Headed back to school...
It was with some trepidation and a lot of excitement that I set out to Arniston House for the Edinburgh Whisky Academy’s Diploma in Single Malt Whisky earlier this year. It was my first post-graduate study since leaving University 25 years ago. Playing to type (I’m a lawyer), I had done my homework. The course modules were detailed and full of facts on the two self-study modules of The Business of Whisky and The Historical Development of Scotch Whisky.
Figures released by HMRC the other month reveal that Scotch whisky makes up three-quarters of Scottish produce sold around the world. As Scotland’s overseas food and drink exports reached a record high of £6.3 billion, our national drink accounted for 75% of the total food and drink exports, up by £338 million to £4.7 billion (a rise of 7.8% on the previous year).
These news reports were all familiar territory to me, having done my pre-course reading.
Scotch whisky now supports around 10,000 direct and 40,000 indirect jobs in the economy. Since the new millennium, there has been a boom period of new distilleries opening in Scotland. Over 30 new malt distilleries (and rising) have started production throughout Scotland.
Of course, with boom can come bust. I learned that the last period of mass expansion in the years 1890 to 1900 was followed by a sharp decline – excess stock (laid down for years to mature) outpaced demand, prices fell and companies folded. The economic and political factors were very different in those days, but it’s always wise to learn from what has gone before.
When your homework is drinking whisky
Certified by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), the Diploma in Single Malt Whisky is an intensive course, covering the entire process of Scotch whisky – from the history and business of whisky, to production (malting, distillation and maturation)…and not to forget “sensory” (that’s nosing and tasting!). Curiously, despite my love of a fine dram, I found the sensory component the most challenging. The best tip that I had from a previous student on the course was to set aside the peated dram first - once you had identified it on the nose - otherwise, the taste would risk tainting the other samples.
The practical insights from Vic Cameron, our learned lecturer, over the two days were invaluable. Told in a memorable style with anecdotes from his decades of experience in the whisky trade, he made the modules on the distillation process easier to follow and understand than you would get from any textbook. Our tour of the Glenkinchie distillery outside Edinburgh at the end of Day 1 really brought it all together – theory into practice. And this wasn’t your ordinary distillery tour – exceptionally we had Vic to walk us through the process first hand, drawing on our learnings (with a little test to see who had been listening!) from the earlier part of the day.
I have been a fan of single malt Scotch whisky since I was 18. Thankfully, unlike many Scotsmen sampling their first dram, I did not sicken myself (literally) of the amber nectar by trying it after too many pints of beer or other spirits of lesser provenance. Instead, I learned to savour the drink, find my favourite brands and characters and build a decent collection over time. While I have heard it said that a bottle of Scotch whisky has no real value until you open it (and enjoy its contents), there is no denying that the value of rare Scotch whisky has rocketed in recent years, with returns well in excess of traditional equity investments. It’s certainly much more fun to invest in. I have a cask of my favourite Bruichladdich sleeping on the island of Islay waiting to mature for bottling on my son’s 18th birthday or another special occasion.
The Career Benefits of a Whisky Course
Why did I decide to take the Diploma? I asked myself the very same question as I sat up late studying (and drinking) with my good friend and classmate Jon, the night before our final exam. Such is the importance of food and drink to our economy, my law firm has a number of valued clients in the whisky sector. What better way truly to understand the businesses that we support. More importantly, I tell my own children and the law students that I mentor at University that, if they focus on taking the subjects that they enjoy, success will follow. For me, there was no better subject to quench my thirst (again, literally).
The term ‘provenance’ has perhaps become over-used in food & drink circles. But Scotch whisky is uniquely Scottish, and carefully protected. These aspects of my study of the Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009 resonated particularly for me as a lawyer: distilled in Scotland; three ingredients – malted barley, water and yeast; at least three years in oak casks; matured only in Scotland and labelled clearly by region.
I thoroughly recommend the Diploma course to anyone with an interest in whisky. There is no better way to upskill your knowledge and understanding; with real credibility.
Scotch whisky is not only one of our most important exports; it’s an advertisement for Scotland. Every one of the 1.276 billion bottles of Scotch whisky sold around the world in 2018. Maybe there will be one bottle fewer this year, as I’m off to open one to celebrate graduating with my Diploma from the EWA…
David Morgan is a partner in the commercial law firm, Burness Paull LLP