For those of you who have been to a whisky master class, you’ll know that beverage alcohol can be either elevated, or made tortuous by verbal presentation alone. So after attending a healthy round of master classes at the impeccably executed 2016 Victoria Whisky Festival, I thought I’d compile my thoughts on what made the good classes good, and try to make some shred of psychological peace with the cringe-worthy ones.
Share your new make spirit
Much of any master class is devoted to tooting the horn of the brand or distillery being represented. Fair enough. So why not show the spirit in its truest form? Sure, full strength, freshly distilled spirit is not to everyone’s taste, however, what an exciting experience it is to drown your tongue in the powerful flavours of new make at the beginning of a tasting, and discover its persisting influence in a whisky aged for 20 years, made from the very same liquid. I’ll admit that I’m a bit of a new make nerd. Merely speak the words and you’ll send a ripple of eager frisson along my limbs. New make is full of flavour and aroma, and is very revealing of the mashing and fermentation characteristics of a distillery. A brave and commendable move to share that, I think, to bare it all.
Bring something that’s not commercially available
What could be more saddening than to show up at a master class for one of your favourite distilleries, only to find a lineup of whiskies that you’ve tried before? I understand the commercial imperatives of a master class, especially one that’s conducted by a single brand. But! How thrilling it is to try something not yet available, or something that will never be available. Sure, there might not be any direct return on the investment of that 1/2 ounce pour, but that whisky, if it’s good, will captivate and live in the imagination of its tasters. The benefit of bringing a unique whisky in an unmarked bottle seems so obvious to me, that I can’t fathom a reasonable counterargument against it.
Anyone can Google.
If your distillery is big, admit it. If there are skeletons in the closet, it might be worth getting them out, now, to avoid the risk of coming off as a cheerleader for the corporate story. If your distillery malts 10% or less of its barley requirement, don’t make a big point about how ‘Distillery X malts its own barley!’. If I only did 10% of my job, nobody would exclaim that ‘Dave is doing his job!’. Beyond that, I need to believe that seasoned presenters actually know the difference between bullshit and the truth, and those who have paid money to see a presenter speak, deserve to have the two well separated.
A shout out is due here to James Robertson of Tullibardine Distillery for his first rate master class. It was the earliest session of the day, at 11am, so the cards were somewhat stacked against him in that regard. Nonetheless, the whiskies he poured, his insights, and his candour were refreshing and commendable. He brought new make, some unreleased cask strength barrel samples, and in addition, was completely honest about the struggles and triumphs of Tullibardine. Without hesitation, he comprehensively answered questions about mash fermentation, cask management, quality control, and future projects – questions that other presenters that day would fumble, dodge, or simply refuse to answer. A hearty cheers to Mr. Robertson, and may he be a beacon for all distillery representatives.
Of course, preferences about presentations will vary as widely as the sensibilities of their audience members. I’ve spoken about what I found most enriching or irksome, and tried my best not to be too much of a curmudgeon. But what about you? Any thoughts? Leave them in the comment box below.