The Edinburgh Whisky Academy – knowing your Quercus Alba from your elbow

I PASSED!! 

YAY, I PASSED!!!

BRILLIANT!

That’s the first exam I’ve passed for 30 years!

It’s also the first exam I’ve sat in 30 years.  To quote baseball statisticians, I’m Batting a Hundred.

One of the “things” my generation (the Boomers) was taught was not to be boastful.  Hide your light under the biblical bushel.  “Pride cometh before a fall” and congratulations should come to you from others, rather than from within.

Which is all very fine and dandy if others know that you’ve done it.  They don’t, but I do!

In the last 15 years I have spent a lot of my time on whisky – looking at it, reading about it, tasting it, writing about it and even, on occasions, drinking it.

I have been at the far right-hand end of the whisky “chain”.

I knew a little bit about whisky.  The difference between a single malt and a blend, between sherried and peated, between a Bowmore and an Auchentoshen.  I know that this whisky will taste different to that whisky, sometimes just a bit and sometimes a whole lot.

I’ve listened to learned people talk about whisky, people whose opinion I respect.

I’ve been on distillery tours and visited visitor centres: I have the souvenir caps, etched glasses, and tee-shirts to prove it.

And I did have some samples of their whiskies as well, but those seem to have mysteriously disappeared.

However, when all is said and done, I have been at the far right-hand end of the whisky “chain”.

I know a good drop when I taste one, but when I’ve finished the bottle it goes out in the recycling without too much thought as to how the genie got into it in the first place.

It may sound pretentious or big-headed but, as I mature in the world of whisky, I would like to be taken seriously.  But it was growing on me that the more I got “into” whisky, the less I really knew about it.

Thought process:

  • How did the genie get into the bottle?
  • Why can one whisky taste so utterly different from another whisky?
  • Who invented the stuff in the first place? (the ‘Why” is pretty self-evident!)

Enter the Edinburgh Whisky Academy.

The Academy has been on my radar for a couple of years as an interesting learning centre.  Their cause is helped by testimonial from the respected Charles MacLean.

The first thing I saw was a course entitled Diploma in the Art of Tasting Whisky.

Now there’s an interesting idea – get a diploma for doing what I’ve been doing for 15 years!

Realistically though (and sadly), flitting over to Edinburgh for a one-day whisky tasting is not in the budget (yet), regardless of how esoteric the drams may be.

So let’s see what else is available.

There’s a Diploma in Single Malt Whisky.  That sounds fun!  Two-day course, including a private distillery tour, a breakfast of bacon rolls, classes on the sensory aspects of whisky (look, nose, taste) and a formal assessment.  The course requires me to go to Edinburgh, too.  Sad Face.

An Introduction to Whisky Certificate (On-line).  Now that sounds more like me!

It is certified by the Scottish Qualification Authority (SQA), so it’s obviously got some cred.  And it’s an on-line course, so I can do it from the comfort of my own laptop.

The Academy’s website http://www.edinburghwhiskyacademy.com tells me that is a “fun … on-line course exploring the fundamentals of whisky”.

It goes on to say that the course covers whisky from history, business and raw materials to production and maturation.

Well, having just passed it, I can confirm that it certainly does all that.  And then some!

I have learned in-depth things about stuff I knew just a little about (worts, the mash tun, the rules around minimum ABV and age statements), enlarged on condensers and how they work (stuff that I dimly remember picking up by osmosis in college days in those brief periods between chasing girls), and got introduced to things I never knew existed (the 1784 Wash Act and the Illicit Distillation Act of 1822, Analysers and Rectifiers).

Worts and Mash Tuns and Lyne Arms are not just words anymore.  They have meaning in themselves now.  I know where they fit into the process and what effect they have on the outcome of production.

And, while it may not be feasible to go to Edinburgh for the tasting course, the things the Introduction Course has given me on the effects of cask and reflux and malt and grain and blending are already having a big impact on my nosing and tasting of whiskies.

The cost of the on-line course is 120 British quid (about NZ$200) and finishes with a self-assessment module.  There is another 80 quid if you want to sit the official SQA Certificate.

And there is also the Time investment.  I didn’t have the stopwatch going but I would estimate my time at around 15 hours (I was hand-writing copious notes as I went).

But whatever time it took I certainly do not regret one second of it!

Would I recommend the course to you?  Whole-heartedly, especially if you’re like me and know just enough to be dangerous.

Would I do it again?  No, I don’t need to.

I PASSED!

Would I go on any of the other courses?  If the opportunity presented itself, stand out of the way!!!!

PS: after I wrote this article I was looking through an old Whisky Magazine.  I came across an article on charring.

In the past, I would have turned the page over quickly, thinking “that’s too esoteric for me”.

Not now.  I stopped and read it.  And understood it!

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Story Three – The Winemaker

This story is about wine.

And silverfish.

And the perils of drinking unidentified wine.

The story starts with Uncle Les.  Not the same Les in the first story; that’s just a coincidence that appeared as I started writing.  But it makes you wonder if good stories have a Les in them somewhere, doesn’t it?

