It seems like a bit of a missed opportunity that the Victoria Whisky Festival doesn’t sell merchandise. If they did, I’m guessing the biggest seller would be a T-shirt saying “I survived the VWF”. If you sign up for a Friday grand tasting, a few Saturday masterclasses and then hit up the main event on the Saturday evening, the weekend can become your very own alcoholic ultra-marathon. This is saying nothing of the famous after-parties which can extend the days into the early hours if you find the right bar!
Normally I’d write about the events I attended in order, but I’ll break with my tradition this time (one year is a tradition, right?). For my first article I wanted to write about not only my favourite class of the festival, but probably my favourite class I’ve attended anywhere.
Billed rather matter-of-factly as “The Morrison-Bowmore Distillers Masterclass”, it was held in the last timeslot of the day not too long before the grand tasting, looming over us less than an hour from the conclusion of the session. By this time everyone’s been working and partying for a couple of long, frenetic days and a presenter might be inclined to put in a subdued performance.
Not Iain McCallum. The organic chemist, flavour scientist and former senior blender for Bowmore is younger than many of his colleagues, but youth alone doesn’t provide his enthusiasm and seemingly boundless nervous energy. Part of a new wave of whisky creators when he joined the industry (at age 16!), he employed his academic training to bring a new understanding to how and why we enjoy it – and possibly how to bring that enjoyment to new levels.
Running on adrenaline, a near-fatal lack of food and sleep and in all probability a lochsworth of whisky, Iain animatedly laid out the end result of the class – to help us identify cask types used to mature our whisky purely by how we experienced it in the mouth. In reality of course a session like this has several goals; to entertain, to educate, to promote the brand. But this one was light on marketing and heavy on substance.
Normally at this point I’d list out the whiskies that were provided, giving tasting notes, maybe some funny background stories about the meaning of their names, and picking a favourite. But while the supplied drams were all great, with at least two of them new to me (always a nice outcome as I’m a big fan of Bowmore), they were secondary to the main narrative, a bit like Hitchcock’s famous McGuffins. They had to be there to move things forwards, but Iain talked much more about what each whisky illustrated about our senses of flavour and taste rather than the specific expressions themselves.
The class began by carrying out Iain’s signature rubbing of the hands after dousing them with a bit of our first dram, which is his favourite way of getting quickly to the real character of a whisky. After a demonstration of a notable nosing technique, we were briefly educated on the layout of taste buds on the tongue; not only where the various flavours are sensed, but why, which I’d never actually considered before.
It turns out that if a whisky has been mostly matured in ex-bourbon barrels, made from American oak, the front part of the tongue is where you’ll experience the sweet, light notes that have been laid down by the wood. As we moved through the whiskies in front of us, we were taught the difference between taste and flavour, and how the different flavour components affect different parts of the mouth. We also had a tasting technique demonstrated involving holding whisky on your tongue while bringing in a tiny bit of air through the teeth, during which I almost drowned. I can think of worse ways to go.
If you’re thinking that the emphasis on education sounds boring, I can promise you it was actually anything but. I loved the focus on the scientific approach; I’ve heard some of it before but never integrated as well into a single presentation. This is partly down to Iain’s uniquely energetic presentation style, his depth of experience as a blender, and also the numerous and juicy anecdotes from throughout his career scattered throughout the more cerebral parts.
Iain made the point somewhere in the class that Bowmore tries to be the best balanced Islay malt rather than just the peatiest. The presentation reflected that approach, never swaying too close to either extent of the education-entertainment continuum; rather, each part enhanced the other. Just like a well-balanced dram!