EWA Alumni: Calum Lawson
It’s been a long time in the offing, but Glasgow finally has its own Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS) venue. We caught up with Venue Manager Calum Lawson to find out how his Diploma in Single Malt Whisky is helping him run the city’s hottest new whisky destination…
What attracted you to the Diploma in Single Malt Whisky?
I started off by looking at all options for whisky education. I had done a couple of courses in the past so the EWA Diploma seemed like the logical step up in terms of detail and quality. I knew that there would be more value in completing a formally recognised Diploma, and that the more I could do in the way of education the more I would be reminded of the intricacies, the nuances and the richness of the whisky industry and its products at large. The EWA course delivered on all of that and was without doubt the best training I’ve done.
Which aspects did you find most fascinating about the Diploma?
Having someone with a wealth of hands-on experience from the whisky industry to lead the course was brilliant. From a consumer perspective, you’re often faced with a degree of ‘smoke and mirrors’ in terms of branding, promotions, marketing etc. You’re left to determine what is true or not. Here, it felt like we were getting the ‘inside scoop’ from an industry veteran, for example just how much influence water and other raw materials really have on the final flavour of a whisky. On that note, I found the maturation module fascinating as it has the most influence on flavour. But the entire course was brilliant, including the opportunity to try the ‘world whiskies’, which I knew less about, and compare them against single malt Scotch. The blind tasting aspect was tricky but great fun!
How did the Diploma prepare you for your current role?
It gave me the confidence to speak with people about whisky and help them navigate the many different styles and flavours. It is important that people who visit the Society feel as though they gain knowledge and value form speaking to the people who run our venues and sell our whisky. Having the Diploma under my belt has made me much more comfortable to deliver that.
So, what’s in store for whisky fans at SMWS Glasgow?
The venue offers something different. There are similarities with the Society’s other venues in Edinburgh and London, evoking our vibrant house style. But our new space offers a combination of what makes those other venues great; being on one floor we’re able to create a lively community atmosphere, whilst also offering intimacy via a host of smaller areas within. The snug, for example, or the tasting room provide a degree of intimacy for people to discuss and enjoy their whiskies. In terms of events and entertainment, we’re building a programme that reflects Glasgow and its culture - colourful and playful whilst maintaining the level of professionalism people expect from a member’s club. We had stand-up comedy at our launch party, echoing the city’s sense of humour. We’re obviously continuing our much-loved tasting events but intend to get quite creative and experimental with them, too. We’ll also be bringing live music inside; a mix of jazz, folk, blues and the like for people to come and enjoy after work.
What advice would you give someone looking to get into the whisky industry?
My background has always been in hospitality. I owned a bar and restaurant with my uncle for a few years and worked elsewhere in the trade before that. But I always thought about whisky as an alternative career option. My interest was growing all the time so I thought I might as well support that with training. I also did a stint selling whisky in airport duty free, which helped me understand the range of whiskies on offer and how to sell them effectively. On that basis I’d say do as much as you can to get the right qualifications, experience in the industry and exposure to whisky people. Also, get into the habit of talking about it in the right terminology. The EWA Diploma helped on all of those fronts, particularly in terms of meeting likeminded people who I am still in contact with today.
Whisky wisdom: quick fire questions
First whisky you ever tasted?
Talisker 12 year old on a trip to Skye. A friend bought me the bottle.
Best whisky you have ever tasted?
Tough to pick just one – whisky is all about variety which is what makes it so interesting.
Who is your ‘whisky hero’?
Charlie MacLean is a big name who I’ve also had the pleasure of meeting in the past.
Who would you most like to conduct a whisky tasting for, dead or alive?
Probably the musician Chris Cornel, he could play me a few acoustic songs and I could pour the drams!
Favourite distillery to visit?
Glengoyne. It’s a local distillery to Glasgow and very picturesque (and it’s literally the start of the highlands).
Ultimate bottling for your collection?
At the moment Glen Scotia. l have tried a few great bottlings from SMWS recently - oily & coastal or lightly peated!
What is your favourite non-whisky drink?
Beer – IPAs in the past, but now a nice, fresh lager that goes well with a dram – a hauf’n’hauf, if you will.
Favourite whisky and food pairing?
Chocolate - anything goes with even a simple milk chocolate. To me there is something about drinking cask strength whisky with chocolate. A wee bit of sweetness gives a nice balance.