The case for certified whisky education
Scotch whisky, despite its easy appeal, is a complex topic. Across centuries it has charmed suitors the world over, helped in no small part by the apparent ‘secrets’ of distillation, maturation and appreciation, creating a mystique that has made it such a desirable – and now highly covetable - product. Even against unprecedented levels of uncertainty and change in global markets, Scotch whisky has posted another enviable set of results.
The Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) reports that in the face of trade wars, Brexit, counterfeiting and noble challengers to its crown - we’re looking at you, Ireland - the volume and value of exports is still on the rise (up 4.4% to £4.9bn in 2019).
Scotch is increasingly seen as a premium product, even a lifestyle category, if you will. And so, spearheaded by the SWA, the industry continues to do everything in its power to maintain position at the top of the global spirits market. Safeguarding quality, integrity and marketability of the product are nonnegotiable priorities.
But what about the people behind the bottle? Amidst these efforts, how much do the people that produce, market, sell, safeguard and enjoy Scotch whisky really need to understand about Scotland’s most prized export?
Well, at the Edinburgh Whisky Academy it will come as little surprise what we think: quite a lot.
As when opening a bottle of Scotch, so we believe that people should feel assured of the highest quality when learning with the world’s only certified whisky education provider.
Mind the (knowledge) gap
A lot of people know about Scotch whisky. Some, for example, understand how the pitch of a lyne arm can influence new make spirit. Others can tell you how a sherry butt might turn a whisky into liquid Christmas cake. The woman in charge of exports for a major distiller can tell you which country buys the most of her whisky each year, while your friendly neighbourhood bartender will help you tell your Balvenie from your Bells.
But how many of us can knit all of this valuable knowledge together? How much should we expect our industry’s custodians and ambassadors to know about whisky from cradle (the barley field) to grave (the lingering, throaty glow that experts call the ‘finish’)?
The industry at large has long acknowledged that there is a need for relevant, quality and certifiable education on Scotch whisky.
And, importantly, not just for the consumer; educating existing and would-be whisky drinkers is a great way to create loyalty and generate sales. But ensuring a high level of knowledge and understanding throughout the people in industry - irrespective of role or experience - is also an essential objective in keeping Scotch ahead of rival spirits categories.
The SWA does a fine job raising awareness of the protected nature of Scotch in foreign markets. The Scotch Whisky Experience (SWE) has a fantastic reputation for introducing (predominantly) tourists to the basics.
Heriot Watt University, The International Centre for Brewing and Distilling and the Institute of Brewing and Distilling are well established options for those in need of in-depth technical skills. Meanwhile whisky distillers, naturally, upskill staff to promote and sell their own brand portfolios.
All of the above are vital components of whisky education. But there remains an opportunity for the industry. An opportunity to ensure it educates its own on everything from the history and business of whisky to its production, protection and evolution in the face of global political, climate and consumer challenges.
Without a certified knowledge platform recognised by the whisky community, we will continue to focus predominantly on outward education to markets and consumers and risk under-investing in the breadth and depth of people responsible for the sustained success of the product.
Despite widespread support from industry, this is a need that has not historically been centrally or cohesively addressed. Until now.
Pioneers of certified whisky education
When Kirsty McKerrow established the Edinburgh Whisky Academy in 2015 it was in direct response to this need.
She, like many others, had a wealth of experience from working in the industry. But she also struggled to find a respected and brand-neutral source of education from which to embed, enhance and certify her understanding and skillset.
“I wanted to improve my whisky knowledge and searched the market for credible courses (for those involved in the nondistillation side of the industry), only to discover that they didn’t exist. This realisation set me on my journey of improving the standard of whisky education globally”.
This is a mission that she and the rest of the team at the Academy pursue today.
Whisky education plays a hugely important role in the on-going success and, naturally, enjoyment of the product. As well as learning about how it is made, candidates at the Academy receive a huge degree of knowledge on the history and business of whisky, as well as how to enhance their appreciation of the liquid in their glass, being taught how to properly nose it, taste it and navigate the myriad aromas and flavours in each drop.
For the enthusiast this opens up even further the incredible world of whisky, creating a greatly enhanced whisky drinking experience with each pop of the cork and swill of the glass.
For the professional, they return to their place of work with a renewed and embedded knowledge of the product, its characteristics and key markets, not to mention bolstered confidence to produce, sell, protect and then themselves educate others about what makes whisky so wonderful.
“Our Diploma courses sell out quickly. Candidates hail from leading whisky operations in Scotland, such as The Macallan, Whyte & Mackay and Brown Forman, to passionate whisky drinkers from every corner of the world. This only serves to support our view that there is a pent up demand and real respect for this level of whisky education.”
Whisky education at the Academy plays a hugely important role in the ongoing success and, naturally, enjoyment of the product.
Why the need for certification?
“Ultimately, it’s about assurance” says Kirsty.
Historically there has always been a question mark over the source and authenticity of brand-neutral whisky education. For example, how can the consumer or the professional tell that what they are being taught is coming from a source with direct industry exposure, experience and knowledge? The many myths and anecdotes have their place in the whisky lexicon, but from an educational standpoint the truth about Scotch Whisky is more fascinating - and valuable - than fiction.
Gaining and maintaining certification is by no means the easy route. The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), an executive non-departmental public body of the Scottish Government, demands a lot of its approved centres for education. But we sought it for precisely this reason.
Firstly, certification provides assurance of our provenance and our benchmark for quality. All of the Academy’s whisky and gin courses are researched, written and delivered by ex-industry professionals.
Elsewhere it’s largely the case that people don’t get access to the front line experts – there’s a middle man or woman delivering the courses they attend or authoring the books they read. Our candidates get first hand knowledge from, and exposure to, the people who have been there and done it, respecting both the process of producing and loyalty to Scotch Whisky.
Beyond this, there is an uncompromising expectation for transparency and standardisation across educational material, the standard and background of tutors, relevance of learning outcomes and the rigour of assessments.
“Each assessment paper group (we have 3 papers in rotation for each course) tests the same, in-depth level of knowledge as the other. There is also a well curated transcript for each course so that all of our tutors share the same content knowledge as the next. Their stories about life on the front line of whisky production may change, but the knowledge imparted to candidates - and therefore the certified qualification - doesn’t.”
Throughout the duration of each course the clear content structure means that every learning outcome is taught, assessed and met by candidates.
“As well as annual inspections, we can ourselves be assessed by the SQA at any time meaning we must ensure that the content we teach remains both to an extremely high standard and relevant to the industry at present.”
“Equally, when a prospective employer sees one of the Academy’s qualifications on an applicant’s CV, they can be assured that this person has the desired level of knowledge that will add value to their business, otherwise they wouldn't have passed the course.”
Facing industry challenges together
None of this would be possible without being certified and answerable to a higher body, ensuring standards of learning remain as high as possible.
The Edinburgh Whisky Academy are the pioneers in their field; the first to take that step by demonstrating an unshakeable commitment to such standards and education that is true to whisky as it was yesterday, is today and will be tomorrow.
“To date, we remain the only centre of learning for Scotch Whisky and gin that is approved by the SQA. We are incredibly proud of this accreditation and our certified diploma courses. Ultimately, it’s our real point of difference.”
The Scotch Whisky industry continues to face a range of challenges on all fronts (topics that we will address in future publications).
On this, Kirsty finishes:
“As an industry we have to face these challenges together. We are doing our bit by educating whisky professionals and enthusiasts to the highest possible standard. Our alumni ultimately go on to promote and protect Scotch Whisky the world over, so as long as we are giving them a credible platform to do so we will continue to cherish the virtues of certified whisky education.”