If you’re looking for an education in Scotch whisky, you could do worse than exploring Edinburgh’s incredible pub scene and tapping into the knowledge of bartenders and locals. Hell, you could do worse than ordering blindly; you know, trial by fire, point and shoot. What’s worse? Find out at the end.
But you could also do a lot better.
The Scotch Whisky Experience
The Scotch Whisky Experience (SWE) sits in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle at the top of the Royal Mile and makes a great first stop for anyone interested in understanding how Scotch whisky is made. The tour kicks off with a theatrical barrel “ride” in which the basics of Scotch whisky production are explained by the spirit(!) of an ancient whisky blender. After the barrel ejected me, I met up with the other tour-goers and our friendly guide, Nell, as we browsed cooperage and peat-harvesting exhibits en route to the tasting room. Here, Nell tag-teamed with an A/V presentation to describe the unique characteristics of Scotland’s whisky regions. Everyone received a scratch-and-sniff card to help them choose their dram. Islay was spot on with a rich and smokey scent while Speyside smelled curiously like ripe bananas.
With whisky chosen and in hand (I chose Highland, which was Old Pulteney that day), we skimmed through the largest whisky collection in the world before ending our tour in the bar where Gold and Platinum tour-goers got to choose a package of four whiskies to sample.
The tour is worthwhile for visitors just learning about Scotch whisky. It gives a solid overview of the process, throws in the requisite dram, and maintains a brisk pace. The barrel ride was a bit cutesy for my tastes, but the production level was very high and I’m sure it keeps children engaged while parents eagerly await their dram(s). Skip the Silver tour and go Gold – you’ll want those extra drams at the end, and the bar itself is gorgeous with views over the city.
If you’re not a newbie to Scotch whisky, you might be interested in going straight to The SWE’s restaurant, Amber, and its downstairs bar. That’s what I did the first couple times I visited the SWE and I had a fantastic – if tipsy – time. There’s also a robust whisky shop that contains over 300 whiskies from around Scotland. You don’t need to go on the tour to get access to the restaurant, downstairs bar, or shop, so keep this in mind if you have connoisseurs in your group.
The Scotch Malt Whisky Society
While The Scotch Whisky Experience is perfect for whisky cubs, The Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS) is specifically and exclusively for whisky connoisseurs. Seriously, these folks are like the Free Masons of whisky. I was forbidden to take pictures inside their members’ rooms, but the experience is etched in my memory. And…well…maybe I have a few photos, too.
Charlie, my guide at Glenkinchie Distillery, first mentioned the society to me, and I knew I would have to seek it out. I found their headquarters, the Vaults, in Leith. The SMWS has 28,000 members and various clubhouses around the world. There aren’t any blood rituals, you simply need to pay £100 your first year and £52 every year after that to have access to the society properties and their whisky. And it’s all about the whisky.
The SMWS only sells non-chill-filtered, single-cask, cask-strength whiskies. The society tastes casks from Scottish distilleries and purchases those that the tasting board has approved. They then bottle the cask’s whisky and sell it only to SMWS members. Since the taste of whisky from a single cask can be unpredictable and wholly unlike a distillery’s typical offerings, SMWS whiskies never name the distillery on their bottles. Instead, they use a numbering system to denote the distillery and cask. For example, a bottle labeled 4.123 indicates the whisky is from distillery #4 and the whisky is from the 123rd cask purchased from that distillery. It’s a handy system for collectors, though the secrecy of distilleries is academic – anyone at The SMWS will tell you which distillery corresponds with each number.
I’m a lover of cask-strength whiskies, so The SMWS was a little bit of heaven on earth. I paid £10 for a day pass that provided me access to The SMWS as if I was a member and enjoyed a dram of “Floaty and Relaxing,” the fun title of bottle 25.58. It was a dram from Rosebank, a distillery that has long since been destroyed and whose whisky is prized by connoisseurs. Flavors of tropical fruits, bubble gum, and candied fruit blew my mind a little bit.
Since my pass was good for the day, I caught the bus to New Town and sought out The SMWS’s other location on Queen Street. There I captured another dram, this one called “Creamy, zesty fruit,” and kicked back on the top floor while watching Scotland vs. England in the Six Nations rugby tournament. It was a swanky way to spend the day and I struggled not to purchase a membership on the spot. If I lived in Edinburgh, there’s no doubt I would have bought one; there are riches here to keep connoisseurs busy forever. But The SMWS is definitely high brow and more than a touch snooty. I felt out of place in my cross trainers and North Face jacket.
So what’s worse than blindly taking drams of Scotch whisky? Taking advice from others on what you should try. There are simply too many flavors in whisky and peoples’ tastes are too diverse and specific for recommendations to be of much use. Use your palate to find the way.
Have you been to The Scotch Whisky Experience or The Scotch Malt Whisky Society? What did you think?
Disclosure: The Scotch Whisky Experience provided me with a complimentary gold tour. All thoughts and opinions expressed here are my own.