I’m often asked where my love for whisky comes from. “Was your father a whisky drinker?”
“Not especially”, I’d reply.
“What about your grandfather?” And so it goes. I eventually explain that my love for whisky happened almost overnight. You see I was lucky to begin my whisky education in the London venue of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. Once I mention this name, ears prick up and I’m allowed to tell my story.
It was completely by chance. After finishing my first year at university studying Journalism, I couldn’t quite bear the thought of leaving London and returning home to Poole for the summer. Instead, I decided to get a job so I could make the most of the capital before term-time came around again. I signed up to an agency and began the life as a temp worker.
The first place I was sent was the Society. I was asked to work sporadic hours over a two-week period while they were in the process of hiring a full-time member of the team. So I turned up ready to clear tables and polish glasses in a bar, which to my ears, sounded like an old man’s club.
Instead, I was greeted by a modern and sophisticated lounge with one of the most impressive looking collection of bottles I’d ever seen (I later found out the London venue is home to the largest collection of single cask single malt whisky in the world.). And then I noticed the labelling system. I was doomed.
Luckily, my patient colleagues showed me the ropes and insisted that the best way to learn about whisky was to drink the stuff. As soon as that happened, there really was no going back. I began my whisky experience in completely the opposite way to most.
I’ve often heard friends recall their first taste of ‘the water of life’ as a dreadful experience they can’t seem to erase from their memory, and subsequently not touched since.
I had no such experience. This meant that nothing could cloud my judgement and instead of starting off on something cheap and cheerful, I was thrown directly into the deep end.
In whisky terms, this is single cask single malt. I couldn’t believe it – all the images I’d conjured up in my mind of this secret drinking den had been shattered after one sip. Gone were the images of old men with red noses knocking back expensive shots.
Instead my nose was greeted by a hint of vanilla; a bouquet of delicate spring blooms and my palate a sweet yet tart apple crumble accompanied, like all good pies should be, with lashings of custard. I felt as though I’d stumbled upon the most sophisticated drink known to man.
Of course, I couldn’t leave now and did everything I could to prove my worth at the Society.
I began learning the distillery numbers, studying the map of Scotland (and a little later, Japan), memorising the differences between casks sizes and picking the brains of the particularly knowledgeable members.
Thanks to Joe, the manager of the London venue at the time, I didn’t have to leave and became a permanent member of the SMWS team. The Society stirred a passion in me. I’d not had a real hobby before; nothing had stuck.
But whisky was something I wanted to talk about, so much so that I drove my family and friends mad.
After a summer of learning about whisky I reluctantly returned to my Journalism studies. I could quite happily have given up all my time and moved into the cosy den on Bleeding Heart Yard. Instead, I had to cleverly fit my shifts around my lectures.
And even then I found my hobby spilling into my studies. From my dissertation, a piece looking into the way alcohol is portrayed within the media, to my final print piece, which explored the popularity of Japanese whisky in London; I devoted the remainder of my studies to writing about the drinks industry.
And my father…”Is he a whisky drinker?” He is now.