The Single Cask and The Swan Song have a whisky 101 programme called Getting to Know Whisky, and it’s the most comprehensive crash course to learn about Scotch whisky over Zoom.
The Japanese seem to have a word for everything. When the pandemic hit, they quickly coined the term ‘on-nomi’ as the shared experience of drinking with friends. And with bars severely fucked over hampered by the restrictions, Zoom quickly became the natural platform of choice in the local bar scene for a variety of experiential exploits: product tastings, masterclasses, virtual distillery visits are now the new normal; welcome to the introvert’s paradise.
As with all fads new, it begs the question: are whisky 101 courses over Zoom any good at all? Gone is a critical part of the experience; the opportunity for organisers to create a physically stimulating experience. But when it comes to courses like Getting to Know Whisky – a collaboration between The Single Cask and The Swan Song (TSCxTSS) – we found that arguably, it might be even better.
Getting to Know Whisky consists of four weekly online sessions, with the option to sign up for individual sessions. One session costs $60, which includes four whisky samples and a single nosing glass. It is cheaper to sign up for all four sessions for $200, and aside from the four whisky samples weekly, you get four nosing glasses too. And not to sound like a cheapskate, that’s at least 16 sample bottles you can reuse. But in all seriousness, it makes more sense to do all four sessions if you’re genuinely interested in learning the basics of whisky appreciation.
Session 1: What is whisky?
(OB Glenkinchie 12YO 43% | TSC Blair Athol 11YO 55.5% | TSC InchGower 10YO 57.8% | Glen Scotia Single Cask 2006 12YO 57.9% | TSC Staoisha 2013 5YO 59.3%)
Most overviews on whisky are cursory, often giving you the origin of the spirit and significant milestones in its history. This is one is no different, but with lots more information; though you kind of understand where this is going once they start venturing into the spellings of different tax labels… Although introductory for the most part, its commitment to the details has been striking, relaying the finer points of distinguishing between Scottish localities and regions, understanding why distilleries are often pictured with a pagoda, listing the known Maltsters that supply the distilleries, as well as the basic process of distillation.
At this point some advantages of online tastings are plain to see, even before the session starts: the whisky and the glasses are delivered to you in advance. In the event you cannot attend the session due to work commitments, the worst-case scenario is that you have four samples waiting for you after a particularly inane conference call. And because the sessions are always recorded, you can always request for the slides and video, and the folks at TSCxTSS will be more than willing to take up your questions thereafter.
Session 2: Casks
(Glenmorangie 10YO 40% | Glenmorangie 12YO Lasanta 43% | Glenmorangie 12YO Nectar D’Or 46% | Glenmorangie 14YO Quinta Ruban 46%)
In a sense, the art of maturation is both the science and the dark arts of the whisky world. Often, it is one of those things in life where you get teased with more information (and selectively, at that) than you can handle which ends with you being none the wiser at the end of it. As they say, a little information is a dangerous thing, and none more true than the topic of wood. Admittedly, session 2 may leave you with that feeling as well, but such is the nature of the beast. This is arguably the ‘heaviest’ session of the series, covering the full gamut of topics from cask types to wood types and all points in between. Yes, you will be besieged by the likes of oak lactones and guaiacols and it can get a little overwhelming for beginners. To their credit, the hosts – Yixian and Brendan from TSC with Kelvin and Arun from TSS – are more interested in making you aware of these processes rather than getting you to understand how they work. And there’s always the PowerPoint slides and videos to fall back on if things get a little hairy – or you can hang back after class for remedial lessons. One of the biggest plus points of this session is that because TSCxTSS are effectively brand-neutral, they can talk about the casks and their history sans romanticisms and agenda. While they do feature a big name in Glenmorangie, it is mostly because the spirit is the best way to demonstrate the effects of wood on whisky through cask finishes.
Without a need to adhere to a traditional time slot, our sessions ran about 2.5 hours on average and all were welcome to continue the session indefinitely. Questions, conversation, and spirits flowed freely; while the lack of physical presence will always be an issue, the unique nature of zoom conferencing in casual situations – taking a videocall in the comfort of your personal space – makes the experience somewhat intimate. In the new normal of zoom calls, even pants and skirts are optional. No, we’re not judging; you do you.
