-ups and was instrumental in setting up the Scottish Craft Distillers Association.

"Most start-ups need the support of someone like me to help with both technical issues and regulatory aspects," he says. "You have to take that side of it in deadly earnest because although HMRC nowadays are keen to help, they are duty-bound to follow certain procedures, some of which are very complicated with much paperwork."


Tel: +44 (0) 1915 499 450

This is a three day course and begins with the basics so you don't need any background knowledge of distilling to make the most of the expertise on offer. The course will provide a sound overview of the industry so you develop a solid understanding of the disciplines needed to operate a commercial distilling venture. The course fee is £715. A £100 non-refundable deposit is required to secure a booking. The balance has to be paid six weeks prior to the course start date.
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