This Uncle Les was a pretty interesting bloke.

His was a dentist, a collector of artworks and a majorly useful cellist who played in orchestras in the days before playing in orchestras was a “real job”.

And a wine maker.

As a wine maker, he was fortunate to have ready access to a wide range of seasonal fruits and vegetables, all completely suitable for fermentation.

The product of his endeavours was stored for maturing and future attention in screw top jars called “flagons”.

The flagon is a glass jar that holds half a gallon (approximately 1.9 litres).

These days flagons are not easy to come by.  But back when licensing laws required bars to close before the street lights came on, flagons were common for transporting beer and similar refreshing liquids from the hotel bottle store to your place of residence.  Or anywhere else where the refreshing contents might be consumed.

Once emptied of beer, the versatile flagons became containers for other liquids: home-brewed beer, mineral turpentine or kerosene (sometimes difficult to distinguish from home-brewed beer), engine oil (ditto), or lawn mower fuel.

Or wine.

Les’ wine output was decanted into flagons.  Sticky-backed paper labels were attached that advised the year of manufacture and defined the origins – parsnip or nectarine or peach etc.

In the best French tradition, the labelled flagons were then stored in the cool underneath the house while the wine matured.

When Les passed away, the wine stock got sort of forgotten and no-one went to see how it was getting on.

Some years later Les’ wife also died.

Aged now in their mid to late 50s, the children all returned for their mother’s funeral.  Bringing their children with them.

After their grandmother’s funeral service the more adventurous grandchildren went exploring in the cool and spider webs under the house to see what might be there.  And found the stash of wine-containing flagons, which anecdotally had been there for nearly 20 years.

The flagons were brought out into the daylight, and the general consensus was that the contents should be sampled forthwith.

Over time, as well as wine storage and cobwebs, the area under the house had become a habitat for silverfish.  And, as book-lovers know, silverfish have a diet heavily biased towards paper.

Remember the sticky labels?

The flagons had been stored in the silverfishes’ dining room and the silverfish had passed the time by eating all the sticky labels off the flagons.

As a consequence of this silverfish banquet, identifying the contents of the flagons had become a lottery.  The only guide to wine type, age or strength was the colour of the wine, which was not at all a reliable measure!

Restraint is not often included in the psyche of the young, and present company did not disappoint.  Regarding the labeling limitations as mere inconvenience, sampling began.

The word “sample” has different meanings for different people.  In the more cautious, it involves trying just a little tiny bit to test what it’s like; in others, sampling is pouring out a tumblerful and drinking it as quickly as possible to see what the effect might be.

The day was warm and sunny.  Samples from flagons were being poured and consumed with increasing enthusiasm and carefree abandon. There may even have been an informal “guess the wine” competition going on.  The company had become quite vocal. And generous.

About this point, my wife and I arrived at the gathering.  We were greeted effusively and offered our own samples to taste.  Not wishing to appear unfriendly or nervous, we took a little sip of the offerings.

Age and previous bad experiences quickly led us to conclude that it might be wiser not to consume anymore, and that it would be more entertaining to just sit and watch.  And wait.

 

 

A reconvening had been planned for the same venue the next morning.  Most of the previous day’s attendees were present, although some were reported as “missing”.

The enthusiasm for sampling had waned with the night.  A lot.  The noise level and bonhomie was also lower than previously, mostly consisting of low-pitched groans and requests for quiet.

The wine had won!

 

Post-script:

After the event, one of the braver grandchildren had secured a selection of the flagons and taken them home.  He very generously offered me the chance to select one for myself from his haul.  In the interests of science I accepted his kind offer, thinking I might get the opinion of some unsuspecting friends who were knowledgeable about wine.

When we got the unlabelled flagon home, close inspection revealed an appreciable quantity of sediment present in the flagon.

The contents were promptly decanted with the aid of a kitchen funnel, a pair of ladies’ pantyhose (freshly laundered), and four empty bottles with good tops.  They were then laid to rest in a kitchen cupboard.

And there, five years or more later, they still sit.

Unlabelled, untried and untested.

And they will remain so until I pluck up sufficient courage to open one.

Or I die and my grandchildren come exploring.

Story Two

The Pushbike

This story was told to me by Mike.  He recounted it to me as a first-party story, but I have reservations.

It seems, according to Mike, that he’d gone down to the wholesalers on his pushbike.  His intention was to purchase himself a bottle of whisky to take home to rock himself to sleep with.

No reservations so far.  It all seems like a pretty good plan.

When Mike re-emerges from the bottle store he is clutching a bottle of 100 Pipers which he proceeds to careful place in the cane basket attached to the handlebars of his bike.

First reservation right here: it might be my prejudice, but I was envisaging Mike’s bike as a pretty sporty road-racer style that maybe required the wearing of the unfortunate lycra that seems to adorn cyclists these days.  The cane basket came as a bit of a shock, and now I find myself having to adjust my mental imagery to accommodate this unexpected development!

