Most whisky fans encounter little steps of enlightenment on their whisky journey. The experience of tasting a new whisky or the discovery of a new fact or sage advice on whisky purchases. Some of these are so memorable, that I like to refer to them as whisky epiphanies.
That might seem a bit far-fetched, but only to those who have not yet had their whisky landscape fully coloured. Some are minor epiphanies, like the notion that all of the whisky landscape in Scotland – that dizzying myriad of flavour and variation – come from the same three ingredients.
However, some epiphanies are major events, where you encounter a whisky that is so compelling, the experience so profound, that it provokes the desire to take action. You need to understand more. You buy it. You share it. Perhaps you evangelise a little. I evangelise a lot.
This product has the ability to train and focus the senses like nothing else. My first profound epiphany was in the tasting room of Glengoyne distillery in 2005, and it’s curious in that I didn’t seek it or expect it.
I work in marketing for an Italian electronics company and during a conference is Scotland one of my colleagues from our Rome office arrived and asked to be taken to a distillery before he returned home. I had to apologise; I had no experience of whisky – I didn’t know where to take him. He was shocked. He wondered how I can live in the country that makes the finest alcoholic spirit ever to have been created and remain ignorant of it. Through embarrassment, I took action.
I discovered Glengoyne, not 45 minutes from our city centre location and he could have his tour before his flight home on his final day. He was blown away. As we walked the distillery with (at that time) their 10yo, he was like a kid a Christmas. I was transfixed at his transfixion. He asked questions and showed interest that marked him out as someone who knew what this was all about. He was already a believer.
They’ve updated the layout at Glengoyne in recent years and it’s grander and slicker than in 2005, but I have a fond memory of standing in a small room around an oak barrel as we watched a promotional video. I took a sip of the dram and felt the warm flow of enlightenment wash over me.
My next step in whisky was walking straight to the gift shop and buying a 10yo bottling along with a water jug and glass. Whisky newbie fodder, for sure, but a necessary and – I like to think – tasteful step. I remember the curious expressions on the faces of friends when I shared my experience. I remember their dismissive reactions as they poured their beers or vodka. Yet, I’ve since had the pleasure of witnessing whisky epiphanies on those same faces. I’ve been a successful little evangelist and, with whisky’s help, all of them are on the journey.
My colleague knew about flavour. It seems the Italians know about their wine and local specialist spirits, as do the French and Spanish. It is so integrated within the culture of the mediterranean countries that the pleasure in it is instinctive and almost taken for granted. It’s less about alcohol and more to do with flavour. They learn the concepts and dynamics almost by osmosis.
Of course, whisky is known and celebrated in Scotland and for sure, we can produce our informed commentators and experts. More are borne by the day. Yet I remain astounded at how even self-declared whisky drinkers don’t know what defines single malt, or how it differs from grain whisky or a blend. They remain loyal to their branded blend and complain when a bar doesn’t stock their tipple. I feel an unquenchable desire to introduce them to the flavours and experiences that come with the whisky landscape. To help them stop drinking, and start tasting.
I’m sure that can be annoying. I don’t know what to blame for this passion, this desire to spread the word, to convert the whisky heathen. Clearly they deserve to be left to their own pleasures and devices and not be interfered with by a whisky geek. I suppose I could blame my obsessive character, or whisky itself. But as I return to the distillery that started it all, I choose to blame Glengoyne.