“Imposter syndrome – a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their skills, talents or accomplishments and has a persistent internalised fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’.” (Wikipedia)
I have felt like an imposter on a number of occasions in my life: when I went from my state school 6th Form to interview at Oxford; as a minister, leading a church through a pandemic (this never got covered in training!); and when submitting my whisky ramblings to MALT in hope of publication! So many times, I have felt underqualified, out of my depth, or in a world in which I don’t deserve to belong. This can be a healthy feeling, keeping my hubris in check, but sometimes it comes from an unwarranted sense of inferiority. At such times, it can lead to almost paralysing levels of nerves, although I usually manage to cover them up.
I’ve recently had a different experience as an imposter in the world of whisky. I won a competition, through The Whisky Shop members club, wherein I had to write the tasting notes for my perfect dram. The prize was a bespoke cask of whisky from the newly established Holyrood Distillery in Edinburgh. Yes – that’s a full cask, probably a barrel or hogshead or thereabouts, so 200-250 litres of whisky (pre-maturation). The distillery will bottle it for me after a maximum of 10 years.
I know that Jason and Mark are a bit indifferent to the Whisky Shop, as was I when I lived near Manchester; that said, when work brought me to Oxford, taking up membership was a no-brainer. The current manager is a fellow northerner (a welcome thing for one like me who is exiled down south), and he has built a friendly community of whisky lovers through tastings. A small group has continued to meet in an unofficial manner online through lockdown, sharing our own whisky. Discounted prices following in-store tastings, as well as flash sales this summer, have lessened the impact of overpricing. Some of the single-cask store picks are very good. It’s no surprise that they cannot compete with online retailers price-wise, given the property fees and rates that have to be paid by their city centre stores, and independent shops will often have a more varied and interesting selection of whisky due to business scale. Still, the Whisky Shop very definitely has its place. Plus, my membership has been rewarded many times over, just through this competition win!
The competition entry I penned was, of course, nonsensical. My hypothetical perfect dram would change from day to day anyway, depending on mood, company and which way the wind is blowing! I almost didn’t get around to submitting, and only did so in the last few hours before deadline; a mate messaged to encourage me to enter (he’d even suggested I would win – I now owe him a few bottles of whatever comes out of the cask!). I made sure the tasting notes were interwoven with laboured Edinburgh-based similes, such that I hoped the judges would at least like the creativity, but in essence, the liquid I described was a malt-forward sweet peat: a dram that starts off full of vanilla, apple turnovers and citrus before briny peat comes crashing on through. I said that it would probably just call for heavily peated malt and maturation in a bourbon cask, so it was something potentially makeable. I was confident when I clicked send on the email that surely it had a chance.
The plan worked, the prize was won, and a few weeks later I found myself setting out on a seven-hour drive from home up to Edinburgh. Upon arrival, I received a tour of the distillery with Natalie from the Whisky Shop and one of the distillery founders, David Robertson, who was welcoming and seemed genuinely excited for me – the competition winning ‘lucky bugger’, in his words. David was previously Master Distiller at The Macallan; then, ‘Innovation Director’ with Whyte & Mackay (he’s in part responsible for the premiumisation of Macallan and Dalmore); and he now facilitates whisky investment and commodification through Rare Whisky 101. Regardless of what we might feel about that (#openyourbottles), there is no denying that Holyrood has an experienced distiller with whisky-making pedigree at the helm, alongside Canadians Rob and Kelly Carpenter of the Canadian branch of the SMWS. If any of David’s previous success can be replicated, then the future for Holyrood could be very profitable indeed.
Holyrood Distillery lays claim to be the first single malt whisky distillery in Edinburgh since 1925, with production beginning in September 2019. They have not had to wait long for company, since John Crabbie Co. just opened Bonnington Distillery, which first filled casks in March of this year (2020). In addition to this, construction is underway at the unusual vertical site of the Port of Leith distillery. Before long, then, Edinburgh will have three single-malt-producing distilleries, as well as the long-established industrial complex that is the North British grain distillery.
Holyrood has been constructed in an old railway shed built-in 1835 that served the Edinburgh and Dalkeith Railway (the section near the distillery is now a cycle path that includes a tunnel that passes under Holyrood Park). The long and narrow building has been used creatively to house gin and whisky production. It has clearly been designed with tourism in mind, with almost as much floor space handed over to forecasted touring parties as is taken up by the mash tuns and the stills. The lighting is colourful, with hues of purple reflecting of the stills, giving a modern and vibrant feel in a traditional space. David reports it is estimated that in a normal year well over 1 million tourists would want to visit a distillery in the centre of Edinburgh, within walking distance of the Royal Mile. As a result, COVID-19 has brought massive challenges, blowing a huge hole in the budget of this fledgling distillery. No doubt finances are stretched at present.
