Awards & Events

Positive education

Martin Betts learnt more than a wealth of whisk(e)y knowledge from Whisky Magazine Live's Masterclasses, he found out that the Master Blenders and Distillers could communicate with the enthusiast without resorting to cliché
By Martin Betts
Hushed awe, fiery discussions and looks of amazement. Bourbons, blends, cask strengths, malts and experimental cask samples. Blenders, Distillers and whisky experts. A permeable sense of satisfaction. This is exactly what the many enthusiasts who attended one or more of the 21 Masterclasses at Whisky Magazine Live experienced. This series of tutored tastings allowed people to learn more about specific whiskies in an intimate atmosphere where every question was answered. Each attendee at the Masterclasses had the opportunity to absorb a wash of detailed information on how each whisk(e)y was produced and participate in pro-active tastings. For example, Chivas Regal’s Master Blender, Colin Scott, allowed those who attended his class to mix six whiskies from differing distilling areas of Scotland to create their own unique blend which they could keep in a 100ml bottle – complete with label signed by the kilt-wearing Master Blender. Classes such as the one hosted by Ewan Mitchell of Springbank afforded those who attended the exclusive chance to taste a cask strength expression of Springbank that had been matured exclusively in a Port cask. Ewan has hinted that a release of this whisky, which was described as being “beautifully crafted” by one Masterclass pupil, isn’t out of the question in the future.But the classes were more than just entertaining lectures, the most exciting aspect was the chance for everyone to get close to well-known industry figures such as Elmer T Lee of Buffalo Trace, Dr Bill Lumsden of Glenmorangie, Richard Paterson of JBB, Julian Van Winkle from Van Winkle and Alistair Robertson from Talisker to name but a few. Their addresses to their audiences were intimate and they often strayed away from the well-drilled and tired marketing patter to deliver their own thoughts and ideas on the whisk(e)y industry. For many, this was the first time that these people, whom they had read so much about in Whisky Magazine, became more than industry figures: these were people with personalities and opinions, individual styles and unique approaches to educating the masses in the ways of whisk(e)y. Elmer T Lee was a true case in point. The Master Distiller Emeritus at Buffalo Trace in Frankfurt, Kentucky, is the grandaddy of whiskey (your favourite grandparent, even). Laid-back in approach, the stars of his Masterclass were the whiskeys which he had brought with him – W L Weller aged 12 years, Buffalo Trace and Sazerac rye whiskey. His affable, amusing and authorative style allowed his audience to relax and feel comfortable enough to ask a number of questions on subjects ranging from maturation to preferred levels of corn content in whiskey. All of these queries were answered without delay and in a style that made it feel like he was talking to a group of friends rather than a pack of information hungry whiskey fans which lesser mortals may have had to fend off with a sharp stick. It was interesting to discover his seeming fondness for Sazerac above the other products. His 37 years of active distilling service at Buffalo Trace meant that he nurtured each of the brands like a parent would nurture a child through their formative years. During that time he had obviously loved each one (the reason why he spent the next 15 years after retirement acting as Brand Ambassador and selecting casks for differing Buffalo Trace brands) but had, maybe subconsciously, chosen Sazerac as a favourite to lavish with extra care, love and attention.“Its got more flavour, you get wood taste more, but it’s still smooth and palateable ... we don’t have very many barrels of this left I can tell you,” Elmer enthused. “I pour over ice with a little water, cutting it down to 60 proof – the way I like it,” he said before placing the glass of Sazerac down carefully, taking a step back and, while fixing it with affectionate eyes, said: “It’s a sweetheart alright.” This obviously impressed those who attended. One such attendee, Andy Benson from Hampshire in the UK, had listened intently to Elmer’s words of wisdom. “He was very good, he certainly knew his stuff,” he said, still glowing after thoroughly enjoying the experience. “I’m interested in all whiskies but it was useful for me because I’ve just got into bourbons and I’m looking to find some new treasures this weekend.” He certainly wasn’t disappointed with what he had discovered in the Buffalo Trace Masterclass.David King, Marketing Director at Cutty Sark International, was a completely different speaker. His style was open, involved tasting whiskies other than the