Whisky aficionados and amateurs alike, everybody loves a good master class. Even the most experienced and geeky of us sometimes find the geographical journey through Scotch a bit like the drive to work – it’s all a bit hazy, with no specific memory.
However, the master class at the Scotch Whisky Experience does it a bit differently.
They’re in the process of a refurbishing the shop with flavour and style rather than geography taking precedence as the main drive for the customer experience.
Interactive screens will let you choose a particular style of whisky and they will them be shown a list of distilleries which best fit their chosen flavour profile.
What’s more, when they select one distillery they system will map out other producers with similar characteristics that may suit their tastes.
The Morning Master Class – that’s right, I said morning – began with a tour of the world’s largest private collection of Scotch whisky; 3384 bottles (one of which dating back to 1902) amassed over 35 years by Brazilian businessman Claive Vidiz – his only condition, that every bottle had to be different.
Then we were taken into the tasting room where we stated with a game of identifying odours.
Ten jars containing everyday household scents which covered a number of characteristics but also illustrating the how the wood of the cask affects the flavour profile of a whisky – from sweet spices and fruit to more powerful esters and pungent anaesthetic aromas.
Many visitors to the Experience will already be fans of Scotland’s most famous export, so Marketing Manager, Julie tells us that the tour is aimed at people with at least a small knowledge of Scotch.
This is music to my ears, there’s nothing worse than sitting through a presentation (which I have experienced several times before) and their aim is way off.
Julie hit the nail on the head; giving us the right amount of background information and highlighting stylistic differences without going into too much detail.
Even a total novice would find it fascinating and would arguably take away a decent understanding of Scotch.
Once we’d had our senses awakened it was time for the four drams: A single grain, a blend, and two single malts, one of which was peated.
First up we kept it local with The North British, a grain distillery near the centre of Edinburgh. The site was chosen in 1885 by Andrew Usher, William Sanderson and John M. Crabbie, and began producing spirit in 1887.
This particular dram was a 1980 vintage bottled at 60.3% so it had a hell of a kick to it, but was still very smooth despite the strength. It’s a great example of how good and interesting a Scottish grain whisky can be. It’s a mostly overlooked style of Scotch in comparison to blends and malt whisky and you’ll have to go to the independent bottlers if you want to buy any off the shelf – most of The North British is used as a constituent of some of the most well-known blends including Johnnie Walker, Famous Grouse and Cutty Sark.
It’s a peachy gold colour in the glass with an oily appearance. Approach the nose with caution because it will burn, but once I go in there it was sweet vanilla, old mahogany steeped in generations of polish, and even a hint of sharp acidic spice like Worcester Sauce.
Adding a drop of water opened it up, taking the edge off the alcohol to reveal countryside scents like a brand new fence post on a hot summer day and fields of tall grass; a touch of cinnamon came through with salty beach pebbles.
Next was the blend – Johnnie Walker Double Black, which has more smoke that the normal Black Label.
This is the usual 40% and it certainly smells like there’s a good extra chunk of island whisky in there with a great big whack of TCP edging through the soft light caramel nose. On the palate you really get that peat as a secondary flavour after highland toffee and melted sugary sweetness. Standard Black Label leaves the aftertaste wanting, but this comes through with an old leather and fabric armchair in a dusty, smoky book room.
This is not for long contemplation; after a short time in the glass the strength of the flavours begin to die and the length is seriously curtailed.
From here we headed into the Highlands with The Dalmore 15 year old. Also 40% – but before we got stuck in there was a sample of the new-make spirit, which is what comes straight out of the stills just before it’s put away for maturation.
This was a great way to see what years in an ex-sherry cask does to it.
It’s seriously pungent stuff, extremely clean, like pear drops and fresh sweet tangerine.
After 15 years there’s still a touch of minerality like slate dust, and the sweet tangerine turns to deep rich oranges and chocolate with a follow-up of butterscotch mousse. There’s plenty of cinnamon spice and fresh lemon and lime zest.
Finally we jump over to Islay for a heavily peated Bunnahabhain “Darach Ur” (meaning “New Oak” in Gaelic).
At just over 46%, for me this is around the ideal strength for a dram as it gives you just a little bit more wiggle room for adding water, and the extra volts as they say, can give it more time to develop.
This is quite a sweet whisky and the added peat gives it a smoky bacon character and a dry cheesiness, like smoked Bavarian cheese.
I left it for a while and when I went back the palate had a wonderful summery dryness, like a pile of cut grass that has begun to dry in the sun.
When you walk away from a tasting, you always have that lovely boozy glow, and maybe one or two drams will jump out at you as the stars. On this occasion all four stand out for the very reasons they were chosen – to illustrate the diversity of Scotch whisky.