What’s a guy to do? You get a personal email from SMWS saying:
“As a special thank you for supporting the Scotch Malt Whisky Society over the course of the last 12 months we wanted to say thanks and have a get together at SMWS London. You are one of 15 whisky blogger, journalists, very good friends of SMWS (or probably all 3!) that I have selected to come and have a night with us before Whisky Live”
You say “hell yeah I’ll cancel whatever the hell else I have going on, no worries”.
So, with a number of weeks of inner build up I grew more and more excited – especially as the event would coincide with the launch of GreatDrams.com so made it even more special (and meant that getting top notch business cards printed was a must).
As luck would have it I spent the whole afternoon before the event at another whisky tasting, this time for work, which was lovely and really made me reappraise what I thought of specific brands and expressions of whisky which would only tee up my SMWS Invite Only night up even more.
Then, finally, the day came.
Tweets were exchanged, those around me got the odd text of excitement and of ‘well, isn’t work tough’, all the while racing through the mountain of client consulting work and a ‘tax shouldn’t be taxing’ form before I could go and have some fun.
And wow was it fun.
Visiting 19 Greville Street is always good fun, having been there for various tastings and member days over the years it still amazes me how brilliant whisky consumption can be, especially as tonight I was reminded that, despite taking copious amounts of notes, it is all about the surroundings, the people and the emotion.
Walking into the Private Members’ Room I was greeted passionately by John McCheyne, the brand ambassador for SMWS and Joe McGirr and politely introduced myself to a couple of other select guests already sat at the table I instinctively chose to sit at.
Only when we did a round-the-room introductions session did it dawn on me that those sat next to me as peers tonight were not just ‘whisky punters’ or ‘those that are vocal about whisky’… they were, and are, the exact people I read blog posts from every single day, week and month of the year, they are the public facing superstars of the whisky Twittersphere.
Wow was I humbled. So much so I am pretty sure I fluffed my introduction when it was my turn to speak up.
What followed next was rather remarkable: we were told that whilst we were all there because we have an interest and a vocal passion for our whiskies, tonight we were to collectively take part in a blind tasting.
For those who don’t know, a blind tasting is essentially a group of people being given a few drams and asked to nose, sip, add water, sip and comment on what they are experiencing – without knowing where the whisky is actually from. It involved a lot of guess work and really humbles all from masters to novices to tasting-fauxs like myself, I’ve never been good at picking out the different essences, flavours, notes and whatnot.
Then, the night began.
John promptly introduced the evening and read aloud a poem to set the mood followed by an explanation of how whisky, due to its copper content was in fact a health drink… not many of us were buying it to be honest.
The plan for tonight?
We will be tasting three cask strength drams punctuated by dinner then three more cask strength drams. Sounds pretty awesome eh? It did not let me down.
As we nose the first dram we are guided expertly by John who probes, teases and drops nuggets of insight as well as the odd question into conversation. For example, there are only two elements in the glass (ethanol and water) but neither of those give off an odour, whisky picks up its flavour from the tools and stages it goes through during the process of fermentation, distillation and maturation and retains it long after.
I was getting notes of marzipan, a deep flavour, spicy on the back of the throat, a good burn, Bakewell tarts and pears.
- Is it a bourbon cask?
- Is it aged in the low 20s?
- What distillery? Could be any… a fruity Speyside?
Finally, John puts us out of our collective misery… Answers: Refill bourbon, aged 37 years, 48.1%. Retailing at around £349 per bottle, what a way to kick off.
It was clear that this was going to be a lot tougher than any of us imagined!
I was getting grassy notes, as well as something that stings the nostrils, creamy, cherry, lovely texture with a peppery finish.
I was wrong. 50.6%, refill barrel ex-bourbon, 20 years old.
Following Dram Two, John explained how whisky appreciation is changing rapidly, and that we are in a culture of connoisseurship as younger people are gaining access to premium spirits earlier and are looking to understand the what and the why, not just taste the product. SMWS is an enabler here as they provide provenance stories and the traceability to learn and understand what you are consuming
Bit oily, there’s a grubbiness to it, punchy, strong nose and tongue burn, meaty. The group thought it was a 14 year old, 63% Ardmore
John proved us wrong again as he revealed the whisky is a 28 year old refill sherry butt at around 56.3%
Discussion moved onto the process of making whisky with a big question being posed: is the role of the individual in the process being less and less import and as things become more and more mechanised?
Dave: I hope we never understand whisky fully, what would be the point of talking about it any more?
John: If that ever happens I will drink vodka
This was more of a savoury dram, a bit Bovril, chewy, cola notes, is it 61%?
Answers: 9 year old, refill sherry butt from Arran
Discussion turned to how age is not the be all and end all of whisky quality statements, group agreed that age ‘is just a number’ and that so much more went into every drop that only buying or drinking based on age was limiting.
This one I found really tough, felt quite oppressive, vegetable notes, sour, car oil is offered up, evaporates off the tongue but fails to follow through – I don’t like the palette but did like the finish.
Turned out to be a single cask rum.
After we get over our shock and banterous upset at the rum taste, John tells an aside story about English Whisky Co. asking advice on naming from the Association, they explained that as they’re based in Norfolk, they should call it Norfolk-in-good!
Laughter eventually subsides and we move onto DRAM SIX
Definitely Islay, Ardbeg? Laphroaig? Red chilli notes, smooth, smoky, gorgeous, one I would not mind picking up after.
What was it? Answer: 5 year old first fill, 60.2% from Cask 129.1
— Greg – Great Drams (@GreatDrams) March 21, 2014