Following up on joining the Manchester Whisky Club (here) and the #TBWCwhisky Live Tweet Tasting that ensued, I feel the need to record and (as a consequence of using the blog medium) relate the experience and learning associated with that event.
Just to set the scene, the Club, in association with Master of Malt (MoM), arranged for a few of us (lucky non-anonymous alcoholics) to receive a free set of malty samples from That Boutique-y Whisky Company. All nicely prepared, packaged and distributed by MoM’s Drinks by the Dram.
A word about the rather cool Drinks by the Dram concept to start with: MoM have come up with a simple and ingenious way to provide us whisky amateurs with samples from a wide range of special whiskies. In a normal situation, the only way to try different whiskies at home is to buy bottles at the shop and try. If it’s not to your taste then you can always serve it to your guests hoping they like the stuff more than you but you won’t get your coin back. Instead, MoM use normal bottles of these whiskies and divide their content into 3cl vials, thoughtfully labelled and arranged in a compact little box that could almost fit through your letterbox (I checked and it doesn’t quite fit mine). A simple and fun way to try before you buy. I for one will definitely use this service again before I consider parting with 40 quid for a nice bottle of malt.
As for That Boutique-y Whisky Company, they do not have a distillery of their own. Instead they buy selected batches or barrels from individual and established distilleries to make their own unique blends. This is an interesting concept because whilst the initial range from the original distillery does’t lose any of its specificity and exclusiveness, the boutique-y range can afford to stray from the distillery’s ancestral tradition and style. The result is a bold set of whisky samples from distilleries you and I are both likely to have heard of yet with their unique and individual characters.
But why am I talking about whisky here? Two things: let’s remember that whisky is effectively oak aged, distilled beer. The basic ingredients – malted barley, yeast and water – are used to make a beer (malting, mashing, fermenting) and this beer is then distilled (process by which an alcoholic solution is heated to separate the alcohol from the water and remaining solids) and stored in oak barrels for varying lengths of time. Along with wine and beer, I also consider whisky to be a ‘noble’ liquor in the way that it is truly an artisan product: made from natural, local ingredients, displaying a rich variety of styles and a uniqueness strongly linked to where it was made and most of all requiring an ancestral savoir-faire in order to preserve the tradition of the distillery. Not quite as complex as the notion of Terroir in the wine world but the peat (if used) and water are generally very local to the distillery and uniquely influence the final flavour profile.
So what about that live tweet tasting. The idea is self-explanatory really. A group of us, samples at the ready, comfortably sat on our sofa and equipped with our tech choice for heavy social media action, connected on Twitter at 7:30 on Thursday 5th September and followed Andy’s lead for the tasting order. This was my first live and online tasting event and more importantly, my first ever whisky tasting. A bit out of my depth I was happy to just follow the lead. I realised I finished the first sample too quickly when Andy and a couple of others were still trying to describe how the nose was developing. At this stage it is worth noting that all samples were “cask strength” which means the whiskies had not been diluted down to the standard 40% ABV. In other words, the samples were straight from the cask with ABVs ranging from 46 to 56%. That is markedly higher than your normal spirit. In fact it is the same difference in alcohol terms as between grape juice and a strong wine.
I learned a fair few things during this tasting though. First whisky, not unlike wine, needs to open up in the glass in order to release its full range of aromas. Taking a lot more time to appreciate the next 4 samples it was clear that the aromas evolve over time and develop as the dram breathes, rewarding your patience in doing so.
The other thing I noticed as well is how easy it is to get stuck and blinded by a particular aroma. On the second sample I picked up a gin-like aroma which I assumed to be Juniper… I never drink Gin and I was the only one to pick this up from this sample. When that happened I was not able to free my mind from this one single aroma and move on to whatever else was there. I had to leave my whisky for a few minutes and concentrate on something else in order to “reset” my nose. Of course, whilst the practice of tasting (i.e. using your senses of smell and taste in order to fully appreciate a food or a drink) is the same, whisky is very different than wine: on top of the different aromas and flavours, the high alcohol content present extra challenges such as the drying of the nostrils which hampers the sense of smell.
Finally, and a bit unfortunately, just like in wine tastings, some seem to get lost in their “art” and unleash upon the world their colourful and unfathomable descriptions which could have the effect of alienating the novice or worse, discrediting the exercise altogether. But at the end of the day, tasting with others is always an enriching experience. I just prefer to remain humble and keep an open mind as there is still so much to discover and I am really looking forward to the Club’s future events.