We try the GreatDrams Whisky Tasting Experience – in the office boardroom
“Hands up who doesn't like whisky?”
About half the room raises their hand.
It's a Tuesday afternoon and everyone's so desperate to escape their desks, they've joined a tasting session for a drink they don't think they like the taste of.
But our host, whisky expert Greg Dillon, isn't fazed. “Then pick up the glass on the top left of your tasting mat.”
The whisky in question is the David Beckham one in the boxy blue bottle: Haig Club Clubman. Non whisky fans tend to like this one because its toffee-butterscotch flavours give it a smooth, easy-drinking sweetness.
As a brand consultant for the whisky industry, Greg is well aware that whisky is still viewed as an intimidating drink for some. It has typically been 'a man's drink'. And a particular type of man at that: unironically flat-capped, 50-plus, Scottish.
Not city-dwelling Millennial women then. Except that whisky's popularity is growing and its new drinkers are equally male and female. Everyone in this room looks pretty happy with the Haig Club Clubman at least.
It's the first of five drams we'll drink at the GreatDrams Whisky Tasting Experience: a mobile tasting session you can book for a team-building session, birthday party, client entertainment, or any other occasion you can think of. Greg and his wife Kirsty bring everything to your office or home, so it's really easy to organise. They also work with some Manchester bars if you prefer to have the session elsewhere.
Next up is a new Irish whiskey, Roe & Co, from Dublin. Its makers spent three years trying 120 different blends before they settled on this one, pilot blend 106, characterised by flavours of pear-drop and vanilla.
How to taste your whisky
Greg recommends three steps for tasting. First, try it neat. Second, with a couple of drops of water. Third, with about 25% water. This might seem like a lot but it's how the professionals do it because it opens up the flavours and gives movement. (And makes it last longer, we might add).
Just water then? No other mixers? For someone who is, in his own words, obsessed with whisky, Greg has a relaxed attitude to how you should enjoy it. “If you're smiling, the whisky has won,” he says.
If he was going to mix it, he'd have a highball where you add ice, turn the glass to ensure it fully chills the whisky, then add soda water, and a squeeze of lemon. Or ice, ginger, and fresh lime.
It's all about the 'heather and weather'
Another thing about the new generation of whisky drinkers is that they're more interested in flavour than age. So much so, that some of the newer products aren't marketed with an age, such as Laphroaig Lore. But overseas, age is still king. Next we try the number-one whisky in Korea: the Ballantine's Seventeen-Year-Old.
This single malt is a little smoky and a little spicy: a flavour profile they like. An equal part of its appeal is its Scottish heritage, or the 'heather and weather' factor, as it's known in the industry.
It's this which draws tourists from all over the world to visit the makers of Scotland's famous brands. And while our office boardroom will never have as much atmosphere as a windswept Scottish distillery, Greg still succeeds in evoking the magic of the whisky-making process.
He tells stories about maturation in oak casks set alight to char the wood so its flavour and colour seeps into the whisky. And he gives just the right amount of detail to keep it interesting. He's clearly very knowledgeable about his subject – his GreatDrams blog won UK Food and Drink Blogger of the Year in 2017. But thankfully he's not going to shoehorn all his insights into one tasting session.
Darkness and light
Back to maturation. Greg describes it as about subtraction and addition: “You subtract the darkness and the sadness from the cask, and add the happiness, which is the spirit.”
Much like how you feel drinking it. We move onto an intentionally young American corn whisky: the Balcones Baby Blue from Texas which is matured for just three to four years. It has a fresh oak taste redolent of pencil shavings and is one of those whiskies which transport you to another place and time: your school days, or a childhood trip to the seaside. For stirring up forgotten memories (and creating new ones) a whisky-tasting is hard to beat.
Our last dram of the day is particularly special. It's a limited-edition Ardmore eight-year-old single cask single malt whisky which Greg commissioned to coincide with the launch of his brilliant new book, The GreatDrams of Scotland. It's a slightly smoky whisky with notes of white pepper and toasted pineapple, and is the clear favourite of some of our group.
Considering how many whisker-avoiders we had in attendance, the five drams have gone down surprisingly well. Almost all our glasses are empty, and any leftover whisky is quickly being snaffled by those who want more. Everyone's got questions. And everyone's smiling. Looks like the whisky won after all.
Want to book a GreatDrams Whisky Experience?
Greg Dillon hosts whisky-tasting sessions for Christmas parties, team-building sessions, birthdays, client entertainment, hen and stag parties, and more. He can come to your workplace or home or he can arrange a tasting session in a bar. Sessions can hold anything from ten to 100 people and will be designed around your specific needs.