Knowledge is Scotch power

Whisky is becoming as popular in its homeland as it is around the world but, writes Jon Beach, there’s still work to be done to raise product awareness among Scots hospitality staff

UNLESS you’ve spent the last couple of years with your head in a whisky cask, you will have noticed that Scotch whisky (the world’s finest drink) has become more popular than ever here in it’s spiritual home, as well as all over the world.

Those with an eye for detail may notice that gantries up and down the country are offering rather more bottles of Scotland’s national drink than they used to.
This is great news and, of course, the way it should be in Scotland, whisky’s homeland.
The problem with this sudden explosion of choice, however, is that all too often the quality of knowledge behind the bar doesn’t match the same high standard of the whiskies on offer.
One thing that can really bring a bar to life and transform it from a bar with a pretty display to a proper fully-fledged whisky bar is the people serving it and their knowledge and professionalism.

Jon celebrates after picking up the SLTN Whisky Bar Award for a fourth time.

But how do you train your staff about something (you’re perhaps embarrassed to admit) you don’t know that much about? It’s the usual story.
A consumer walks into a bar and, instead of choosing from a modest range of single malt Scotch whiskies served in a proper whisky glass by a knowledgeable bartender, he or she must sift through an assortment of other (inferior) spirits, point out the whisky required to the usually clueless bartender, and negotiate a brandy balloon or perhaps wine goblet for it to be poured into, before finally getting to savour that delicious dram.
This is a familiar story the world over but I’m sad to say that this is also often the case here in Scotland. Every bar (and every barperson) should take pride in their single malt Scotch selection and the way it is presented and poured.
Fortunately, help is at hand. Matching the recent explosion in Scotch whisky production and sales has been a commensurate investment by whisky companies in brand ambassadors, with legions marching out to spread the word about their company’s whiskies.
These ambassadors are waiting for bars and restaurants like yours to contact them so that you can help them spread the whisky word to your staff and customers. Speak to your drinks suppliers or contact these whisky companies directly and remember, you are in the country where this wonderful drink is made.
If you can’t get it right here, what hope is there for the rest of the world? Scotland is full of the kind of expertise that could help you improve the quality of your bar’s whisky experience.
A good idea is to identify a member of staff as a possible whisky expert with responsibilities for your bar’s whisky training.
Consider sending him or her on a whisky course such as the one at the Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh: this could be the catalyst for your bar’s transformation. Alternatively, speak to the Whisky Ambassador people in Glasgow and get them to train your staff.
Another thing to consider is approaching your local whisky shop (if you’re lucky enough to have one) and work with them, perhaps to organise a tasting event in your bar. Or, if you have a restaurant, distillers like Glenfiddich are promoting their whiskies for consumption during whisky dinners. Both are excellent ways to attract new customers.
Also, if you are lucky enough to have a distillery on your doorstep, make contact with the distillery and visitor centre staff; generally they’re a happy bunch (who wouldn’t be?) and are always suggesting to visitors local places where their whiskies can be enjoyed. After all, everybody wants to eat and drink locally nowadays.
• Jon Beach is co-owner of the award-winning Fiddler’s whisky bar in Drumnadrochit.