Our very first interview in Scotland, just hours after arriving exhausted and jet-lagged, was with Blair Bowman, the founder of World Whisky Day. We met at the top of the Royal Mile in downtown Edinburgh, under the shadow of the Edinburgh castle, for a special private tasting at the Scotch Whisky Experience.
Inside the Scotch Whisky Experience is a large retail shop, a tasting bar and restaurant, a theme-park like interpretive whisky “ride”, and of course, the main attraction: the Claive Vidiz whisky collection, the largest in the world with over 3384 bottles. Mr. Vidiz, a Brazilian whisky enthusiast, sold the collection to the beverage conglomerate, Diageo, who shipped the entire thing to Edinburgh for display at the Whisky Experience. It is all Scotch whisky, and no two bottles are the same. It’s unfathomable that so much historic whisky will forever remain unopened and untasted, but alas, that is the fate of this remarkable visual history of Scotland’s national drink. The good thing is, there’s a huge amount of Scotch out there that is ready to be tasted. So let’s get to it.
Julie Trevisan Hunter, marketing manager of the SWE, had kindly set up a private room for us to film our first tasting. She opened up two classic styles of malt: a delicate, unpeated lowland malt from Glenkinchie, just outside of Edinburgh, and a smoky, briney malt called Smokehead, from the island of Islay, which makes a famously peaty style of whisky. She then walked us through the five steps of tasting: the color, the nose, the body, the palate, and the finish. As with all other fine beverages and food, there is an intellectual component to tasting and enjoying that involves all the senses. Of all the spirits, whisk(e)y has the greatest diversity and intensity of flavors, colors, and aromas, She brought up a point that even many whiskey enthusiasts are not aware of, that whisky is clear when it comes out of the still, but gets its color during the aging process from wooden casks. These are usually oak, and fall into two distinctly different styles: European oak that has been previously used to mature sherry, and American oak that has previously been used to mature bourbon. Both types of barrels impart distinctly different flavors and to some extent color. Sherry casks have traditionally been the mainstay of Scotch agening, and impart subtle flavors of dried fruit, orange, caramel, cinnamon and exotic spices. Bourbon casks, which have only become popular since WWII, give the whisky a more assertive vanilla, honey, coconut, or even ginger flavor. Both types of oak impart a definite sweetness to the spirit, especially the bourbon barrels, probably due to vanillins in the wood, but exactly how this happens is still somewhat of a delicious mystery.