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New club for malt maniacs

By Zara McAlister

Inside a small apartment near the student ghetto in downtown Waterloo, Ont., Giles Campbell pours a $47 bottle of 10-year-old Aberlour Scotch whisky into glasses on the white kitchen counter. Electronic music blares in the background.

Campbell sniffs the amber liquor carefully and then swishes some in his mouth. To complement the whisky’s flavours, he sets out a plate of dark chocolate on the cardboard box acting as a makeshift coffee table in the living room. He nibbles a couple of squares. Sometimes an assorted nut mixture can also taste good with whisky, he says.

“This Scotch has some smokiness to it. It’s not my favourite,” he declares and then records his observation in a journal. He says he prefers brands with a fruity undertone.

"Whisky also tastes better when it’s older,” he adds.

But the bottle of Aberlour was only the first of three whisky brands he sampled that night — it’s the nature of his club.

The self-proclaimed “whisky fanatic” was gifted a bottle of expensive malt whisky on his 19th birthday and he and this kind of liquor have been inseparable ever since. The now 24-year-old geography and aviation student at the University of Waterloo decided he wanted to share his tasting experiences with others. After the Christmas holidays, he planned to form his own whisky tasting club. He started searching for university students from the region on local Kijiji and Craigslist websites in February.

The club’s mandate is simple — crack open a few bottles of different kinds of whisky, sample them, discuss flavours and then spend the rest of the evening socializing. This is likely to happen once at the end of every month.

Giles and Colin
Photo by Zara McAlister
Giles Campbell (left) pours a glass of Glenlivet Scotch for Colin Celestini (right).

Whisky tasting clubs are not new, but new groups of people are starting to partake in them, says Marijke McLean, category manager at the Liquor Control Board of Ontario. When “whisky tasting” comes to mind, people immediately picture a group of 50-year-old white men getting together, McLean says. This age group tends to have more disposable income. 

But she’s noticing that younger LCBO employees in the 25 to 35-year-old demographic are also indulging in whisky tasting at bars or in clubs. It might seem unusual that groups of university students are doing the same, but she’s not completely surprised to hear about Campbell and his new club. 

“I haven’t heard of any student clubs in Ontario, but it’s definitely possible.”

Even whisky drinking is becoming more popular among younger crowds. Scotch, which is a malt or grain whisky made in Scotland, has been gaining popularity in India, South Korea, Japan and in eastern Europe, McLean says. Students studying overseas in Canada are bringing the trend with them. Since the cost of living is often cheaper in Canada than it is in their native countries, these students can afford to drink expensive whisky.

Young business people are also getting in on the trend. McLean has spoken with some of them who wanted to learn about whisky so they could appear knowledgeable at business meetings when their older colleagues and bosses pour whisky and start to discuss it. 

It helps that younger consumers have access to information through technology, she adds. Campbell, for example, has spent the last six months searching for online resources to master the art of whisky tasting.

A variation of a whisky chart or a "nosing chart,"which relies on sense of smell.

He’s able to print out tasting charts and distribute them to club members. The one the club used the night of their first meeting came from the Glenlivet website, a company which sells expensive single malt Scotch.

All of these factors point to higher whisky sales in Ontario, McLean says. Irish and American whiskey, which tend to have younger consumers in the 25 to 35-year old demographic, have doubled in sales over the past five years.

LCBO annual reports from 2011 reveal that Canadian brands of whisky, enjoyed by both younger and older consumers, had the highest sales at $375 million.

But it’s an expensive hobby for a student. Campbell acknowledges whisky tasting is not conducive to the typical student who can barely afford to make rent. For that reason alone, he says it’s useful to share bottles with others through a club. 

The second bottle of Glenlivet the club members tried that evening cost
$97 — and that’s not even the most expensive whisky Campbell owns.
Campbell keeps a $200 bottle of Mackinlay’s rare old highland malt whisky, a replica of a brand made 100 years ago, tucked away in a wooden box. Aged whisky tends to be more expensive, he says. He’s saving that whisky for another tasting time.

Because most Scotches or blended whisky brands are costly, Campbell emphasizes this club is about sampling only small amounts of each bottle.

“This club is about appreciation. You don’t need a club to get drunk,” he says.

Club member Colin Celestini, a 19-year-old science student at the University of Waterloo, concurs.

“I’ll drink Jack Daniels with a Coke or sometimes straight for a night out,” he jokes.

After getting hooked on Crown Royal blended whisky on a trip to Mexico, Celestini has seen other whisky lovers purchase $2,000 bottles of Scotch at the LCBO and blow it all in the course of one night.

Campbell acknowledges students are often irresponsible when it comes to alcohol consumption, which might make it difficult to get the club sanctioned by the University of Waterloo.

But for now, Campbell is focused on figuring out the club’s logistics before looking into school regulation, since they just had their first meeting at the end of February. Only Celestini, who had never met Campbell until that night, showed up to the whisky tasting connoisseur’s apartment. The other three members had band practice.

Campbell also wants to find a few more members to join the club. He’s persuading his girlfriend to join, even though all current members are men.

"This one’s a keeper,” Celestini joked, because she likes whisky.

McLean says a lot more women are experimenting with whisky.

Kathleen Baird from Seagrave, Ont. is one of them. When she and her friends frequent local country bars, they like to drink Canadian brands such as Wiser’s blended rye whisky for its sharp, bitter taste.

“I like the burning feeling when it’s going down.”

Baird has noticed that women who hang out with their female friends tend to drink vodka. But a girl who hangs out with men will drink the whisky along with them.

Although Baird prefers the bitter taste of rye whisky, McLean has noticed women seem to enjoy Irish brands which tend to have a more smooth finish and aren’t as smoky, she said.

“Whisky is no longer an old man’s drink,” Campbell said, adding he wants a diverse club of students.

But the club still wants to be faithful to some aspects of the traditional whisky tasting culture. Hit television show Mad Men, set in the 1960s, features men in crisp suits cracking open celebratory bottles of Glenlivet Scotch in their swanky New York offices and puffing on cigars.

While the students prefer to wear their own comfortable attire of jeans and hooded sweatshirts, they are tossing around the idea of adding cigars or pipes to their tasting nights.

“It’s not fundamental but it is in keeping with the image,” Campbell said. 

Celestini said he’s aware whisky tasting does have a distinct culture, but he isn’t there for the prestige.

But he pauses, and adds, “We can have the fancy living room with the billiards table for after graduation.”


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