Not everyone wants to know how the products they interact with are made. Whenever I board a long haul flight, I don’t spend hours reading around the subject of flying beforehand; I just trust that the pilot has done his training and will get me to my destination safely, via a nice G&T and two of last year’s Hollywood box office hits.
However, there is a growing appetite in today’s culture to understand more fully the lineage of the products we choose to consume, especially when those items, be they works of art, furniture or food and drink, are premium products. Nowhere is the hunger for education seen more closely than in the topic that is ‘whisky’.
This dark, brooding substance seems to have the inner student in us all begging for extra tuition. Who can blame us, when the product is so good.
“Every day is a school day”, so the saying goes and when it comes to whisky this could not be more true. With the dawn of the ‘information super highway’ never has it been easier to seek counsel and education. But be careful, as much of the advice (or opinion) around is often from self-appointed experts whose greatest achievement is to have registered a web address, take pretty pictures and worked out how to use Wordpress.
However, from the grain to the glass, there is always something which can add to your knowledge and a wealth of books, well established websites, events such as Whisky Live and magazines like this one can all give excellent pointers to those looking to learn more about the drink they enjoy. But to really quench your thirst for whisky education, meeting the people who make it is a must.
Understandably, many of the distilleries which might feature in your list of dream drams may not be easily accessible to you, or to most people for that matter. Visiting Speyside, let alone the islands of Islay or Orkney, is not the simplest of trips and can often be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many.
For those who love their Speyside malts and want to learn more, one big-name distillery is offering enthusiasts a chance to immerse themselves in the world of single malt Scotch. Open to members of the Guardians programme, The Glenlivet distillery runs a three day whisky school where attendees learn everything from the history of Scotch whisky through to the current state of the market and everything in between.
Keen to learn more not just about Scotch whisky, but about the process of educating those thirsty for knowledge, I joined The Glenlivet Guardian’s Whisky School for their three day course in ‘malterative education’.
The school (let’s be fair and say this is much more of a college than a school. There are no uniforms, bells or calling people ‘Sir’) kicks off with lunch at Linn House, the Speyside home of Chivas Brothers, owners of The Glenlivet, which shall be our home for the next three days. The property is located in Keith, right next door to Glenkeith distillery, within a short walk of the stunning Strahisla distillery, and is best described as somewhere between a small castle and a mini-manor house. On arrival, guests are greeted by our host for the next few days, the wonderfully knowledgeable Ian Logan, global brand ambassador for The Glenlivet. After dropping our bags into our period property bedrooms, we are treated to a filling buffet lunch, as introductions are exchanged with fellow students and, often, whisky cabinets compared.
Our class size for this edition of the whisky school was just nine, a perfect number to be able to ask questions, debate and interact with one-another. A truly international bunch, we were made up of five Dutch attendees, three Americans and just myself from the UK. After lunch on day one of the school it was off to the distillery to begin our journey of discovery with an introduction to whisky, a session on nosing and tasting, followed by a history of The Glenlivet.
After a couple of hours of ‘classroom teaching’, albeit with the addition of a nosing and tasting session, it was time for a tour of the distillery. A recent expansion of The Glenlivet has given the distillery an ability to show off the entire process, from milling to distillation, in one very easy space, making the flow from barley to bottle very easy to understand.
After a comprehensive tour, with unfettered questions and answers, which included a huge amount of honesty from Ian (one such example being a question on why some of the parts on one side of the still house are copper covered and on the other side are stainless steel was greeted with the simple reply “Because you can see the copper ones from the car park, and the others you can’t, so it doesn’t matter what colour they are!”), it was time to return to Keith.
Back at Linn House, we were to dig in to the full gamete of whiskies on offer from The Glenlivet, explored in their ‘signature range tasting’, giving us all an opportunity to use the nosing and tasting skills learnt in the early part of the day, by really digging into the flavours hidden in the drams. With guidance from Ian Logan, it was our task to look at the tasting notes supplied by Master Distiller Alan Winchester and, from the 12 Years Old to the 25 Years Old, see how these expressions increase in flavour and complexity as their age and maturity ticks upwards.
The day concluded with an informal dinner, followed by drams in the Linn House Garden Bar; a hidden gem which feels a little like the whisky equivalent of Narnia, with Ian playing Aslan. To write about it, would merely spoil any surprise, so I’ll leave Day One at that...
After a hearty breakfast, we found ourselves back at the distillery, with a proper morning of education ahead. A full and indepth forum on the whisky making process (complete with animated distillery processes) was followed up with a look at what influences the flavour of the liquid in the glass. All this was underscored with an overview of the global whisky market and Ian’s experience from a variety of different consumers across the world.
Taking us through to mid-morning, this seemed the ideal time to wake the senses up with a jolt, and what better way than to look at a series of different new make spirits from across Scotland! Looking at the wide variety of aromas and flavours which emerge from different production processes, these clear drams served as a physical example of the lessons from the earlier part of the morning and, with our pads full of scribblings, helped to make real some of the more ethereal facts and figures from the production process.
To ready ourselves for a lunch of chicken and vegetable broth and rolls, we took a bracing walk up to the site of the original Glenlivet distillery. Just a short jaunt from the current site, we were treated to more stories about the history of the region and how distilling took a hold in the valley of the river Livet, spreading across the whole Speyside region.
The afternoon entertainment came in two halves. Firstly, a demonstration from The Glenlivet’s officially licensed Sma’ Still, a smuggler-style operation which evokes the spirit of the past (literally). One of the best assets in the region, it is a shame that current licensing laws don’t allow this fantastic piece of kit to go on tour around the country. If you want to see it in operation, and taste the spirit it produces, you’ve got to be at the distillery on one of the few days which their licence allows it to run.
The second half of the afternoon involved a tour of the Speyside cooperage. Fantastically educational, watching coopers in action, remaking and remodelling probably the most important aspect of the maturation side of production, is one of the highlights of visiting the region.
The day concluded with a traditional Scottish dinner at Linn House, with master distiller Alan Winchester in attendance to answer any difficult questions which we had from the past two days’ education. With everyone dressed in kilts, the piped in haggis devoured and drams downed, Day Two concluded with a local Highland band and, of course, more sampling.
As our time together drew to a close, the final day saw our new knowledge tested after breakfast with a quiz covering all the aspects which we had encountered over the past two days. All nine of us passed with flying colours (especially the nosing and tasting of some rare, old Glenlivets). We were presented with our certificates by Ian Logan, on the banks of the river Isla and in front of the Linn waterfall, in the stunning grounds of our accommodation.
The whole three day experience was educational, informative and entertaining. As Hans Borgmeijer, one of our Dutch party, commented as we were preparing to leave: “This wasn’t just an education about whisky, but an education about Scotland, its culture and its heritage.”
I think we all left with a greater depth of knowledge and appreciation for the drink that we love, which brought us together from across the world, in the heart of Speyside. Scotch is about the spirit within the spirit and we all came away not just as graduates of The Glenlivet whisky school, but as fully fledged alma mater of uisge beatha.