The Edinburgh Whisky Academy attended its first international event last month, at the Groningen Noord-Nederland Whisky Festival. It was an exciting experience to get on the international stage and spread the word about the Academy and our courses.
We must firstly thank the fantastic volunteers and organizers of the festival, as this is a non-profit festival run entirely by a group of hard-working volunteers. This made for a fantastic energy at the festival, and when combined with the venue - a 15th-century cathedral - made a very unique ambience.
This Festival was an excellent opportunity to speak to many people about EWA and our vision for whisky education. The enjoyment and importance of whisky education is a hard subject to convey, so in order to highlight the fun involved in learning we created a miniature ‘sensory assessment’ modelled on the one used in our latest whisky course the Diploma in the Art of Tasting Whisky. It was wonderful to see the enthusiasm people brought to the activity, with everyone really keen to test their sense of smell. The two lucky winners won a place on our Diploma in the Art of Tasting Whisky.
Our experience at Groningen underlined the desire for whisky knowledge. Certainly, many festival attendees were there to sample the tipple, but their zeal for the sensory assessment and our Single Malt Pop Quiz revealed an intellectual enjoyment of whisky, as well as a sensory one. When we taste a whisky, we want to know the distillery, type of cask, strength of abv, age, etc. of the drink. More so than other spirits, knowing this information about a whisky enhances our enjoyment of it. Contextualization allows us to appreciate a whisky in a particular way and gives an instant understanding of the provenance.
The Groningen Festival also runs the International Whisky School, which I was lucky enough to attend. This school is held once a year and the course takes three days, commencing the day before the festival and finishing on the penultimate day, meaning that the students also have time to enjoy the delights of the festival.
The unusual aspect of this school is that it is taught entirely by volunteer teachers, most of whom are, or have been, involved in the industry. The school is organised by a group of passionate, volunteer, whisky enthusiasts, which created a very convivial learning atmosphere. The course covered most areas of malt and grain whisky production and looked at international whiskies too.
My class at the school consisted of a diverse mix of Dutch business people - some who worked within the spirits sector, but many who were there purely to improve their knowledge for personal satisfaction.
The whisky school timetable was fairly packed: with dinners in the evening; a trip to Europe’s largest maltings; an activity in which we created our own blends, as well as attending daily lectures.
The behind-the-scenes tour of Holland Malts Eemshaven site was quite staggering. Strategically placed in Eemshaven Port on the north coast of Holland, they have a capacity of 280,000 tonnes of malt per year with over 50% of production being shipped abroad to Asia, Africa, and South America. The sheer scale of the maltings was something alone to witness, with the germination vessels being of a similar diameter to that of a Velodrome. An indication that it is not just the whisky industry that is booming but the beer industry too.
There were many highlights to the course, not least meeting such an entertaining and friendly bunch of people. I think one of my favourite activities was creating our own blended whisky from a choice of 6 different malt and grain whiskies. Once finished, Martine Nouet would nose all the blends and tell us which whiskies we had used - out of 18 students, she got every single blend correct even to the point of indicating the concentration of the different whiskies, incredible!
One of the volunteer teachers at the school is our very own Vic Cameron, senior lecturer on our Diploma in Single Malt Whisky, who has been involved with the school since it started a few years ago. Being his student for a day provided me an excellent opportunity to experience, first-hand, how engaging and effective his teaching style is, as well as the value in being taught by ex-industry. This is one area that I am particularly immovable on at EWA: the quality of our teachers.
When I created the Academy, I was adamant that all the material was to be written by experts (specialists in their field) and that our Diplomas would only be taught by ex-industry. This philosophy continues today and the high calibre of teaching experienced at the Academy is always commented on by the candidates. They appreciate the wealth of knowledge the teacher has, having worked in the industry for most of their career. The candidates also love the added extras - industry insight, the stories from the distilleries as well as the opportunity to possibly be taught by the master distiller who created your favourite whisky (as happened with one of our candidates last month!). I embrace the International Whisky School for their recognition in the value of having good quality and authoritative teachers.
Overall I would thoroughly recommend the International Whisky School and the Noord-Nederland Whisky Festival to anyone who wants to improve their whisky knowledge and have a wonderful 4-day whisky experience.