The Scotch Whisky Experience: £50 on Tombola Tickets Well Spent

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The world’s largest whisky collection

About a year ago, I spent around £50 on tombola tickets trying to win a free pass for The Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh. I won in the end. Although, obviously, I didn’t really. A couple of months ago, I used the pass. And since Mr. Malt was on a shopping spree at Homebase, my friend Susie and I decided to go together.

I have to say I was expecting just another whisky tour much like you get on a visit to a distillery. Walk around, gaze at some barrels, fondle some barley and peer into some vats. But this was a little different.

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Whisky Waltzer- hold onto your bonnets

For starters, the tour began with us being allowed to jump the queue for tickets because we had a complimentary pass. High on our VIP-esque buzz, we lined up ready to step into the barrel ride – a cross between the waltzers and the ghost train. You sit in a shiny, painted whisky barrel with its top and side cut out. Then you put your seatbelt on and zip off at half a mile an hour into a tunnel. In the tunnel, a digital ghost (digi-ghost) tells you all about whisky production. It’s really quite impressive and the only thing I felt would have enhanced the experience would have been a cup holder with a dram of whisky in. Failing that, some whisky flavoured travel sweets. Or an old, kilted man singing Scottish folk songs.

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Scary, yet informative, digi-ghost

After our dizzying ride, we put our sick bags aside and disembarked from the whisky waltzer, whereupon we were led into the next room for a presentation.

The presentation room was a kind of cross between a kibbutz dining hall and a school classroom. Everyone sat at a u-shaped, communal table and faced a massive projection screen, eagerly awaiting stimulation.

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Scratch ‘n’ Sniff

Before the TV show and alcohol we were each given a colourful scratch and sniff card – with one scented segment for each of the four whisky regions in Scotland. Speyside smelt of banana sweets, Islay of smoky, peaty goodness, Highland was sweet and caramelly and Lowland…um.. Lowland smelt of delicious cardboard. What can I say? My card is now several months old, the Lowland bit has lost its scent and I didn’t write anything down at the time. This card was to help inform us in our choice of dram. I loved the novelty of the scratch and sniff idea, although I wasn’t convinced that any of the segments really did whisky justice at all.

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Whisky

After the presentation – delivered by a lovely and very well informed lady called Rachel – we got to choose which whisky we wanted to taste. I chose Speyside and was rewarded with a Glenfarclas 10 year old. Susie, a non-whisky drinker- was brave and went straight for the Islay whisky- Ardbeg. She’s single, boys.

As we sampled our dram we wandered through the world’s largest whisky collection. Over 8000 bottles, all collected by one man, and sold to Diageo for an undisclosed sum, which would no doubt make your eyes water. There was even a Charles and Diana commemorative bell, which again made my eyes wet as young Princess Charlotte had arrived in the world that very morning.

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Sob ‘n’ Sniff

After our basic package of one whisky had expired, Susie and I upgraded to the gold experience: a platter of four drams from each of the four whisky regions. You can have this all to yourself, but we decided to share – partly because Susie is new to whisky, but mainly because we wanted to make room for cocktails afterwards.

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Tasting Notes. Tasty.

Drinking with a whisky novice, I suddenly subsumed the role of tasting guide and presented the whiskies to Susie as if I knew what I was talking about. “Now the first whisky we are going to try is a Glenkinchie,” I burbled. “Glenkinchie is a distillery in the Lowland region of Scotland… “ And so on, through Tomatin (Highland) Aberlour (Speyside) and Bruichladdich (Islay). We both agreed on the Bruichladdich as our favourite, Susie clearly getting the hang of the big peaty lads very, very quickly.

Susie’s face at one of the other whiskies – which shall remain nameless- was that of utter disgust. And looking around the room, there were some other women making the same disgusted face as they took a sip of the dram in front of them. It made me realise how far I have come in developing a palate for whisky. And at £50 for the tickets, just how far I will go to get my hands on some.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lady of the Glen Whisky Tasting (Or, You’ll Always Find Me Drinking Whisky at Parties)

photo 3So you want to get invited to more parties? The key is to drink more whisky. I’ve been drinking whisky for eight months now and I’ve been invited to…er…well  one party. But still, it was quite a swanky affair, which saw me supping nips with some very important people in the whisky world.

OK, so it wasn’t technically, a party. But the Lady of the Glen tasting event at Whiski Rooms in Edinburgh was my first event as a whisky blogger, so it will always hold a special place in my malt-tinted memories.

