Winter Whisky Tasting, Scotch Malt Whisky Society

26 Jul

I don’t know a lot about whisky. I have even been known to spell it whiskey (rest assured I have been duly chastised; maybe I should just stick with calling it scotch). What I do know is that I like it, so it only seems fair that I should spend a bit of time learning more about it.

The international Scotch Malt Whisky Society has been around for 30 years, and has branches around the world – including Australia. The aim is to provide brad and deep whisky education, as well as showcase some of the finer and rarer whiskies available. Being a member of the society brings you access to these whiskies via events like tastings and food matching evenings, as well as being able to buy them.

My introduction to the society is through one of their tasting evenings in Canberra. It’s held over two nights – the first being sold out – and even as newbies we’re warmly welcomed into the room at The Deck at Regatta Point – and adding to that warmth is a welcome dram.

Tables all set for tasting

As we finish our first tasting – no clues given as to what it is –Β  we’re invited to take our seats. Our host, Drew, introduces the night which will be a tour of flavours. For us newbies – and there are a few, thankfully! – he explains that this is about enjoying whisky at cask strength. The society bottles whisky that it buys from distillers, straight from the cask – so much of what’s before us has an alcohol content of ~50 and often more than 60 per cent (!) (thus the small servings…).

The reason to enjoy good whisky, Drew says, is to make new friends and have fun – and matching whisky with food complements the enjoyment of it. He’s worked closely with The Deck to ensure the food we’re served tonight enhances the flavours of what’s in the glasses before us.

We’re asked to call out the characteristics we’ve noticed in our welcoming dram. One cheeky fellow yells out, “Wet!” but more serious answers include it being sweet, fruity, and very approachable. Drew tells us it’s a Scottish malt from up near Aberdeen, and while it smells potent it’s only about 40%. It’s superb used in whisky cocktails, and it can be bought from Dan Murphy’s for $90. (And it’s revealed it’s An Cnoc – buy it from Dan Murphy’s here.)

Five very different whiskies

We now move into the heart of the evening. We start with the whisky on the left and we’re asked what we can smell. Again, there’s a cheeky answer: “Alcohol!” Others can smell salt, brine and stone fruit.

Before us we’ve got a pamphlet called ‘Whisky Outturn’. It’s got all the whiskies currently available for ordering from the society. Within it are the details of the whiskies before us, including tasting notes from both a UK and Australian tasting panel.

The curious thing about all this is that we’re not told the actual name of the whisky or who the distiller is. The website says, “This is because the curious nature of single cask, single malt whisky means the tastes are often not characteristic of the region it comes from.” I suspect there are quite a few more reasons than just this one, but I can see why they don’t want us – and particularly those who have a much finer appreciation than me – to have any preconceptions.

Instead, we’re given a number, a region (this one’s from the Highland area in Scotland), a description of the colour (Jason’s fleece from Jason and the Argonauts!) and a title of the whisky as determined by the tasting panel – and meant to give a bit of a sense of what we’re drinking. The title of this one is Lively as an electric acrobat (Cask No. 26.98). The tasting notes read that it smells a bit like laundry powder, and I couldn’t agree more; it’s all I can smell and taste!

First matched food – burgers!

Drew encourages us to cup our hands around the whisky to warm it up, which changes the nose and the flavour – “a little bit of handwarming is going to reward you” – but I still can’t get past the laundry powder / base flavour. That said, it matches surprisingly well with the food. A bottle will set you back $199 as a member of the society.

Burgers match well with our first whisky

Food’s something I’m a little more confident writing about. These burgers are great on their own – soft buns, big juicy slow-cooked steak, and all the right condiments. Drew’s told us that whisky goes well at barbecues – even as an introductory drink – and I’m now convinced.

Our next week is titled Feast of Flavours (Cask No 35.108); a Speyside whisky with more colour and age (at 12 years, it’s two years older than the previous). The alcohol content is 60.5% and ginger ale is prominent on the nose and palate for many. For me, it smells like sherry but doesn’t taste like it at all – it’s like a peppery, dry ginger ale. I later read in the tasting notes that there’s a disjoint between the nose and the palate – maybe I’m learning something after all.

