Who says the whisky business is on the rocks?

16th July 2010 at 01:00
As exports of Scotch buck the recession, Moray students are gaining a nose for the industry

It must be the only college in the country that delivers a selection of fine whiskies and glasses to welcome you to your new course. And getting down to work must be such a chore - sitting in your favourite armchair in front of a roaring fire, raising the first glass, noting the aroma and taking that first sip.

Then there are the assignments to do - opening another malt and reflecting on the experience before writing your notes. Another thoughtful sip - hints of vanilla, perhaps? Better have another taste, just to get it right.

No wonder this distance-learning course has been popular with students worldwide.

The whisky course was launched in 1997, devised by Moray College in partnership with malt whisky specialist Gordon amp; MacPhail. Some recent students from Canada and South Africa were so enthusiastic, they flew all the way to Scotland to join one of the in-house courses.

"We told them they could get the course on CD, but they said `Oh no, we'd rather come'," says Lorna Castle, the course administrator.

Ms Castle has done the course herself, so is able to answer students' questions with some authority. "I'm not a whisky drinker, but I do enjoy one now and then," she says at Moray College in Elgin, in the heart of the whisky country in Speyside.

The course takes around 20 hours to complete and includes two written assessments and a third test which is done on the phone, based on students' nosing and tasting notes. Along with their course material on CD, students are sent three nosing glasses and eight whisky miniatures to allow them to sample Scotch whiskies from the range of Scotland's whisky- producing regions.

Successful students are presented with a certificate, which is jointly awarded by Moray College and Gordon amp; MacPhail.

Among the international alumni of this whisky school are the industry's professionals, hotel and licensed trade staff, representatives from tourist and retail organisations, enthusiastic amateurs and connoisseurs.

"Some students don't even drink whisky; they just want to know more about it," says Mrs Castle.

The expert who teaches the course is Jim Cryle, a former chemist who joined the whisky industry more than 40 years ago. "Whisky has always been highly regarded; it's the drink around the world. You have champagne, cognac and whisky and those three drinks lead the whole drinks category," says Mr Cryle, who began teaching the course when he retired from the industry five years ago.

Scotch whisky was worth 3.1 billion in export earnings to the UK economy last year and has managed to buck the trend of the recession: "New markets are opening up. Growth is tremendous in India, China and Brazil," he explains.

His students learn about the origins of Scotch whisky, the manufacturing process and its importance to the economy. They develop nosing and tasting skills, with particular focus on the characteristics of different types of Scotch whisky.

The college also runs two-day courses which include a visit to Gordon amp; MacPhail's Benromach distillery, the smallest distillery on Speyside. Gordon amp; MacPhail also provides and dispatches the student packages of sampling whiskies and glasses from its warehouses in Elgin.

James Macpherson, the company's special projects manager, believes the course has an important educational role to play across a range of industries. "In hotels, there is very definitely a market on the tourist side, because overseas visitors will come in and one of the first things they say to a barman is: `I'd like a Scotch - what would you recommend?'

"Very often, young people serving don't know very much, and a course like this can really increase their knowledge."

In recent years, whisky has been less popular among young people in this country, but it is highly regarded in Europe. "The younger market enjoys white spirit, the vodkas and white rums. But interestingly in Europe, in particular, whisky is seen as very aspirational and it's a very popular drink," says Mr Macpherson.

Among Glasgow University students, there has been a recent revival of interest in the national drink. A year ago, an appreciation society was formed, which now has 150 members who meet monthly for tastings and discussions.

One of the founder members is Fraser Ross, 25, who started the QMU Whisky Club with a group of friends who pooled their resources to buy more expensive whiskies. "It's definitely becoming very popular. I think the whole vodka culture is dying a little bit," says Fraser, who graduated last summer.

"It's not a drinking club; we really do steer away from that. It's just an appreciation club for people to understand what high-class whisky is. We've got a lot of international students coming to it. It is really surprising how popular it is and how it has taken off."

Later this year, Moray College will launch an online version of the whisky course, which has been updated to reflect recent changes affecting the industry.

"There have been various changes to definitions and regulations relating to Scotch whisky, in particular the introduction of the Scotch Whisky Regulations of 2009, which went on to the statute book in NovemberDecember," explains Mr Cryle.

"That introduced a raft of legislation which further defined not only how Scotch whisky could be made, but also what would happen to labelling"




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