Looking the part

As I’d never been to a professional whisky tasting event before I had many questions. Was there a dress code? Could I take photos? Would people laugh at my notebook? And most pertinently, would I be able to stand up by the end of it all? ladyoftheglen670x441

Dress wise, I decided on a slightly more upmarket version of what I wear to work. Choosing a notebook was more complicated. The only ones I could find looked like they belonged to a 6 year old. Options with cupcakes, gold-embossed butterflies and baby deer on them were cast aside after I finally found a plain black number. Not that the colour of the notebook would help me if someone noted what I was writing. I could just imagine it. “What an amateur,” they would think to themselves. “Imagine saying that it tastes like Jaffa Cakes when it clearly tastes like custard creams.”

On the way to the event, other questions spun through my mind. Should I turn up on time? Would the smell of my spray on shampoo put people off their “nosing”? Why was it so blooming cold when it was meant to be Spring?

Hob-nobbing

When I got there I was relieved to find only a small group of people sitting down in a corner of the bar. I’d been concerned that I would be required to sashay around the room hob-nobbing and bursting forth my whisky knowledge. The intimate group of eight suited me nicely.

The seven whiskies which we were going to taste were all set out on the table already. And that’s not to mention the complimentary Glenmorangie cocktail which greeted my arrival. This would be the most whisky I had ever drunk in one sitting. I was glad I’d prepared taxi money in advance.

IMG_2483General Housekeeping

Before I go further, here’s a nifty wee beginners glossary of whisky terms that might come up in my notes. And if you need a comfort break during any of what follows, go right on ahead.

Single malt– a whisky made at a single distillery using malted grains.

Single grain– a whisky made at a single distillery using un-malted grains.

Cask strength – whisky with an alcohol level as it was in the cask. Not diluted with any water.

Chill filtering – when whisky is chilled and filtered to remove residue or cloudiness.

Lady of the Glen is a new company. It was founded in 2012 by Gregor Hannah, the son of a piper. Impressed by his father’s whisky collection, (pipers are given a bottle for their services) Gregor decided to acquire rare casks of high quality whisky and release each limited edition bottling at cask strength without chill filtering or colourings. Some of the bottles have beautiful etching instead of a label, which also reduces the chance of counterfeits.

So, here come my tasting notes (and anecdotes). I am a beginner to this whisky tasting lark, so I fear these may not be as sophisticated as some, but I am very appreciative of the chance to learn with the pros.

InvergordonInvergordon 24 year old

The first whisky we tasted was the very first LotG release: a 24 year old Invergordon from a Bourbon cask. From the Highland area, this is a single grain whisky with a 56% cask strength. Upon sniffing it I felt there was a definite blast of vanilla. However, I am coming to realise that I always think there is a blast of vanilla. Vanilla seems to be my “go to” scent. Fortunately, Gregor advised us that there should be vanilla pudding on the palate, so maybe going to vanilla on this occasion wasn’t such a bad thing. It certainly tasted delicious to me. Sadly, the Invergordon is sold out in Europe. But if it’s a flavour of things to come then that’s certainly something to be positive about.

Ben Rinnes 14 year old benrinnes

Next up was a 14 year old Ben Rinnes single malt with a whopping 57.8% cask strength. Apparently it is very difficult to get Ben Rinnes single malt as it is mostly used for Johnnie Walker. And only 86 bottles of this were released, and sold out, by LotG, so I was in a very privileged position. I have to be honest and say that the very first thing that went through my head upon sniffing this was cheese and onion crisps. Who knows why? At least it wasn’t vanilla. The crisps soon dissipated and the red apples, chocolate and citrus fruit that everyone else was talking about arrived. The palate had hints of a sherry cask so was sweet, but was also quite rubbery. I have no idea how the rubber happens, but it was definitely there. I liked this rich, spicy, fruity big boy of a whisky (spoiler- I liked them all) but it wasn’t my BFF whisky of the evening.

littlemill_pictures_reduced_sizeLittlemill 21 year old 

The next whisky, we were told, was special. 21 year old Littlemill from a bourbon cask comes from a now-extinct Lowland distillery. Littlemill was reportedly the first distillery that existed in Scotland, but after being closed in 1997 the remains were, sadly, destroyed in a fire. Luckily for us there is still Littlemill whisky to be had. This 53.6% cask strength one went for £95 a go and sold out in just 21 days.

Now, apparently, Littlemill is not a whisky for someone with a sweet tooth. That someone would be me, and I have to discredit that theory and say that I loved this. The nose, we were told, had cut grass and soft fruitiness, which, in my mind, could roughly translate to eating a pineapple in a summer meadow. And that’s nice, particularly if you come from Scotland. The whisky did smell tropical to me, kind of herbaceous too. The palate was fruity with some custard pudding doing its thing (I knew there would be custard somewhere).

