Q&A with Blair Bowman, globally renowned whisky consultant and founder of World Whisky Day

What sparked your enthusiasm for all things whisky?

Two things in a nutshell. I had my first taste of whisky at a party the summer after I left school. Having just turned 18, I was being a bit more experimental in my choice of alcoholic beverage. So when a friend of mine brought along a bottle of Laphroaig malt whisky to said party, I was keen to try it, and it’s fair to say my mind was blown! I didn’t know if I liked it or I hated it, but I did know I had never tasted anything remotely like it. It was an epiphany, and a catalyst for what happened next. As an enthusiastic Fresher at Aberdeen University I joined a plethora of clubs and societies, including the fledgling Whisky Society. Unbeknown to me they only had two office bearers at that point, and no members. I cheerfully became their first member, and secretary into the bargain. I was fascinated by the fact that single malt whisky is made with just three ingredients – water, malted barley and wheat – but yet can embody so many different flavours and characters. I was given the job of phoning distilleries the length and breadth of the country to ask for some samples. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most were reluctant to give students free booze! Fortunately, Glen Garioch, in Oldmeldrum totally got where we were coming from, and supported us from the outset. They understood us and helped to nurture our growing interest – I have very fond memories of taking bus trips to their distillery and enjoying their hospitality and our shared passion for whisky.

What would you say to those who think it’s ‘an old man’s drink’?

I think that perception has altered hugely in the past 10 years. Whisky brands have realised they need to appeal to a much wider demographic if they want to survive. Those distillers who dismissed us as students didn’t have the foresight to realise that we wouldn’t be students forever, but would be successful graduates with disposable income one day. Brands have now realised that if they target younger audiences, in their 20s they will be customers for life. That shift in marketing is taking place across the industry. It’s not just an age issue either. Whisky is no longer perceived as being a man’s drink. It’s often the case now that I find women bringing their partners along to whisky clubs and tastings. The message now is very much that this is a prestigious, luxury product. It’s aspirational across age and gender, in all corners of the world, and that’s something we should be proud of.

Is there a right and wrong way to serve whisky?

Definitely not. Never let anyone tell you there is! This is a weird stigma that really frustrates me, and it’s very peculiar to the UK. Whisky is drunk all over the world, so it’s inevitable that people will want to drink it long and refreshing in warmer climes, and neat and warming where it’s cooler. Yes of course Scotch whisky is a precious product, and there is a time and place for nosing it, but there is also a time and a place for drinking it with soda or ginger ale. I’m a one-man band, beating the drum for drinking whisky however you like – just enjoy it!

How do you drink yours?

A high-ball – whisky and soda or whisky and ginger-ale. Historically, in the 20s and 30s, whisky was always drunk long, but that changed in the 1950s with the increasing volume of purists and single malts. I’m also a huge fan of blends. Yes, there is snobbery around these as they are a cheaper product, but they are the backbone of the Scottish whisky industry – 85 – 90% of the whisky we export is blended. Blends are also a great starting point for people who then go on to explore single malts. It takes an enormous amount of skill to maintain the same blend consistently, year in, year out – it’s not easy. Cheaper doesn’t mean inferior in this case. What’s your favourite whisky cocktail recipe? There are lots of different ones I would order in cocktail bars – depending on my mood, the climate and occasion. Whisky and soda is always my go-to choice though.

What are your thoughts on international whiskies in comparison to those distilled in Scotland?

I’m a huge fan of all international whiskies – they are all doing a good thing. The analogy I would use is old world wine versus new world wine – both have their pros and cons. However Scotch whisky will always be at the top of the tree. It’s deemed to be the premium, luxury product. Countries such as Japan, the US and Ireland, have all enjoyed something of a renaissance with whisky, but it all leads back to Scotland. We have the heritage, the history and the prestige – whisky is ingrained in our land, it’s in our blood.

How will the Scotch whisky industry fare in the light of the recently announced increased US levy?

It’s unfortunate that whisky has become a pawn in a bigger political game. However, the whisky industry will weather the storm. It’s a high-end, hugely desirable product in the US – the appetite there is so strong, that I think people will be prepared to pay a bit more in the short term. There just isn’t another product that can replicate authentic Scotch whisky, and that’s priceless. I would also argue that it will be retracted soon. There are long-standing unilateral agreements between the US and UK equivalent bodies, and they have strong lobbying power, so hopefully the tariff will be reduced sooner rather than later.

Which region in Scotland produces your favourite character of whisky?

We’re really moving away from thinking of different types of whiskies being characteristic of a specific region. It’s just not accurate anymore to say that the islands produce smoky whiskies, while the Speyside varieties are sweeter – distilleries are diversifying and creating different editions that cater for all palates. What I talk about are the flavours and the flavour profile of individual drams, regardless of where they were distilled.

What goes into making the ultimate whisky?

Although it’s not strictly an ingredient, the cask is probably more important than anything up until that point – 80% of the whisky’s final flavour comes from the wood in the cask. I wrote my dissertation on sherry casks – I’m absolutely fascinated by the process of the wood imparting so much flavour to the spirit. In fact lots of distilleries own the whole casks supply chain, so that they can have complete control in determining the final flavour profile of the whisky.

As you say you don’t have time for many of these personal tastings anymore, so what made you decide to host this one at Maryculter House?

Peter Walker! (Managing Director at Maryculter House). I’ve known him since my Aberdeen University days, and we have always kept in touch. We have been trying to organise an event together for years, so when I met Peter for lunch at Maryculter House, I knew it would set a fabulous scene for a whisky tasting with a twist.

What can people expect from the evening?

It will be a whisky tasting like no other – it’s really unusual to have a tasting outside, particularly one that’s surrounded by the stunning scenery that Maryculter House boasts. I plan to immerse our guests in a completely multi-sensory whisky experience – delicious food, wonderful company sharing the moment, under the stars and atop an Autumnal carpet of rustling leaves, all accompanied by a specially chosen selection of the finest drams. It’s a very special, one-off event, offering whisky enthusiasts and beginners alike a rare and absorbing experience. I don’t want to ruin the surprise, but I can say there will be some ‘wow’ moments along the way! I always feel that if I’m wishing I had been in the audience at a tasting, then I know I’ve done a good job.

Is it suitable only for seasoned whisky lovers, or are beginner enthusiasts welcome too?

Absolutely everyone is welcome. I particularly enjoy it when someone lays their cards on the table at the start and tells me they are there under duress. I can guarantee that they will be the ones coming up to me at the end, saying: “I wish I’d known this sooner – I had no idea whisky could taste this good!” If I’ve converted one person then it’s been a good day at work. I also love to surprise proper whisky geeks. They have invariably built up myths, false perceptions and barriers, and I like to challenge those. Blind tastings are quite useful for surprising seasoned whisky drinkers and breaking down barriers they have built up over time. So, there will absolutely be something for everyone at Drams in the Dark.

Picture: Shutterstock

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