Do you know your whisky from your whiskey? Your blends from your single malts? Mary Griffin finds a new night class offering guidance to Birmingham's whisky novices.
I’m hit by flashbacks of school days and the embarrassment of walking into class late as I arrive at the Birmingham and Midland Institute to find my fellow students seated and the lesson well under way.
Feeling like the new girl I grab a spare chair as my classmates tell me I’m playing catch up, nodding to the glass of whisky on my desk and five little shots, all different depths of colour, like a row of golden thimbles.
I’m also armed with a pencil and scoring sheet for today’s project, Scotch whiskies in celebration of the recent Burns’ Night, and – ever the eager pupil – I diligently get stuck in.
This is the newly formed Birmingham Whisky Club, an informal night class for students who don’t just want to drink the spirit but to get under its skin.
The brainchild of 34-year-old foodie and Moseley resident Amy Seton, the idea is to meet once a month and put your taste buds to the test by sampling a selection of malts and, while there’s an expert on hand to give the back story of each tipple, the main aim of the club is to bring together hedonists with a mutual appreciation for this artisan product.
At tonight’s session we are working our way through six Scotches from various regions, as well as eating piping hot haggis from little Chinese takeaway boxes and hearing Burns recited by former Birmingham Poet Laureate Adrian Johnson.
Organisers are already planning other themes, including whiskies of the world, with many drinkers keen to try the relatively new Japanese offerings, an Irish whiskey night for St Patrick’s Day, and an evening of pairing whiskies with cheeses. Tonight I’m sitting next to property investor Jim Haliburton who is rediscovering his Scottish roots.
“Being born in Edinburgh I have an affinity for all things Scottish,” says Jim, 60, cradling a glass of 12-year-old single malt. “I’ve only been to one whisky tasting before but that was very much made up of middle-aged business men.
“It’s nice to see a wider range of people here. This one is more educational and much more informative,” he says as our lecturer for the evening describes our current sample, Highland Park from the world’s northern-most Scotch distillery in the Orkney Islands.
Heading the class is Craig Mills, who runs The Whisky Shop in Great Western Arcade and has teamed up with Amy to launch the club.
His knowledge – the history of the distilleries, the way the local peat or sea air influence the taste, the use of specific oak casks – is impressive and it’s obvious he’s sharing a passion rather than targeting a market.
“I think if someone gives you a description of a drink, with a little of the history,” says Jim, “that helps me enjoy it more.
“Knowing the story behind your food and drink just makes it that bit more interesting and enhances the experience.
“It’s a bit like going on a guided tour of a town. When you’ve got a guide to explain things to you, to give you some of the history and to point out things you would have missed, you come away with a lot more than you would wandering around alone.”
Across the room people are raising their hands with questions for Craig, describing “peaty” and “smoky” tastes, and finding hints of bonfire, tar and TCP. But like any class, not everyone here is a grade-A student.
Jim has dragged along his friend Arsh Ellahi, who sniggers like a schoolboy as he passes his score sheet along the desk.
Next to squiggles and doodles Arsh, 31, has jotted down his personal tasting notes, grading three of the first four of these top-class whiskies “crap”.
“I’m not really a whisky drinker,” he admits sheepishly, “I’d do better at a brandy club.”
But newcomers are as welcome as connoisseurs and, whether Arsh’s appreciation is developing the more he drinks or whether his taste buds are tuned into the price tags, when we get to the final dram of the night, a Jura Prophecy (and the most expensive bottle in the line-up at £54.99), his eyes light up at the sweet caramel flavours as he pens the word “fudgy”.
Lene Daugaard, a molecular biologist (who is working in McDonald’s while she struggles to find a job in her field), moved to Birmingham last year from her native Denmark to be with her boyfriend, who has brought her along tonight, making her one of eight women in a room of 50.
Lene, 38, looks thoughtfully to the ceiling when I ask her why more women don’t drink whisky.
She says: “My friend in Denmark has a collection of about 250 bottles of whisky and is very enthusiastic about it. He taught us what to look for – the nose, the oiliness, the different taste descriptions.
“I had never liked whisky but from that day I loved it. Before that I’d only ever tasted cheaper blended whisky which is a completely different story to single malts.
“I’m not sure I can tell you why whisky is less accessible to women,” she adds, “but I think it’s changing and while women perhaps do come along with men I think they appreciate the whisky and realise it’s okay for them to like whisky too.”
Having launched the club Amy, a marketing and events professional, is keen to attract more women.
“As a woman ordering a whisky you do get the odd raised eyebrow”, she says, “and people always ask if you want a mixer. But lots of my female friends say they’re interested but don’t know where to start.
“I’ve been really surprised at how quickly the club has taken off. We only put up two posters and people just jumped at it.”
It’s not hard to see why, and as I head home in the cold, warmed by good whisky and good company, I pledge to put in some homework before the next class.
* The Whisky Club meets on the last Thursday of every month in the Old Joint Stock pub in Temple Row West. On February 23 the club will sample whiskies from around the world. For details and to reserve a place visit www.thebirminghamwhiskyclub.co.uk or email email@example.com