What was clear throughout the tour of the distillery was a focus on flavour and the many different ways in which it can be created throughout distillation. The tour starts in a ‘flavour room’ where—in non-COVID times—you can take part in a smell test; David reports that women usually score higher than men. We came out of that room and proceeded under the lyne arms rising forth from the potstills on the floor below and passed through the gin room before reaching the whisky distillery floor downstairs.
There, we considered a whole range of things that can affect spirit flavour: malt, yeast, fermentation time, spirit cuts, and finally, cask choice. The tuns and stills are small, and they’re designed for small batch production (Wash still – 5000 litres, Spirit still – 3750 litres). The stills are incredibly long in relation to their size, with the lyne arms reaching up to the high ceiling; less ‘swan necks’ and more ‘giraffe necks’, they give a very high copper-to-spirit ratio. This should lead to a lot of reflux and a smooth, fruity spirit due to the high levels of copper contact, which certainly seemed to be the case when I tasted the new make later on. The mash tuns contained a heady brew of 80% regular malt and 20% chocolate malt, and the smell was much deeper than normally found on a distillery tour, with the resulting liquid in the mash darker than usual. There’s a level of creativity and experimentation here that befits the bohemian setting and the proximity to Herriot Watt University, where Holyrood is helping to fund a PhD relating to yeast choice.
Following the tour, we sat down to a blind tasting in order to discern what flavours I like and what I don’t (the challenge being that I like most whisky styles!), so that we could come up with some proposed ‘recipes’ for the cask that I had won.
This is where I truly felt like an imposter (I should note that this was not at all the fault of David or Natalie!). This was a world that I would normally be priced out of, an experience that I hadn’t particularly earned, and a prize that I still don’t really know how to process. As a customer, this scheme starts at £4950 for a barrel, £5950 for a hogshead, and goodness knows how quickly the price escalates with all of the potential add-ons. I’m not sure how many whisky-cask-owning reverends are out there, but I doubt many! As far as I’m concerned, this sort of privilege is more often reserved for the affluent tourist, successful business people, or those with inherited wealth. Of course, sometimes friends club together and buy a cask, or for some, it can be done as a treat later in life (I’d be more likely to do this than buy a mid-life crisis car!), but in my line of work, this was something that I could only dream of, especially with a young family to look after. Surely at some point, this would all prove too good to be true, and I suppose it might still, depending on how the whisky turns out. I am a little bit nervous about the potential for 300 bottles of an underwhelming spirit in a few years’ time!
The tasting started with a sample of the distillery’s three current new make spirits, all distinctly different from one another. The first one was sweet, fruity and light; the second was a little spicier with some burnt toast notes in the finish (this included 20% chocolate malt), and the third had some citrus character alongside a gentle peat smoke. According to the current lack of a firm idea as to what the distillery style will be going forward, the organization is still finding its feet. In part, that will be decided by the responses of the market to early releases, but you can see why these three directions are being given a trial. A sweet, easy-going dram, an unusual chocolate malt one, and an accessible peated one should provide a good range for tourists, and also guarantee that all visiting whisky drinkers have something that they might want to buy—and if they don’t like whisky, there is always gin!
As we went through the tasting, a sense of belonging began to build because I was picking up the right kind of tasting notes in the drams. I named a couple of them outright and got another at the second guess. I might not have the money for such a cask purchase, but at least I have a functioning palate, and I can only hope I was deemed in some sense a ‘worthy winner’ of this ridiculous prize! The big surprise came in the final dram, drawn from one of David’s personal casks and distilled at an unnamed distillery, which included chocolate malt with a sherry maturation. It was stunning, a well-balanced sherry bomb with a chocolate and coffee finish. It was hard to believe it was presented at cask strength and only three years old. It’s fair to say that this dram blew all previous plans out of the water.
Through all of these tastings, my preferences were written down and proposals were drawn up for my cask. As the choice was overwhelming, it came as a relief that an answer wasn’t expected on the day. In the end, I was left with a decision to make, mainly between a potentially safer peated number in a bourbon cask and a more adventurous dabbling with a chocolate malt in a oloroso sherry hogshead—or even, perhaps, in a port barrique.
It was a tricky decision. If I were to go to an established distillery and venture through this process, I’d look to do something that showcased the distillery character, assuming I liked it! Instead, here, the character was undefined, and thus not yet finalised. Having said that, the feel of the place was boldly flavour-led, encouraging of experimentation, and contained a means of flavour creation usually overlooked. This aligns with the sense I have of Edinburgh’s city centre as a creative hub and includes the wide range of people present from across the world. When you consider the history, the city has been an international hub for trade for centuries. In light of these truths, there seemed only one option to take, and it was not the one that involved peat. Perhaps my time as an imposter led to me lose my mind, but it didn’t feel like a time to play it safe!
I hope to be back in Edinburgh in a month or so for the cask filling, COVID-willing, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it develops over the next few years. No doubt, if you are willing to read more, this whisky-cask-owning imposter will be able to bore you with the details.