Olga Varvarova visits the Scotch Whisky Training School at the Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh.
FOR the longest time, whisky had been a drink I would avoid like the plague.
As a Ukrainian, I’m much more accustomed to wine or “nalyvka” – a sweet liquor made of fruit or berry. However, my country’s national drink is “horilka”, which is a type of vodka with pepper. The name comes from the Ukrainian word “hority”, meaning “to burn”.
My grandfather used to make a version of horilka at home called “samohon”. I still remember the overpowering whiffs of pure alcohol coming from the kitchen. I would imagine him being an alchemist who was creating a magical medicinal potion. Surprisingly, horilka was originally used as a medicine to stimulate digestion and increase appetite.
Strong liquor had never been my personal favourite until destiny took me on the road to Scotland. Terrible circumstances forced me to leave my home, family, and my entire life to seek safety and I was lucky enough to find it.
Yet, my first stop was not the land of the brave. An intense, stressful and sometimes terrifying five-day car journey brought me to Italy. I got to spend one month in a tiny village called San Giorgio delle Pertiche in the Venice region. Whilst feeling terribly homesick, and, frankly, terribly bored, there were two big advantages of living in Italy – food and drink.
The morning was all about the hot, strong, delicious cup of espresso but the evening would be taken over by refreshing Aperol Spritz and, of course, vino fantastico.
That magical moment
So how did a Ukrainian girl get involved with whisky? My first encounter with the aqua vita took place in December 2019 on my first trip to Scotland. It was like a bad first date – too full-on too fast. However, after moving here last year, I decided to give it a second chance.
When my birthday crept up on me, and my lovely host family asked what I’d like to do for it, I thought what would be a better way to celebrate a new decade of my life than to honor the country that became my second home.
That’s how I ended up having a Johnnie Walker experience. Standing in the interactive room, surrounded by people from all over the world, it was exactly then my interest in the drink peaked. I got fascinated by the process of making whisky. Yet, drinking it still felt like swallowing a fireball.
They say the third time’s the charm and charmed I was. I got invited to one of Edinburgh’s best whisky bars for a wee tasting and something magical happened. My taste buds were opened to new, complex, bold, and, dare I say, exciting flavours I never knew whisky could have.
Unexpectedly dubbing the strongest of the four spirits I’ve tried as my favourite, I realised that there’s a whisky for everyone. On that cold November evening, my love affair with the spirit took root.
Back to school
That’s why when I got the opportunity to do a one-day whisky course at the Scotch Whisky Training School, I took it without a second thought. The school is located within the premises of The Scotch Whisky Experience on the buzzing Royal Mile.
The day started with coffee and introductions and quickly turned into an immersive journey of Scotch whisky making. The all-knowledgeable and inspiring Lenka Whyles taught all there is to know for somebody who wants to have an introduction to the world of this complex dark spirit.
We learned about the production of malt and grain whisky, going through the six main stages of the malt whisky-making process: malting, milling, mashing, fermentation, distillation, and maturation.
Each stage has its product and by-product, but nothing goes to waste. For example, the by-product of the malting process, called “draff”, is used as food for cattle and sheep. The industry is famous for its sustainability and its latest groundbreaking creation is a biofuel made from whisky waste.
Adding an international flavour
Then, after a delicious pastry and coffee break, we moved to the history of whisky. Lenka was passing the knowledge with the confidence of a true whisky guru, flavouring it with captivating stories.
My personal favourite was the story of the Japanese whisky origin; a young man named Masataka Taketsuru came to Scotland to learn about whisky production. He enrolled at the University of Glasgow and underwent apprenticeships at three distilleries. That was when he met Jessie “Rita” Robert, fell in love, and, despite the protests of his family, married her in Glasgow.
Rita followed her beloved to his homeland to support his dream and became a major influence and important figure in making the first Japanese whisky. In 1940, Taketsuru launched his first spirit “Nikka Whisky” and firmly secured his place in history as the father of Japanese whisky.
I was not the only one who got enchanted by the story. There is an entire Japanese TV series called Massan that tell about Taketsuru’s life, which I’m now keen to watch.
Whisky and chocolate
When it was time for a lunch break, we were treated to a delicious meal at Amber restaurant. Championing Scottish cuisine, the restaurant offers a wonderful selection of dishes, including haggis.
Happy and full, we went on to the most anticipated part of the day – whisky tasting. However, before that, we had a little surprise. Lenka set us up with a test to find out who is the “best nose” in the group. It turned out that, only twice in her career, had the students got the perception test correct. Who would have thought that detecting smells would be so difficult?
After testing our sense of smell, we got introduced to four whiskies representing three regions and one of the localities: Lowland, Highland, Speyside, and Islay. Lenka taught us how to “judge” the liquid in front of us, starting from the colour and moving to the body, smell and taste. The whole process made me realise one important thing – whisky is not just a drink, it’s an experience.
The second part of the tasting was pairing whisky with cheese and chocolate – it’s the part I enjoyed the most. Speyside gem Glenfarclas – with its fruity and spicy palate – was accentuated by dark artisan chocolate. The best way to get the heavenly gourmand experience is to let the chocolate melt in your mouth and then take a sip of the whisky – a true delight.
The second combination was Islay’s Lagavulin and matured cheddar which was sensational. Food and whisky is the subject I’d like to explore more myself and recommend anyone to play with.
‘I’m a whisky girl’
Another exciting part of the training was awaiting us afterward. Lenka explained to us the art of whisky blending and gave us the opportunity to create our own blend, which we got to bring home, along with a whisky-tasting glass. It’s certainly a fun way to remember the experience.
The last bit of information we got was about selling and serving Scotch whisky. The industry is blooming more than ever, with 6.2 billion recorded sales last year, which is even more than during the pre-covid era.
By the end of the day, there we were, inspired and happy. Yet, to make sure we gained the knowledge we came for, we had to face every student’s nightmare – an exam. Luckily, I was happy to learn that I passed with merit and, within a few days, I received my shiny “Certificate of expertise in the sales and service of Scotch whisky”.
So, was the whole experience worth it? Yes. Did I learn a lot? No doubt. Would I recommend it? Absolutely. The course is a fantastic way for anyone who wants to have a start in the industry or wishes to learn more about whisky production and selling.
For me, it helped to get a sense of appreciation for the drink. As Lenka noted, whisky is about the story and, indeed, the whole country is breathing it, living it, and sharing it with the rest of the world.
Now, every time I am asked what my drink of choice is, I proudly say “I’m a whisky girl”.
Read more news and reviews on Scottish Field’s food and drink pages, in association with Cask & Still magazine.