Back to School

Back to School

It’s 8.30am, sitting in a classroom for the first time in more years than he cares to remember, Gavin hits the books

Whisky Learning | 26 Jan 2018 | Issue 149 | By Gavin Smith

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So far, nobody has hit me or stolen my lunch money, so it’s already an improvement on those old days of ‘O’ Levels and compulsory cross-country runs in the snow.

The location is an improvement, too. I don’t recall my old grammar school having been built during the 1720s to the design of William Adam. But then this is Arniston house, near Gorebridge in East Lothian, a dozen miles from Edinburgh, and home to the Dundas family since 1726. As one of Scotland’s finest mansions, it doubled for Blenheim Palace in the movie Churchill, starring Brian Cox.

I’m here to take part in one of the Edinburgh Whisky Academy’s (EWA) Diploma courses, in this instance studying for a Diploma in Single Malt Whisky. The EWA was founded by Kirsty McKerrow, who is practically whisky royalty, as her father Neil masterminded Glenmorangie’s early forays into cask finishing during the mid-1980s, when company CEO, and Kirsty’s first whisky tasting took place at the age of eight! Her family lineage also includes various Mackinlays, who were extremely active in the early stages of commercial blended whisky production.

Kirsty trained as a paramedic and practiced for 10 years, before, as she explains, “A move to Sweden with a new-born prompted a change of direction and I indulged my passion for whisky by setting up my own whisky consultancy and from that I got offered the brand ambassador role for Glenmorangie and Ardbeg in Sweden.”

This ultimately led to her decision to establish the EWA, as she says, “I had received great brand training, but my foundational knowledge was lacking and this was crucial to my role. Despite an extensive search, I could not find any course on the market that fulfilled my educational needs, so I ended up self-educating through numerous textbooks and journals. I am not from a science background and a lot of the material was beyond my understanding!

One candidate was a lady who needed to learn about whisky for a crime novel she was writing

“At that point, I thought 'why is this knowledge not packaged in an accessible, credible and engaging format for people like me?' So, I returned to Scotland with the focus of establishing the Edinburgh Whisky Academy and providing independent, educationally accredited whisky courses and filling this exact void.”

The first Scottish Vocational Qualification (SVQ)-accredited Diploma in Single Malt Whisky course was staged in September 2016, and a total of six ‘open’ courses and two private courses have since been held. The Diploma course costs £750 per head, and appeals to a wide range of people, but many are already working in the whisky industry or the hospitality business. However, Kirsty McKerrow points out, “We have also trained numerous enthusiasts and retirees who are looking to further their whisky knowledge for a personal passion or as a way into the whisky industry. One candidate was a lady who needed to learn about whisky for a crime novel she was writing!”

So much for context, but back in the classroom, ‘Sir’ was preparing his audio-visual presentation. Compared to my teachers of old, he was a very benign authority figure, however, being no less a whisky eminence than Vic Cameron, affectionately known as ‘The Whisky Minister,’ as he divides his time between his role as a Pastor on his native Speyside, and running the whisky consultancy firm Discerning of Spirits.

Previously, Vic worked for Diageo in a variety of roles for some 23 years, and Kirsty McKerrow says, “He is a superb lecturer for the Diploma in Single Malt given his vast experience and knowledge, as well as providing numerous stories from his time in the industry.”

Unlike my old music teacher – a bewilderingly uncertified psychopath who used to hoist small boys on to high cupboards for the duration of lessons if they failed to grasp the importance of a semibreve – Vic was all carrot and no stick, well, actually bacon rolls and pheasant casserole, rather than carrots, but you get the point.

Even Vic’s undoubted prowess as a tutor was surely going to be tested on this two-day course as he had to teach us five modules to accompany the two we had prepared previously – namely ‘The History of Whisky’ and ‘The Business of Whisky.’

Day one consisted of the somewhat challenging task of learning in detail – and I do mean detail – about the entire production process, from raw materials to maturation, and it was remarkable – and slightly embarrassing – to discover just how much I didn’t know or had forgotten over the years.

Classroom work was followed in the afternoon by a visit to nearby Glenkinchie Distillery. This equivalent of our old school trips to the seaside at Whitby provided a break from lessons, and also the chance for a spot of ongoing revision. Vic pointed at the mashtun and asked us to recall the optimum input temperature, then in the stillhouse, queried the most obvious way to tell a wash still from a spirit still. If you don’t already know the answers, consider signing up for a 2018 course!

Day two began with a session on Sensory Perception, followed by a module on World Whiskies, by which time participants were only too aware that their ability to retain so much knowledge was going to be tested at 2pm, when we would face a written assessment and a sensory ‘practical.’

However, a decent amount of revision time had been factored into proceedings, and when it came to it, happily even the brains of older, more whisky-sodden participants like myself were able to deal with the assessments with a degree of confidence.

So, did I pass? Well, the Diploma’s in the post, and when it arrives I plan to hang it on my office wall, alongside my ‘O’ Level and cross-country running championship certificates…

Going forward

Kirsty McKerrow

“The Art of Tasting will be launched in Spring 2018, and this will be a one-day Diploma which will be held at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in Edinburgh. It will also be accredited by the SQA, as will our new two-day Diploma in Blended Whiskies, which is scheduled for Winter 2018/9.

“We recently implemented a software platform for online learning and in early 2018 we are launching our online accredited Introduction to Whisky Certificate. We will be developing further online modules during 2018. In addition to the online offering and the Art of Tasting Diploma, we will be starting an annual international trip, and are currently putting together plans for one to Canada in May 2018.”
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