Friday, 12 October 2012

A Whisky Education

While visiting Edinburgh recently I was lucky enough to be invited to a meeting of the Whisky Society at Herriot-Watt Students Union. I was in the city to visit a friend of long standing, @HillstersBrew, who has just started an MSc course in Brewing & Distilling, and it seems the Union has many societies which cater for the eager learners' thirst for knowledge in a friendly, social environment.

Non-society members were welcome, so I caught the bus out to the campus, passing the Caledonian Brewery (do they do tours? Must check for my next visit), to join the queue of people making their way into the meeting room. More and more people turned up, and soon the room was packed out, extra chairs and glasses were being hauled in, and the society organisers were frantically scrawling up “Sold Out” on the noticeboard so we could get the sampling underway.

The format for these evenings is that three or four different whiskies will be tried; once everyone has a measure poured out in front of them, the tasting will be led by a member of the society organising team, who will give some background to the whisky, where it is made, the grain composition, any particularly unusual processes used, and then an analysis of the aromas and flavours to be found. This is very helpful if you're a bit of a newbie to whisky/whiskey, as it helps you to start recognising common flavour descriptors and aspects of the aroma, which it might at first be hard to describe on your own.

The first whisky tonight was Signatory 1997 from the North British Distillery based in Gorgie, Edinburgh, quite near the Caledonian brewery site. I was surprised to be told that the familiar smell that hangs over Edinburgh – which always seemed to be a mix of Scotch pie and Caley’s beer brewing – was actually from production at this distillery.

It was explained that this is one of the ‘new types’ of whisky, using 90% wheat grain, and 10% malted barley to make use of a particular enzyme. It’s known as a ‘grain whisky’ – which apparently everyone drank 100 years ago, until the late 19thC when people switched to malt whisky. Simple, uncomplicated, and very drinkable – and is therefore used in blends to bring about more easy drinking character. This had a very sweet nose, with vanilla, honey, and soft fruits. Flavour-wise as well as fruit and Madeira cake, it had a slight creamy, oaky character, and was surprisingly fumey for its’ sweet nose. The short finish made you ready for another mouthful, so I could see what was meant by ‘ease of drinkability’. This type of whisky is generally only kept for around 5 or 6 years in bottle – no long maturation process – so was a good one to start on as it wasn’t palate-clogging.

Next we had Adelphi Private Reserve Blend – Adelphi, based at Glenborrodale Castle, are bottlers and blenders of cask whiskies, but have just been granted permission to build their own distillery onsite, and hope to be distilling by the end of 2013. To me, this had a really floral nose, and I was picking up lavender and a small hint of honey. The blend of grain and single malt whisky together offered a bit of fruit and spice, but not a great deal of finish – it reminded me of the ‘drinking’ (not sipping) whisky produced by Bushmills or Johnnie Walker, to drink quickly or in a mix, rather than one to take your time over.
The Sheep Dip 2012 Amoroso Oloroso had the most interesting backstory – a blended malt produced in 1999 in Scotland, was then transported to Spain for sale. It was stored in sherry casks, but the distributor went bust, and it lay undiscovered in a warehouse for years until found by the new owner of the property. Sheep Dip then bought it back and found it’s sherry cask-aged character to be rather good!

This had lots going on in it, as you’d imagine – with rich aromas of rum, vanilla and chocolate, and smooth butterscotch. Although only three years old, apparently it matured faster than usual in Spain due to the hot, humid climate. It had a shorter finish than expected, with hints of bitter orange and burnt toffee. Will any more of this be produced, or is it’s unusual route to bottle a one-off?

Our last of the night was Longrow “Red” Cabernet Sauvignon Cask, from Springbank, Campbeltown. This is a single malt at cask strength – 52.1% - and had lots of complexity. Quite phenolic (that medicinal TCP note) and peaty, but with lots of vinous, raisin-y flavours coming through. The big flavour notes were really prominent upfront, but it has a persistent finish with a very smooth flourish. As fellow tastee Gareth exclaimed, “it’s a beast of a whisky!” and was, as you might have expected, our favourite of the very convivial and educational evening.

The Tasting Society’s evenings are sponsored by Royal Mile Whiskies, who provide the rather fine Glencairn sampling glasses – on top of this, they also offer a 10% discount in their shops to any member of the society, so there's no excuse to shy away from learning more about the world of whisky to supplement your studies!

After the main event, several students normally go for a pint or two in a craft beer bar or real ale pub towards the city centre, and I was secretly hoping they may stop at the Caley Sample Room as they had on their last meet-up as I hadn’t had a chance to visit there yet, but on this occasion after an abortive attempt to visit @Cloisters_Bar (too busy on a Friday night to cope with a sudden influx of thirsty students) they settled on a walk across the Meadows to The The Dagda Bar. For some unknown reason, I had missed this off my list of “23 pubs to visit while in Edinburgh”, so was a pleasant surprise to find myself swept in there and up to the bar. There I sampled three very fine ales indeed – Tryst Carronade IPA (a hoppy yet sessionable 4.2%), Tryst Raj IPA (a bit more weighty at 5.5%), and the very herbaceous, currant-leaf Cromarty Hit the Lip – at 3.8% a beer you could drink till the cask ran dry, which we promptly did!

A great end to the evening


  1. Excellent write up Tania! It was a top night.

    1. Cheers Gareth, hope you have a lot more great tasting evenings this term, and maybe I'll see you for a pint or a dram when I'm up that way next!