By Christopher Coates

Join the club: exploring how and why whisky unites us

Whether it be through friends, family, bars or clubs, whisky has the power to forge identities and bring people together. However, there's still work to be done to ensure our favourite spirit can be enjoyed by all
If not for a strange twist of fate, I could very well have been a rum drinker. I mean, that’s not to say I don’t drink rum now – it can be wonderful.

I always have a bottle of Wray & Nephew in the cupboard for cocktails; my colleagues Bethany Whymark (editor of Rum Magazine and Gin Magazine) and Peter Holland (chair of judges for the World Rum Awards) have helped me explore the delightful world of high-ester varieties; and rum was, in fact, the spirit that got me into drinking neat spirits as a teenager – thanks go out to ‘old recipe’ Sailor Jerry for that life-defining experience. [Yes, yes, rum fans. I know 'spiced' should really be called a spirit drink; forgive me, I was young!]

However, what I mean to say is that I don’t identify myself as ‘a rum drinker’. I’m a whisky guy. As for how whisky became fused with my identity, the path was not quite as simple as ‘I drank a whisky and I liked it’. The spirit itself was just the spark that lit the kindling.

Though rum's popularity is growing, it hasn't yet spawned an informed and engaged following comparable to the clubs and societies celebrating whisky

Family first, as they say. Like most whisky drinkers in Scotland, my mum and step-dad are and have always been devotees of the old Grouse and Coke combo. I grew up a stone’s throw from Glenturret Distillery and a bottle of Famous Grouse was always in the cupboard at home. I still have one from time to time. A particularly happy childhood memory is of my usually quite reserved step-dad and jovial Uncle Bill sharing a bottle of single malt one autumn afternoon in the front room of the latter’s farm cottage.

A few hours later the pair of them were almost crying with laughter at one another’s bad jokes (I think there was also something about a coaster being mistaken for a digestive biscuit). It was the first time I’d seen two people bonding over a dram.
Whisky and a biscuit, anyone?

It wasn’t until attending university, however, that single malt came a’knocking on my door. An old flatmate of mine (the fact that he was German will come as no surprise) took me along to his university’s whisky society – oddly enough, I never joined my own – and while I don’t remember a thing about the whiskies we tasted that day I do remember the experience vividly.

We were welcomed by a diverse group of young men and women from around the globe, all focussed on different fields of study but united by a love of Scotch whisky. I was immediately impressed by the club’s sense of community and the laid-back approach to nosing and tasting. Everyone around the table was encouraged to describe the whisky, even if the descriptions were silly, and to then rate the dram using a scale of monkeys and chimpanzees (e.g. four monkeys and a chimp) that seemed to have little basis in any solid scoring system or, indeed, reality. At intervals, a cry would go up — ‘Change places!’ — and instigate a game of musical chairs.

Quite the opposite of the serious, formal tasting I’d expected, the emphasis was on having fun and getting to know each other. There was a real sense of togetherness.

Years later, I’d once again be impacted by the sense of community that’s a hallmark of the whisky world when I took a job at Edinburgh’s Scotch Whisky Experience – lovingly known as ‘the SWE’ or ‘swee’ to team members past and present. One only needs to look at the list of that particular institution’s alumni to get an idea of both the diverse range of personalities drawn to work there but also the lasting impact that the experience has had on the lives of past and present employees. I am not the only one whose career in whisky started there and I credit the welcoming, accepting and open culture fostered by the SWE management team for setting the tone of and my attitude toward a life in the whisky business.

The Scotch Whisky Experience is known for its open and laid-back approach to whisky education.

However, it would be remiss of me to pass over the fact that not everyone is so lucky and I recognise that to have enjoyed such a consistently positive experience of the whisky community in those formative years was a privilege. Like any community, the world of whisky has its demons to confront and not all aspects of whisky culture are without fault – whisky culture is, after all, tied to the societies in which it manifests and reflects both the good and the bad in equal measure.

In this issue, our contributors have set out not only to examine why whisky has the power to unite us and how this sense of community is created, but also what distillers and fellow whisky lovers are doing – and can do – to ensure everyone can find ‘their whisky’ and feel welcome to take a place in that global whisky club for which, by virtue of our shared passion, we all hold a membership card.

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