Session 3: Blended vs Single casks
(Johnnie Walker Green Label 43% | Gordon & Macphail Linkwood 15YO 43% | Talisker 10YO 45.8% | Caol Ila 12YO 43%)
For most people who are signing up for this course, chances are they’re not going to end up gravitating towards blended scotch. This is no slight towards blends, but merely a reflection of where their curiosities lie. However, some understanding of the bread and butter of the Scotch Whisky industry is necessary, if merely for context. Condensing a broad topic such as blended Scotch for an introductory course can be tricky. While blended Scotch is not as highly regarded by the whisky cognoscenti, the art of blending whisky is artistry at the highest level. Because tackling the intricacies of blended Scotch may be a step too far, the hosts have rightly opted to go KISS and limit the tasting experience to a blended malt instead. Cynics might even go so far to say that it’s not in TSCxTSS’s interest to feature a blended Scotch, given the nature of their business. However, the reality is that would make for a far more complicated session. By featuring the venerable Johnnie Walker Green Label along with some of its component malts, they can discuss the elements that make them unique and how they contribute to the blend’s character. As the talking points do not necessarily have an overarching theme (e.g. key differentiator is wood) this session does segue from one topic to the next rather quickly. However, the conversational nature and pace of the discussion do help to keep things from getting too technical and overwhelming. The downside, of course, is that you probably need to refer back to your notes, but we’ll take it that you’re getting your money’s worth.
Perhaps it is an Asian thing, but typically, questions from the audience are often few and far between. This is where the on-nomi format shines. It’s far easier to get participants involved in the session, even those who tend to take social distancing to extreme levels (you know who you are). The hosts make it a point to address every single participant, but you have other options if you prefer to keep your vocal engagement to the minimum, short of grunting responses. If you’re not comfortable with being seen, you can always cut the video; if you prefer not to speak you can mute your microphone and use present enquiries in the chat. All questions will be addressed as long as they are relevant to the topics discussed (irrelevant topics are welcome too, actually).
Session 4: Around the World
(Kavalan Classic 40% | Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt 43% | Teeling Single Malt 46% | TSC Heaven Hill 2009 8YO 53.2%)
No 101 session will be complete without an overview of non-Scottish distilleries, and it is perhaps the first indication (or warning) for any budding enthusiast as to how deep the rabbit hole goes. We are now in a far more diverse whisky world than when the boom first started, so it would be impossible to cover every single style. Hence, the session focused on the most distinctive regions and well-known whiskies in the world right now: Japan, Taiwan, Ireland, and the USA. Because this is tantamount to having four Session 1s packed into one sitting, it is perhaps the most cursory session of the entire series. They do cover all the key differentiators, however, such as the effects of their native climate (e.g. Taiwan), the effects of its legislation; or lack of it (i.e. Japan), and the differences in flavour as a result of style and grain (e.g. America and Ireland). Perhaps the least interesting session in my book, but I see the point that it needs to be done as such to get beginners up to speed.
However, I doubt that there will be too many pressing questions, as Getting to Know Whisky does a good job of presenting only the essentials for the aspiring beginner. The biggest challenge of any serious 101-style course is often paradoxical: you need to cover all the essentials without overloading your charges with unnecessary detail, and yet you need to provide them with insight that doesn’t pop up at the top of a cursory Google search. I’m happy to report that the hosts just about manage to tread this fine line with reasonable success. The biggest challenge that attendees face is having to down shots every time Arun plays Wade in the Water.
If you’ve sat in for any introductory whisky classes, you’d be quick to notice that Getting to Know Whisky digs deeper than most. Given their attention to detail and willingness to share their considerable collective knowledge, it is time well-spent. You also avoid the aimless “can I try that?” approach, which I’m sure many seasoned whisky aficionados can relate to and will agree that this approach will save you the trouble of earning some ‘experience’.
TL;DR: if there ever was a better TL;DR (too long; didn’t read) version of a basics 101-style session, I’d like to know it.
The upcoming Getting to Know Whisky kicks off on 13 August 2020 at 2030H and will run weekly until 3 September 2020. You can sign up for the course here.
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