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When I first met Vicky from The Birmingham Whisky Club I emphatically told her that I didn’t like whisky. She assured me that I probably did, I just hadn’t found the right one yet. Since then it’s been a mini mission of hers to find it.
It was at one of the club’s events that I really tried whisky for the first time, and, surprisingly, I did indeed find some I liked. At my first Whisky Women tasting event, I felt like I really learned something about whisky, and indeed my taste in it, so when the opportunity arose to attend an International Women’s Day Whisky Women special, I couldn’t wait to go!
Held upstairs at The Wellington on Bennetts Hill, I was greeted with 6 generous drams laid out in front of me when I arrived. All 6 had a connection to some kick-ass women in Whisky.
We started off with Bourbon – a Jim Beam double oak in honour of the Bourbon Bootleggers. In prohibition USA, women were skilled bootleggers, hiding and transporting Bourbon in their dresses, their boots and even their undergarments! Women also distilled the spirit, with one lady nicknamed Moonshine Mary whose knock-off booze actually killed a man!
Luckily the bourbon we were tasting was a fine example. Resident whisky expert Amy Seton explained to us exactly what bourbon is – 51% corn, then a mixture of rye, barley and wheat. Bourbon casks are always virgin oak, and can only be used for bourbon once. This is due to a post-prohibition law to restart the bourbon industry (the casks are usually sold on to make single malt whisky). Bourbon casks are also charred inside, with the level of charring affecting the flavour of the drink.
Our Jim Beam double oak had been aged in 2 different casks, giving it a rich, woody flavour with a caramel sweetness. I’m not a great fan of drinking bourbon neat, I much prefer mine in a Manhattan or an Old Fashioned, but this was a good bourbon by all accounts.
Next on our list was Bushmills Irish Whiskey in honour of Ellen Jane Corrigan. Ellen is described as the Godmother of Irish Whiskey, after taking over a distillery in the 1840’s and effectively doubling its capacity by introducing electricity to the distilling process. She also brokered trade deals globally, meaning Irish whiskey’s global popularity is largely down to this lady. Her whiskey was also the first ever Irish whiskey to win an award.
The Bushmills we tried was a very smooth and light whiskey. Whisky in general has to be aged for at least 3 years in oak casks. Irish whiskey is aged for 3 years and 1 day, to make it 1 day better than Scotch! Amy mentioned that Irish whiskey is triple distilled, which gives it a softness. This was a great sipping whiskey that I could easily enjoy at home. Amy recommends Irish whiskey like this as a great starting point for non-whisky drinkers.
Third up was Cardhu from Scotland in honour of Helen Cumming. According to legend, Helen was an expert at avoiding alcohol taxation. She disguised her distillery as a bakery and would raise a flag to warn other distilleries that the taxman was in town! Helen had an active role in her distillery, she introduced new stills, selling her original ones to what is now Glenfiddich! The success of her whisky led it to becoming a part of Johnnie Walker blend whisky, before it was eventually bought out by them. Helen lived to the ripe old age of 98, had 8 kids and 56 grandkids. What a woman!
The Cardhu whisky itself is from Speyside, so it’s got an almost savoury smell and flavour. It’s most often used in blends, so there isn’t a big range of Cardhu single malts, but this particular one was a single malt aged in American Oak. I found this one had a really unusual aftertaste, almost garlicky! I can’t say I disliked it, but it was certainly an interesting choice. Adding a couple of drops of water really improved the flavour of this one for me, negating some of that aftertaste, so I’d recommend trying it with water if you don’t like it at first.
The fourth whisky for us to try was my favourite of the night. I’m a big fan of Nikka whisky, and this Taketsuru Pure Malt was an absolute beauty.
We had this in honour of Angela Roberta Cohen, nicknamed Rita. Hers is the ultimate whisky love story: a fiesty, red haired Scots woman who fell in love with Japanese chemist Mr Taketsuru, after he travelled to Scotland in 1918 to study whisky distillation.
After touring many, many distilleries, Mr Taketsuru met Rita. They fell in love, and she uprooted her life and travelled back to Japan with him, where he went on build the Yamazaki distillery for Suntory. At the time, mixed race marriage was scandalous, but Rita’s commitment to Taketsuru, how she embraced Japanese culture and in particular cooking, made her much loved. Taketsuru went on to create Nikka after a falling out with Mr Suntory, and released his first whisky in 1940. Rita was accused of being a spy during World War II, but came through it and lived until 63. Her story is so legendary that she has a road named after her, and there’s even a TV show in Japan called Taketsuru & Rita about their runaway love story!
Taketsuru Pure Malt is designed as a tribute to this amazing couple and their historic recipe. The recipe uses coal fires to dry the barley, making this one of the oldest traditional Scotch whiskies, even though its made in Japan. The flavour is smooth, gentle with a subtle and delicious hint of smokiness.
The Japanese way to drink whisky is a long drink with soda, sometimes even with green tea! I could definitely enjoy that as a refreshing post-work tipple.
Our penultimate whisky was, in my opinion, the most remarkable. Mackmyra Svensk Rok is a Swedish whisky made by Angela D’Orazio. She was one of the first whisky ambassadors in Sweden, she arranged the first Guinness World Record whisky tasting in the country, and started making whisky herself in 2004. She has been considered a master blender ever since!
Angela describes herself as a chef of whisky, thinking carefully about the balance of flavours. Mackmyra Svensk Rok is a young whisky, a natural light colour with an amazing water source and barley grown locally to the distillery. The barley is dried over peat, which you can definitely taste in the whisky. I am not a fan of peated whisky at all, however, I really, really liked this whisky. The flavour was light and crisp, and the peat flavour was subtle and well balanced with the freshness of the whisky, making it an all round delicious drink. This was the clear winner on the night in our flavour straw poll!
Finally we returned to Scotland with a Laphroaig Quarter Cask, in honour of Bessie Williamson. She was the only female to own a running Scottish distillery in her time, and was involved in every part of the process. After being taken on for a typist job at a distillery, she learned the process from scratch, learning and absorbing the skills of those around her, eventually being elevated to a trusted advisor before inheriting the business herself.
She improved the efficiency of production, increased demand and actively made her business more successful, consulting in America on whisky distilling which earned American investment in her own distillery. Bessie was known as an extremely intelligent women, with great business accumen and an ability to find a job for anyone, even when there wasn’t one.
The Laphroaig is a heavily peated, meaty whisky, inspired by its location on Isla where distilleries all have their own peat bogs.This really was a punchy whisky with bold peat flavours. This one wasn’t for me, but I could appreciate the quality.
I found the whole tasting even fascinating, not just to learn about the whisky, but also about the history and the amazing women behind so many famous distilleries. Well done to Amy & Vicky for hosting a brilliant event.
If you’re already a whisky fan, The Wellington where our night was hosted, has a range of 150 whiskies behind the bar to try, and whether you’re a fan or an absolute beginner, check out a Birmingham Whisky Club tasting to find your perfect dram.
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