Taking the learning curve

Taking the learning curve

Gavin D. Smith gets his satchel, pens and paper together and heads back to the classroom.

News | 24 Jul 2009 | Issue 81 | By Gavin Smith

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It is curious, and perhaps fortunate, that whisky writers require no formal qualifications. I suppose that unlike an unqualified brain surgeon, the worst we can do is fail to detect a hint of oiliness in Caol Ila or confuse our Lauters tuns with our semi-Lauters. Nobody gets badly hurt due to our incompetence or lack of knowledge.

Nonetheless, I sometimes wonder whether, behind some of those confident exteriors, lurk folk who quietly grapple with the chemistry of fermentation or struggle to think of anything adjectival to say about certain unremarkable whiskies except 'nice.'

However, help is at hand for everyone with the urge to know more, amateur and professional alike.

For example, Moray College in Elgin operates a distance learning Whisky Course, while The Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh runs a one-day 'Certificate of Expertise in the Sales & Service of Scotch Whisky' course under the auspices of the Scotch Whisky Training School.

Additionally, a number of distilleries, including Glenturret, Glengoyne, The Macallan Glenfiddich and Balvenie, have responded to an increasing thirst for whisky knowledge, and now offer more in-depth, connoisseur experiences, many with a greater element of interaction than 'standard' distillery tours.

But what if you want to go a stage further, and get down and dirty in a distillery itself?

Today several sites allow eager, would-be distillers or distillery groupies to gain genuine hands-on experience, with the first to offer a 'Whisky School' being Bladnoch, located in deepest south-west Scotland.

Here a carefully structured curriculum begins at 8am on a Friday with the focus on the theory and practice of mashing and fermentation, while 'day two' is devoted to distillation. The third and final session of the Bladnoch Whisky School features maturation practices and cask filling.

Unfortunately, due to the prevailing high cost of barley and oil, Bladnoch is not currently distilling, and therefore school is out, as it were, until further notice.

The same situation applies at Springbank, on the Kintyre peninsula in Argyll, where production director Frank McHardy formerly presided over the Springbank Whisky School.

According to McHardy: "It started in 2007, but isn't running at the moment because the distillery is not in full production. However, the School will definitely be back in due course."

One of the principal attractions of distillery based whisky schools is the opportunity to glean wisdom from experienced production workers and 'living legends' like Frank McHardy and Bruichladdich's master distiller Jim McEwan.

Bruichladdich runs a four-day, residential 'Academy of Islay Single Malt' between March and November.

CEO Mark Reynier explains that: "It's Jim McEwan's baby, and he's heavily involved in it. We started the Academy to allow people to see exactly how we work. They have total access, so they see that what we say and what we do are the same."

The work is very hands-on because Bruichladdich is an extremely traditional distillery.

"We take a maximum of six people at a time out of respect for the staff who work at the distillery, and also because that way people get more out if it. "We're not offering a qualification but the chance to live and work in a distillery. You can be there from 6am to 10pm if you want. People get very physically involved. It's work experience in effect."

A few miles to the west of Bruichladdich, Islay's newest distillery, Kilchoman, also promotes a whisky school programme.

According to owner Anthony Wills: "We started it up two and a half years ago and it runs from January to the end of April, then from the start of September to the end of the year.

"We offer a week-long course, and anybody who comes on it can try everything from the hard slog of turning barley on our malting floor to filling casks. They do as much or as little as they want. It's pretty relaxed and doesn't have a tight schedule."

Both Bruichladdich and Kilchoman rightly boast just how 'hands on' their whisky school ventures are, but if you want stripped-to-the essentials, 'hardcore' distilling practice, then the place to head for is Loch Ewe distillery in the remote north-west Highlands.

John and Frances Clotworthy own and run the distillery and adjacent, award-winning Drumchork Lodge Hotel.Here 'sma' still' whisky-making is carried on much as it would have been in the days when illicit distilling was commonplace in the Highlands.

Clotworthy is a graduate of the Bladnoch Whisky School, which he describes as "absolutely excellent".

He declares that: "Loch Ewe is the only place where you make whisky like it was made 200 years ago.

"For example, you physically add in the yeast, and mash by hand. At the end of your time here you also get to take away five litres of new spirit in a keg.

"We started it in 2007 and usually there's only one person or a couple taking part. Sometimes a small group.

"We run it all year round, and people are often given the package as birthday or anniversary presents.

"We even take participants out to a cave by a sea loch a couple of miles from the distillery where they used to make illicit whisky. You can still see the 'peat reek' on the roof."

Bladnoch 'graduate' John Clotworthy is not the only distiller to have attended a whisky school, with Kilchoman's Anthony Wills noting that: "The first person we had here was David Thomson, who is working to re-start the old Annandale distillery near Dumfries."

In 2007, Jean Donnay, who produces French whisky in Normandy, was a participant in the Springbank Whisky School.

Mark Reynier declares that: "As far as would-be distillers go, there've been a few US distillers taking part at Bruichladdich, and Mark Tayburn, who started up Abhainn Dearg distillery on the island of Lewis, also attended.

"We've even had a blind man do it, and a Californian brain surgeon has been back three times." So fancy going back to school now?


£850 per person
Tel.+44 (0)1496 850

£500 per person (excluding accommodation)
Tel.+44 (0)1496 850 011

Loch Ewe
£1,000 per person (including dinner, bed and breakfast)
Tel:+44 (0) 1445 731 242

The Scotch Whisky Experience
£160 per person, one day course
384 Castlehill, Edinburgh EH1 2NE
Tel.+44 (0) 131 220 0441

Moray College
£120 per person
Moray Road Elgin, Moray IV30 1JJ
Tel.(0) 1343 576 309
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