Laura Smith sets out to find out all about whisky.
An introduction to whisky for most people consists of a relaxing tasting event, often more about the alcohol than the knowledge. In the interests of Wee Dram, I opted for a baptism of fire when I became one of the first people to sit the official Scottish Qualification Authority (SQA) accredited exam in single malt whisky.
As a complete novice, I felt a bit of an imposter, but after two days of intensive learning on the Edinburgh Whisky Academy course, I would say I’m now a lot more clued up on whisky. I’d even go so far as to say that my previous reaction of “OH MY GOD MY THROAT IS ON FIRE!” has been re-educated and I’ve discovered my sophisticated palate.
It’s an autumnal day that I find myself in the grand setting of Arniston House in Midlothian, ready to study for the first-ever Diploma in Single Malt Whisky. According to Edinburgh Whisky Academy founder Kirsty McKerrow it’s the only SQA course of its kind.
My fellow students are Darren McCormick, Tours and Retail Supervisor at Annandale Distillery; Steven Cooney, Whisky Ambassador at Edinburgh’s Tigerlily bar; Sammy Leung, a freelance Wine, Whisky and Sake Consultant based in London and Hong Kong, and Claire Stevens, who has just joined Uisge Source, an Edinburgh-based company that bottles water from the same region as some Scottish whisky distilleries.
This course is not for the light-hearted. Aimed more at whisky enthusiasts or industry professionals, it offers more than an angels’ share of whisky knowledge (referring to the 2% of whisky that evaporates from the casks during maturation). The vision of my first day being filled with whisky aromas and tastes are quickly dispelled by the overwhelming smell of cucumber thanks to the germinating barley our charismatic lecturer, Vic Cameron, is passing around to illustrate the malting process.
Armed with what feels like a million slides and some colourful anecdotes, Vic gives us a passionate and comprehensive overview of the entire single malt production process, from grain to glass. While most of the technical and complex processes fly over my head, the chemistry involved from fermentation to distillation is incredible. It’s also fascinating to learn exactly what affects the flavour of a whisky – from the shape and size of the distillation stills to the type of oak used for the cask. Vic, a freelance whisky consultant and lecturer, has over 20 years’ experience stemming from his work in malting and distilling sites with Diageo, and his extensive knowledge and enthusiasm is contagious.
I’m not the only one feeling overwhelmed, although I’m in awe of Sammy, who seems to be following things better than I am, even though the course isn’t in his first language! I thought my journey from Glasgow was far but Sammy has come from Hong Kong. The journey is worth it, as he later reflects, the intensive learning was invaluable to him and will definitely help his consultancy business.
Our first taste of whisky comes at the end of day one on a tour of a nearby distillery, Glenkinchie. It was useful to see theory being put into practice. While everyone savoured the sampling of a Glenkinchie 12 year old whisky admiring its complexity, I felt embarrassed to be the only one screwing their face up.
At first, I could only detect an aroma of vanilla and all I could honestly taste was fire. Vic coaches me to swirl the whisky and close my eyes while tasting, and I declare I can taste peaches and burnt sugar. There’s maybe hope for me yet, when Vic tells me I’m right!
My favourite part of the course was the nosing and tasting section on day two. Vic explained how just two drops of water was enough to subtly alter the flavour; how to identify different new make spirits (the potent liquid that comes out the spirit still before going in the barrel) and how to properly nose and taste a whisky.
Being new to whisky means I’m trying to ignore the initial hit to allow me to detect subtle flavours and aromas. Despite finding it challenging, I’m heartened by Vic’s reassurance when he says, “When you’re nosing a whisky, what you smell can’t be wrong. It’s all correct because that’s what you smell. Don’t be afraid to say the first thing that pops into your mind. Think about what the smell reminds you of.”
It turns out this can be anything from grass to Weetabix, burnt toast to stewed apples, bubblegum, geraniums, apricots, digestive biscuits and pork sausages. Atone point, during my sensory exam I’m convinced I can smell popcorn so jot it down. Another great tasting tip from Vic that I can definitely get on board with is that, “the best way to try a Caol Ila is to have a Malteaser in each cheek as you drink. It’s fantastic as some whiskies go so well with chocolate.”
From the point of view as a beginner, the whole experience did feel a bit like information overload. The exam itself was a daunting two hours of multiple choice, written questions and a ‘nosing’ element… if only more exams allowed alcohol! Perhaps I scored most highly in this part for a reason. Time constraints meant I was unable to study the extensive pre-course reading materials so I failed to “meet the criteria” and gain my diploma. Incredibly, it was only the history and business elements that I failed. This novice passed everything else!
While I still don’t know my Glenmorangie from my Glenlivet, at least I’m now confident in the production processes, and know how to nose and taste them properly. More importantly, I’ve been inspired to further my whisky education… only this time outside the classroom.
The Diploma in Single Malt Whisky is a monthly course delivered by the Edinburgh Whisky Academy, priced £870 per person with SQA fee included. For more information visit