The current issue of Whisky Advocate, our first Special Issue, focuses on the phenomenon of whisky clubs. We offer tips and information to help whisky lovers come together and start their own tasting group, and we meet some of the most dynamic and convivial clubs around. Putting this issue together felt joyful, as the stories of people gathering around treasured bottles and getting excited to learn more reminded me of my own journey into whisky.
Although I drank it before, it took joining a club—the Water of Life Society at the University of Edinburgh—for me to become fully immersed into the wonderful world of whisky. Along with the delicious drams, it was the passion and enthusiasm of the club’s leadership and my fellow members that drew me in. I looked forward to each semi-monthly meeting as eagerly as some people wait for a new movie release: What would I get to taste? How would my friends and I like it? And what discoveries would that lead to? It wasn’t just about drinking the whisky. The routine of meeting up, learning new things, engaging my senses in fellowship with others—all of that became a vital part of my life. As I became better acquainted with whisky and my new friends, I came to know myself better too.
As a reviewer for Whisky Advocate, I get to continue this journey, sitting down with the New York tasting panel to blind-taste at least a couple of flights a week. We each take notes and share them at the end, engaging in thoughtful discussion about the qualities and attributes of each pour. I’m constantly being surprised by the notes and comments of my fellow tasters, which often push me to examine my own observations more deeply. The exercise has become a habit, and even something more; when tastings have to be postponed or canceled, there’s a hole in the day. I’m thrown off-kilter.
Right now, Whisky Advocate’s staff, like so many people, is practicing social distancing, working remotely. We had a few days to prepare for this scenario, and so I have bottled samples of several whisky flights to taste at home. I’ll go through the same routine, pouring five blind samples and a non-blind benchmark, nosing and tasting each one in succession, taking notes, and assigning a score. But I’ll be doing it alone. Tasting in isolation. And I wonder what that will feel like, without the camaraderie of my team. Perhaps I may find benefits to tasting alone, a practice High West master blender Brendan Coyle has suggested as beneficial for his tasting panel. I know I’ll be acutely aware of my privilege, and my helplessness. I want to share this whisky, and I can’t—and that in itself is such a small-potatoes thing.
Yet, small potatoes or not, I anticipate that the routine of tasting will help me stay grounded, providing a lifeline of normalcy. Most, if not all, of us whisky lovers enjoy sharing a dram with a friend far more than keeping it to ourselves, but for many of us, that’s not possible right now. And as the COVID-19 situation continues to develop, and anxiety and fear mount, the thought of joyfully hoisting a glass in a group will feel more and more distant, and less and less important.
But it is important, and I hope we’ll all cling to that image of conviviality on our darkest days. Now more than ever, we need to remember the joys of togetherness, and how important it is to our well-being. I’m not suggesting that we defy recommendations to stay in isolation; instead, let’s look for ways to engage each other while staying safely apart. Send your friends a picture of whatever you’re drinking and ask them to reply in kind. Host a video tasting with whiskies that you have on hand, sharing information and tasting notes as you go. Open a special bottle and decant small samples, mailing them to your friends if you’re able, and saving them for later if not.
Starting at 3 p.m. on Friday, March 20, Whisky Advocate will open up a virtual tasting room on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram using the hashtag #TasteWithSpace. We’re asking followers to share a photo of their whisky, tasting notes, and the name of someone they’d like to toast. Join us if you’re able to, or use the hashtag at other times to give a shout-out to your drinking buddies from afar.
Life as we know it is changing in unprecedented ways. But one thing we can always count on is friendship. When all this is over, we will be able to once again gather together, hug each other, and clink real glasses. Until then, let’s keep the spirit of whisky community and friendship strong in whatever ways we can.