Anyway, so now we’ve got the image-adjusted bike with the cane basket containing the bottle of 100 Pipers on the handlebars.

Back to the story.

As Mike is about to get on the bike to pedal himself and the whisky home he is approached by a bystander.

“Excuse me,” says the bystander, “but that’s not a very safe arrangement you’ve got there.”

“Why not?” asks Mike.  “What’s wrong with it?  Me and this consenting bottle of whisky are just going home together.”

“What happens if you fall off?” asks the bystander “The bottle will land on the ground and get broken,” he says. “Very dangerous”, he says.

“Good point,” says Mike.  “What do you suggest?”

“I think the best answer is to drink the whisky now, and then ride home,” says the bystander.  “Then if you fall off there won’t be anything in the basket to get broken.”

“And do you know what?” Mike says to me.  “He was quite right, and possible was a fortune teller too.

“I followed his advice and drank all the whisky before I left.  And on the way home I fell off nine times!

“just as well the bottle wasn’t in the cane basket, eh!”

Three Stories – Story One

Isn’t it interesting, the little snippets and stories that life brings you when you least expect it.

This is the first of three stories that have been relayed to me from the universe.

Like all good stories, two of them are true and verifiable.  The third may well be true.  Or not.  You decide.

In keeping with this website’s title, the first and third stories are whisky-themed: the second will be about wine.  Although the nature of the wine was such that it might just as well have been whisky!

This first story was told to me by Les.

It is a simple story and, in its own way, quite touching.  It doesn’t have a particularly dramatic ending, but then it doesn’t really need one.

However, it does have a moral or two with a demonstration of the inventiveness of man in the face of adversity and the single-minded lengths he is prepared to go to for a quality dram.

Les is a fine, upstanding citizen, the sort of person who would not lead you too far astray.  He is the kind of man upon whose opinion and views I would be happy to abide without question.

On top of that, as empirical evidence, he showed me a photograph on his cell phone of the bottle around which this story revolves.  It is an important point that the photo was taken before the bottle was opened.

The story is about a bottle of Glenfarclas 15yo, a genuine amber delight.   The bottle was apparently in the possession of Les’s friend.  The friend’s name isn’t recorded, but for the sake of simplicity let’s call him Alfred.   Alfred hails from the sunshine state of Queensland in Australia

Alfred apparently had owned this bottle of Glenfarclas for some considerable time and it was unopened when Les was first introduced to it a week or so back.

The back story is that Alfred did not like to drink alone; he may also have been a bit short of friends that he thought suitable enough to share the Glenfarclas with.

Fair enough – his whisky, his call.

Anyway, when Les hove into view Alfred obviously considered him of sufficient calibre to merit the unveiling of the bottle.  And such was done.

The usual opening ritual started, with the bottle’s seal being broken and the cork being removed for the first time to allow access to the amber delight inside.

Now comes the sad part.

The cork suddenly decided to part company with accepted tradition and spontaneously disintegrated, leaving the bulk of itself floating unceremoniously on the top of the aforementioned amber delight.  In the bottle!

Calamity!

Disaster!

“Corked” whisky!

Now, Kiwis and Aussies are generally very resourceful people and have access to a range of rather make-shift solutions to any problem.  And this case is no exception.

Alfred had an electric kettle.  Not an unusual thing in itself – maybe he liked a cup of tea now and again.

But he had noticed previously that the kettle spout had a fine mesh filter in it.  This filter was obviously intended to remove the bigger lumps or smaller creatures that may have been in the local water supply before they made their way to the cup of tea.

Thought process:

  • whisky needs the lumps of cork strained out without losing any of the amber liquid,
  • kettle has strainer inside that takes the lumps out of whatever is being poured from the kettle.

It follows with elegant inevitability that the next stage was to give the kettle a brief but thorough internal cleaning to remove foreign bodies, other interlopers or anything else that might contaminate whisky.  Then give it a thorough rinse and drying (because whisky at 46% generally does not need additional water!)

The next phase was to empty the contents from the corked whisky bottle into the nearly pristine kettle, and rid the now empty Glenfarclas bottle of any residual shards of cork that may have missed being poured into the kettle.

The last stage in this maintenance section was to carefully decant the whisky back from the kettle to the bottle, via the lump filter in the spout.

Result: all the bits of cork remain in the kettle (to be removed sometime, maybe) and the now cork-less whisky is back in the bottle.

And drinking can commence!

PS: as this story moved towards its end you may have noticed that the Glenfarclas bottle that now contains clean, cork-free 15yo whisky no longer has an operational cork to seal the remaining whisky.

Solution?

Simple – finish the bottle!

Slainte.

To the Gallery

Hi

I’ve added a Gallery page (click on Gallery on the menu) to inflict an ill-assorted collection of photographs  ont he world.

There’s a selection of photos there now, themed around Edinburgh, Glasgow and the Island of Islay.

I hope you enjoy them

Other themes will emerge!

Slainte.