Whisky in the time of coronavirus
For a few doors closing, a number of tasting packs opened.
Our last story was about how we stumbled into whisk(e)y during a road-trip in the USA in 2016, and our trip back to Kentucky a few months later. Fast forward a few years, we now live in Edinburgh, and we (slowly) started visiting distilleries across Scotland, with trips to Campbeltown, the West Highlands, Arran and Speyside (all stories for future posts, don’t worry!). It was precisely on our way back from Keith that we decided to start sharing our whisky adventures on a blog. That was December 2019, and what we did not know was that as we were on that train, happy and with our fair share of bottles in the bag, a few strange pneumonia cases were emerging in some areas of China.
In early 2020, we started preparing for the launch (domain, social media, learning WordPress, first drafts), planned for mid-March. That was because we wanted to start with a bang: an imminent 12-day trip to Islay and Jura! We had carefully planned everything: campervan, ferries, 11 distilleries (8 on Islay, Caol Ila was and is still closed, Jura, two on the way). But then…you know how the story ends, don’t you?
Instead of preparing our trip to Islay, we spent weeks frantically calling off all reservations. But the lockdown prompted us to open a few bottles we had bought previously, and to start doing some “homemade” whisky tastings, including comparing different cask finishes or Old-Fashioned cocktails made with different whiskies (Bourbon, Rye, Auchentoshan American Oak, and a blended scotch…the Rye won).
We soon realised that this wasn’t enough, but then online tastings came to save us. We had never done one before, but the format was very simple: you order your tasting pack, which arrives at home by mail, and you just show up on this (at the time) new platform: Zoom! Easy-peasy!
Our very first online tasting was towards the end of April, and was organised by Frederick of East Coast Whisky: it included a few quite old and delicious drams from his awesome collection and was very very interesting!
However, we thought it was a bit too advanced for novices like us, in our mind it floated the question: “is our palate developed enough to fully appreciate a 29-year old Clynelish?” At the same time, we realised there was a plethora of possibilities, so we decided to go back to basics.
It is around this time that we joined the Edinburgh Whisky Group (EWG, on Facebook) and met Justine of Kask Whisky. We became regulars of the EWG tastings, organised about every other week. Although less frequently, these events are still going on today. The first tastings were provided by the guys at Jeffrey St Whisky, and included some Douglas Laing, Lady of the Glen, AD Rattray and an Octomore! Thanks to Justine’s contacts, in the coming months we did Boutique-y tastings, Dram Mor, Dramfool, Glen Scotia vertical, and many more!
Over time, this became so much more than a tasting group – we’re now a fun bunch of whisky friends! In late 2020 we even purchased a cask from Holyrood, and after we were able to finally meet in person, we organised a quite successful (not according to our livers) trip to Campbeltown in October 2021 (you can read about it here, here, and here). From this, it also branched out one of Justine’s projects, the Quarter Gill Club. This is subscription-based, you pay a fee but the amount of advantages is ludicrous, including a monthly hybrid (online and in person) whisky tasting which is based on a theme: Single Grain, Blended Malt, Sauternes finished/matured, new releases, new distilleries, etc.
With the EWG we organised two tastings ourselves. The first, in April 2021, was a comparison between three basic blended scotch whiskies with the counterparts from the 70s we’d bought at auction: Antiquary, Teacher’s Highland Cream and Bell’s (all non-age statements except the 70’s Bell’s which was an 8y, the modern ones all 40%, while the 70’s Bell’s and Teacher’s were 43%). It was a very interesting comparison, and we concluded that the current versions are definitely younger and, very likely, the amount of grain whisky in the blend increased. In the modern Teacher’s the peat was way more prominent, probably to satisfy the palate of modern whisky drinkers since peat has become more fashionable in recent times. And talking about peat…there were a bonus couple of drams in this tasting, kindly donated by one of the EWG members. This was a Laphroaig 10, both current and 70’s version (the latter bottled at 43%) – the icing on the cake!
The second tasting we organised was just a few weeks ago: a vertical Kilkerran tasting! We collected a few bottles during the pandemic (12y, 16y first release in 2020, 8y cask strength sherry, and the heavily peated batch 4) that, except for the 12y, were still unopened in mid-2021. So we thought that it might have been great to use them for a tasting. We got the 5th bottle during our Campbeltown trip (the bottle-your-own, which is a marriage of different casks in a big jar they have at the visitor centre) and an EWG friend kindly donated the 6th one: the Virtual Open Day 2020, 14y, triple distilled and matured 100% in refill ex-bourbon cask (which was quite spectacular). It was really good to share all these excellent drams with friends instead of keeping the bottles to ourselves (and taking ages to drink them all).
Going back to 2020, in spring it was already impossible to keep up with all the online tastings from shops, distilleries, indy bottlers, or other outlets. However, this was not enough to satisfy our eagerness of whisky knowledge. Prompted by an article on the SMWS magazine Unfiltered, we learned about the whisky-tube: Roy, Ralfy and all the other youtubers and reviewers (including the newly released Dramface website, a great information source). We’re far from being experts, but we definitely know way more about whisky now than in early 2020, and thanks to the tastings we have developed our taste buds (we are almost ashamed about our early tasting notes or comments…), making it easier to spot aromas and flavours not only in whisky, but also more generally in other drinks and food.
Overall, in spite of the abnormal times we lived through (and still living in), we found a great community of people with the passion of whisky, thanks to online outlets. This made our journey more enjoyable and fulfilling, even when the furthest we could travel was to the couch. Slainte!
The Quarter Gill Club
YouTube channels (some)
The Liquid Antiquarian
Shops/others organising (more or less) regular tastings
East Coast Whisky
Inverurie Whisky Shop
Jeffrey St. Whisky and Tobacco
The Spirits Embassy
Royal Mile Whiskies
The Ensign Ewart
Some websites and blogs
Islay Whisky Academy