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By Al Higgins
Not your typical working day but Wednesday 1st Feb meant a 4.30am start for a 6.30am flight and then another home just in time to catch the 10 O’clock news. Myself and the Celtic Whiskey Shop’s Emmet Murphy were off to take part in the World Whisky Awards 2017 as representatives for Ireland. This was the final judging session in a four-stage process to discover the best whiskeys in the world. We have definitely had worse working days but what lay ahead was a long slog of evaluating a wide range of whiskey styles from around the globe.
The venue was the stately HAC Armoury building in central London, and there was barely enough time for coffee and a biscuit before we got stuck in to some serious tasting. As judges we had already had the opportunity to taste the Irish entries by post. The best of these made it into the final round along with whiskeys from Scotland, Japan, Australia, Taiwan, the Netherlands and more. A quick explanation of the rules and we got stuck in. The exception this time round was that we were not tasting any US whiskeys. A wise decision was made to let our US counterparts taste these as the cultural divide in whiskey taste could lead to unreliable scores on these particular whiskeys.
At our tables we were joined by whiskey experts from all around the world. I was fortunate enough to be flanked by the master blenders from both Kavalan and Amrut distilleries who are both making some world class whiskeys. This led the occasional interesting interjection when one or all three us thought we recognised a particular whiskey that had been distilled by them. Also at my table were representatives from Scotland, England, Hong Kong and Canada.
Scoring whiskey is a hard task, one man’s cheese may be another man’s chalk and thankfully for the final session we were only to pick our top three in each tasting flight. What became immediately apparent was that there is still a big gap between the best in the world and the worst in the world. Some of the European and Oceanic countries are still playing catch up, however there were still some gems to discover amongst the Australian, French and South African entries. Others faired far better, the Far East, Scotland and Ireland were all far more consistent. A bit of chat after each tasting flight confirmed that we were more often than not in agreement on the top three. When it comes down to the nitty gritty it is very difficult however. My method of deciding between three superb samples was to ask myself: which one would I prefer to buy and take home? In some cases this did not necessarily mean choosing what I thought was the oldest or most expensive, merely whatever appealed to my own taste.
The final tasting flight of the day consisted of eight samples. These were the best scoring whiskeys of the entire competition and each one had a chance to become the winner of Single Malt of the Year. Unfortunately I cannot divulge just yet what my favourites were, but I am pretty sure that I recognised two of them. The results will be announced on March 30th and hopefully we may see some of our Irish whiskey making friends amongst the winners. Sláinte!
Update: A full list of the first round winners can be found here>>> World Whisky Awards 2017