subject of the Masterclass (which was Glengoyne) and included much humour and exaggeration.David, whose father was an exciseman at Edradour, immediately encouraged the audience to start tasting and comparing whiskies. First up was the Glenrothes 1987 and the Laphroaig 10-years-old, which David asked the audience to look at and see if they could detect a green tinge in the Laphroaig – this was before he notified the class that he hadn’t, mind you he was red/green colour blind. This was an amusing introduction to his main point: he wanted the class to use their own experience to develop opinions rather than have them shaped by the industry or self-proclaimed experts. Moving on from there a typically ebullient Charlie MacLean joined the throng, sitting amongst the interested class members as they embarked upon a journey through the available Glengoyne expressions, starting with the 10-year-old. “It was once described as the perfect lunch time malt,” stated David. “I want to find the industry that lets you sit around at lunchtime drinking it and I’m going to join it!” After savouring the Best of the Best 2001 Highland malts winner, Glengoyne 17-years-old, Charlie MacLean wrestled control of the debate regarding the Glengoyne 30-year-old and effortlessly steered it away from whisky and on to other subjects. After a gloriously wayward debate on hangovers the Masterclass had overrun, David had lost track of his script, Charlie was at his his most garrulous and the whole session came to a terrifically satisfying chaotic finale – probably the only way it was going to conclude after a full day’s sampling!Aberlour’s Brand Ambassador, Sandy Whyte, offered a different type of class, one that gave an insight into the secretive-cum-comic relationship that often exists between production and marketing. When asked about the maturation of the Aberlour 10-year-old he said that it was kept in bourbon casks for three quarters of the ageing process and spent the other quarter in sherry casks – well, that was what he thought because Master Blender David Boyd “plays his cards close to his chest”. One member of the audience then asked if Sandy thought that, despite his secrecy, Boyd was passing on the knowledge of how to create a classic Speysider to a possible successor. “I sincerely hope so,” he replied with a wry grin.The class was also notable for the level of discussion over the merits of the 30-year-old in comparison to the 15-year-old amongst the assembled Aberlour fans. It was interesting to sit at the periphery of a debate that saw a noticeable and vociferous split in opinion amongst the attendees that began spontaneously after each Masterclass member tasted the 30-years-old. The argument was based on whether the 30-years-old was a worthwhile expression and it seemed that Sandy was genuinely stunned by the strong feeling that this vertical tasting had created. However, he interjected to state that he thought the creation of the Aberlour 30 was a “very worthwhile exercise” and that variety and personal preference needed to be celebrated before closing the debate by stating that he, in contrast, “hankers for the 10-year-old”.One of the prevailing aspects of the classes was that Master Blenders, Distillers and Brand Ambassadors favoured the addition of water to whisky as an aid to full appreciation of the spirit. Colin Scott said: “A lot of people talk about (how to enjoy) whisky but there’s no rules. Personally I drink it at 20 per cent: it opens up the flavours and takes away the nose prickle.” This corresponded with the views of Elmer T Lee and Sandy Whyte, who claimed he was on a “personal crusade” to get people to add water to appreciate the secondary aromas. Personally, I found these admissions refreshing after a considerable amount of time being forced to listen to whisky snobbery that suggests that those who add water aren’t true enthusiasts.Those who attended the Masterclasses certainly got more than they had bargained for, it’s also fair to say that those who addressed the classes experienced a level of enthusiasm that either delighted or stunned them. The immense amount of whisk(e)y knowledge gleaned from the speakers paled somewhat when compared to what was discovered about the personalities and the styles of the individuals that took the Masterclasses. It was interesting to observe the classes and watch the assembled whisk(e)y enthusiasts gradually bonding with the speakers as the sessions overran through immense interest and then witness the reluctance of those attending to leave the class afterwards. The faces of those walking away from the Masterclass rooms suggest that they were a significant and valuable part of the Whisky Magazine Live experience and it is certain that next year the sessions will be even more varied. A permeable sense of satisfaction indeed.