It’s the most recent development in whisky tourism, with a healthy dash of marketing thrown in. As whisky drinkers get ever more knowledgeable and demand a deeper and deeper experience so whisky schools have been developed to feed their passion.And, make no mistake, the industry looks with some awe on the levels of knowledge and enthusiasm that some consumers bring to the subject. Perhaps I shouldn’t mention the name but when one manager said to me with some feeling “I’m not taking any more Germans round this distillery ever again.They know more about it than I do!”, he was only partly joking.But enterprising distillers have seen an opportunity to cash in on this trend and gain life-long friends and informal brand ambassadors at the same time.There are basically two styles of school: hard-core hands-on, where you do some real work as you learn, and a more relaxed style, that combines elements of a vacation with your learning.We’ve written before about the schools at Bladnoch and Bruichladdich. They were among the first to develop this idea and have adopted a purist approach that, as Bruichladdich’s Mark Reynier explains is “more work experience than seriously academic – though there is a meaningful exam at the end.” At Bruichladdich and Kilchoman on Islay; Bladnoch and also at Campbeltown’s Springbank you have the opportunity to step back in time to a more traditional style of distillery with a high degree of manual operation. Their smaller scale of operation makes the experience more direct and their whisky schools are very hands-on.If you go to Bruichladdich’s Academy, be prepared for some real work then: your day starts at 8.00am and you’ll be grafting alongside one of the distillery team on a oneto- one basis. You may be kitted out with work gloves and steel-toed boots and set to rolling casks, or you could take your place on the bottling line filling one of the many Bruichladdich expressions. At the end of your four days you’ll have sampled every department in the distillery, ready for that exam.So who goes? Mark Reynier again: “Our previous guests have included a Californian brain surgeon (three times), Glasgow funeral director, Namibian business man, South African fisherman, Canadian gold prospector and a recently widowed housewife; and members of the trade: Gault & Millau Barman of the Year, Japanese barmen/ladies, prospective distillers and even academics from universities as far afield as Florida and Tennessee.” The cost of this unusual working holiday?£795, including accommodation in the Distillery house, though you have to arrange your own transport to Islay and you should probably budget for some purchases in the distillery shop as you’re definitely going to want to take a taste home. In 2009, the Academy runs from May 1st to December 1st (apart from the summer holiday distilling break between 27th July and August 17th 2009).Alternatively, if Islay is your whisky favourite, consider the ‘Distillery Experience’ at tiny Kilchoman. This course costs £500 but accommodation and transport are extra. During your five day stay you will shadow Malcolm Rennie, the distillery manager and Gavin Douglas, Malcolm’s assistant, and get hands on experience of every facet of malt whisky production – from barley to bottling.But if that sounds like hard work, there are some alternative options. Once the province of the smaller distillers, their larger competitors have entered into the spirit of the whisky schools.At Glenturret, for example, home to The Famous Grouse Experience you can spend a day learning about Whisky and Cooking.The £100, non-residential course offers a chance to learn about whisky aromas and matching whisky to food. A selection of courses is demonstrated and you re-create some of the dishes yourself and enjoy them for lunch along with two different whisky serves. It’s described as “designed for budding chefs and those who simply have a love of cooking and enjoy good food.” Glenlivet, too, have a Whisky School and I recently joined a group for this three day exposure to “the single malt that started it all”. This is a more luxurious experience than some of the working holidays, with the emphasis on gentle learning interspersed with some generous hospitality.Participants at the Glenlivet Whisky School stay at Minmore House Hotel, right by the distillery. This multi-award winning small country house hotel (naturally it’s one of Whisky Magazine’s Supreme Whisky Bars) isn’t just an exceptionally comfortable base but, as the original family home of George Smith founder of The Glenlivet, has a special place in whisky lover’s hearts.It’s also the location for the school’s culinary high spot: a Scottish dinner in Smith’s dining room; with the company in full Highland dress (kilts and jackets are provided as part of the course fee). The resident father and son team in charge of the kitchen, Victor and Marcus Jannsen, delighted us with a four-course meal using local produce that won high praise from delegates, who had enjoyed dinner the previous evening at Aberlour’s Mash Tun pub. But it isn’t all eating and drinking. In between times, our group of enthusiasts explored every part of the distillery; learned about whisky history; participated in several tastings, including an investigation of the impact of maturation on new spirit; visited the site of the original Glenlivet distillery and sampled cask strength whisky in a dunnage warehouse.The group comprised just 12 participants drawn from England, Wales, Scotland and Germany. For almost all of the party the high point was meeting master distiller emeritus Jim Cryle, who is persuaded out of retirement for a few days each year to operate Glenlivet’s Sma’ Still and thus illustrate the roots of distilling.Jim was soon able to coax the still into action and use it to explain the basic principles of distilling, as well as demonstrate something of the reality of smuggling and early distillery operations in the Glenlivet valley. This, combined with a walk along part of the Smugglers’ Trail, vividly illustrated the difficulties facing early pioneers such as George Smith.We tasted spirit from the Sma’ Still throughout its run, which clearly illustrated the point at which foreshots gave way to the heart of the run and then the spirit moved to feints. This part of the Glenlivet Whisky School is totally unique and, if some of the School is pure relaxation, then this was an example of practical learning at its very best.For a three day (two nights) course, the School is remarkable value. The £250 fee includes accommodation, all meals and the course itself. At the end, assuming you pass the exam, there is a certificate to be presented and then it’s time to swap email addresses with the new friends you will make.So going back to school needn’t be hard work, but personally I can’t wait to see what further in-depth experiences the distillers have planned for us next. Learning is such good fun.MORE INFORMATION?
The Famous Grouse Cookery School
Call +44 (0)1764 656565tobook.
The Glenlivet Whisky School
visit www.theglenlivet.comfor details
contact Ella on +44 (0)1496 850 910for
details and to book.
All Enquiries to +44 (0)28 4062 2842.