This $219 bottle is matched with prawns and a creamy, tangy dipping sauce. This is a match I’m less convinced about.

Prawns match Whisky No. 2

Next, we’re asked to guess from three different tasting notes (A symphony of sophistication, Glamping in a yurt and Spiced Champurrado) what the third whisky is, its match of

Pleased to see a variety of bread

Antipasti – dips, eggplant, smoked meat, smoked veges, feta, sundried tomatoes

Let’s take a look at this whiskies again

 

I’m convinced that this second Speyside whisky is Glamping in a yurt – I can taste the ginger and tomato soup the tasting notes flag as present. I’m completely wrong: Drew notes the complexity of it should be a giveaway that it’s Spiced Champurrado (Cask 76.112) – a light colour with huge complex favours and a long finish. This whisky is 27 (!) years old (ie as old as me!).Β  This is my favourite whisky of the night (figures – it’s $389!).

Drew speaking passionately about whisky

Next up is Sing Along with Julie Andrews (Cask No. 10.78). This is an Islay whisky, and very smooth. The response from the tables is mixed about what we can smell and taste, and Drew reminds us that we’re all coming from different memory frames. This six-year-old whisky is malty. It’s served with a goat’s cheese tart which is tangy but light and brings out the sweetness in this dram ($149 and 61.4%).

Goat’s cheese tart

Our final taste is again a game where we pick between two in the tasting notes – Puffers and fishing boats moored together, and Innocent embrace of sweetness and smoke. The former tasting note reads “This is a dram you’d put your smoking jacket on to drink” and that’s how I know it’s Puffers (Cask No. 29.149; $285 and 60.1%). The smell of tobacco and peat is overwhelming. The UK tasting notes refer to ‘harbour notes’ but I think they’re talking more busy, shipping harbour than Sydney harbour. Others describe it as chewy (I’m still not quite sure what that means).

Dessert!

It’s matched with dessert; sweet, custardy cake and decadent, caramelised chocolate brownie with sticky sauce. The brownie is one of the best matches for me: the bittersweet chocolate holds its own against such a strong, smokey whisky and the flavours of the nip and the food cut through each other without either being overwhelming.

The night’s over relatively quickly – we’re there just before 7 and it’s over by 9pm – and we’re encouraged to order a bottle or two (and if we’re newbies and order a bottle, membership’s thrown in). There’s also a whisky starter pack which contains a book, some glasses and three small bottles of whisky to help reveal what it’s all about for $180.

The cost for the night is $70 if you’re a member (or guest of a member – one ticket only) or $90 for non-members. Despite there being no crockery or cutlery with the food (odd? It did make the antipasti a bit awkward!), there are ample servings of very tasty, well-cooked food and it’s been chosen well. The variety of whiskies is great, the company at our table (some friends, some friends from Twitter, and some people I’ve never met) is excellent, and it’s a lovely atmosphere.

While my appreciation has increased, I’m still not quite sure I yet truly value what we’re tasting – just how rare they are, and how unusual they are – for the price. The only solution? Keep trying different whiskies!

Date: Thursday, 17 July 2014

Where: The Deck at Regatta Point, Barrine Drive

Cost: $70 for members and a guest, $90 for non-members

Value for money: Probably higher than I realise

Worthwhile factor: Worthwhile

Want more? Follow the Scotch Malt Whisky Society events here. There’s also a Dram Club set up in Sydney which looks to be doing monthly whisky events in Canberra – check out their Facebook page.

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One Response to “Winter Whisky Tasting, Scotch Malt Whisky Society”

  1. Drew October 16, 2014 at 10:30 pm #

    Thanks for the positive feedback. We are glad you enjoyed the experience – we love sharing the fun and flavours. Our next event is a “10 Steps to Heaven” event on Tues 18 November, at Regatta Point, a big stand up and chat tasting with ten on offer. See http://www.smws.com.au for details

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