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. 

Edinburgh Castle.

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The Scotch Whisky Experience, Edinburgh.

View of Talinmoor Mountain and the old city.

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.

One wall of the largest whisky collection in the world.

The oldest bottles in the Claive Vidiz collection date back to 1897 and 1904.

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.

Julie Trevisan Hunter nosing a glass of lowland single malt.

Blair Bowman and Julie Trevisan Hunter.

Bar and bistro at the Scotch Whisky Experience.

After the tasting Julie had to run off, and we tasted through some more styles of Scotch with Blair, and then interviewed him about how Michael Jackson’s books and writing influenced him as a whisky writer. Before we began he asked us in a curious tone if we knew about the controversy embroiling him and Michael’s fan base that had occurred a few years before. Obviously as newcomers to the world of whisky and the whisky blogosphere, we knew nothing of it. I had gotten to know Blair through Facebook as a fan of our Beer Hunter movie page, I knew he was the organizer of World Whisky Day, and I was also keen to get some interviews with the next generation of writers, to show that the traditional demographics of whisky enthusiasts was changing dramatically. He explained the controversy, stemming from his decision to move World Whisky Day from May to March 27th, which was Michael’s birthday, but also was the date of International Whisky Day, a day established just after Michael’s passing, to raise a dram in remembrance of the Whisky Chaser. This, somewhat understandably, enraged a vast, global swath of whisky enthusiasts, writers, bloggers, and friends of Michael’s. Blair was actually somewhat surprised that we would seek an interview with him in the context of a film honoring Michael, but he seemed to sincerely believe that he had the (perhaps somewhat tacit) approval for the move from a couple of Michael’s cohorts, and his humility and penance seemed genuine. We can only hope that as directors and biographers of Michael’s career we won’t be judged unfairly by Blair’s inclusing in this project, as he was very generous with his time and knowledge and spoke eloquently about the whisky renaissance and Michael’s influence in this. At the end of the interview, Blair sent us off with a small bottle containing little bits of all the non-peated whiskies he had tasted over the past year. It was a nice gesture, one of very many we would receive in the wonderfully generous nation of Scotland. As unfortunate as the controversy surrounding Blair was, it did highlight how fiercely passionate and protective people are towards whisky and Michael. Fine beverages, like politics, sport, music, and art, evoke strong passions and opinions, and here was our first glimpse of how deep those passions can run. It was a telling example of the what we were to discover on this wild ride into the heart of whisky. For this was only day one.
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