20 year old Secret Speyside Secret Speyside

Dram number four was a 20 year old, bourbon cask whisky from a secret distillery in Speyside. “Secret” meaning, the distillery get named and they set their lawyers loose. I don’t know why because if I made this whisky I would be telling people about it. The nose was melony and peachy and the palate a big slice of lemon pie. And the good news is that you can still buy this one from the LotG website for a perky £65 a bottle.

Bunnahabhain 26 year old

Moving on to whisky number five – a 26 year old Bunnahabhain. BunnahabhainTranslated from Gaelic Bunnahabhain means “amazing whisky.” OK, it doesn’t, it means “mouth of the river,” but the whisky is top stuff. Initial tones of glue (I read that someone else smelt plastic book coverings so I feel vindicated in my glue sniffing) morphed into floral notes, and as I supped it back I was searching for the foam banana sweets that Gregor said it tasted of. It was certainly a very smooth and complex whisky, with spicy fruit and chocolate and a slightly smoky finish. Someone around the table suggested salted apples. Another put it quite simply when he said it’s “Quite yummy. Yum yum.” Yes, indeed. My thoughts exactly.

The 26 year old Bunnahabhain is the first Islay cask from LotG. It’s still on sale and costs a princely £145 or £65 for a 20cl bottle. But because LotG is an emerging business, prices are currently low. If you were to buy something similar direct from Bunnahabhain it would cost you closer to £300. So get in amongst it now.

Glen Garioch 21 year oldprimary-image

As whisky number six was served I was still sitting up straight in my chair. It was the latest release from LotG –  a 21 year old Glen Garioch from a bourbon cask with 56.4% cask strength. It comes from Old Meldrum up in Aberdeenshire. A place I haven’t been since I was about 11 and was fed a poisoned baked potato by my friend’s gran. So I hoped this whisky could forge some fonder memories in my mind.

It’s funny, as soon as I smelled the Glen Garioch I thought of summer holidays. Nice ones. Not the one to visit my friend’s gran. It was blossomy and lovely on the nose. The palate was toffee and nutty and when I smelled it again I was sure I could smell those purple quality streets with the wrapper on. This was my kind of whisky. Summer holidays, toffee and chocolate all rolled into one. Might just be worth it at £87 a bottle.

bowmore-label-finalBowmore 21 year old

As a little treat at the end, Gregor poured us all a dram of a 21 year old Bowmore from a first fill sherry cask. This whisky sold out through pre-sales on his website so was very special indeed. A sniff off it and I thought the building might be on fire, such was its smokiness. This would definitely go well with that romantic night by the fire I imagined myself having with a handsome man way back when I first dreamt of becoming a whisky drinker. The palate was sweet and if there was a fire in a Crunchie factory then it would taste just like this. Amazing. I couldn’t help but think that if the whisky naysayers out there tried this they’d be into whisky in no time.

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So, that was it. I was still sitting upright and forming sentences and had thoroughly enjoyed my first whisky tasting. And then, wonderfully, one of the other guests pulled out a bottle of rare whisky from his bag and offered everyone a dram. Spectacular. And then 15 minutes later he pulled another rare whisky out of his and offered everyone a dram again. I intend no pun when I say how kind spirited I found this. What a wonderful introduction to Lady of the Glen and to the Edinburgh whisky tasting community this evening had been. Thank you to everyone involved.

There will be a ticketed Lady of the Glen tasting coming to a secret venue in Edinburgh soon. Keep an eye on the website for details. And if you want to go shopping in the meantime, click here.

All the Single Malt Ladies

www.singlemaltfemale.co.uk Highland ParkA few weeks ago I requested that anyone who had been affected by the issues in my blog – i.e. those who were experimenting with whisky – get in touch. Three lovely ladies put their hands up, and now here are their experiences. They might entertain you, they might resonate with you, they might even inspire you to drop into a pub and order a dram of whisky.

Laura 

Get a piece of charred wood, chuck it into a bottle of methylated spirits, and you’ve got the rough equivalent of what my friend Laura tastes when she drinks whisky.

Laura, like many young ladies with style and panache has acknowledged that whisky is the drink of the moment. It’s multifaceted and cool and if you don’t drink it you are missing out. She is also haunted by national guilt. The abandoned bottle of Highland Park in her kitchen, taunts Laura. “Call yourself Scottish?” it seems to say. “You don’t even like whisky!” She ignores it, but like a drunken friend with a line up of shots at 3am, it is tenacious. “Come on, get it down you, you know you want to,” the whisky jibes, until, eventually, Laura caves in, shelves the cherry brandy she was looking forward to and pours a glass of the hard stuff. Maybe this won’t be so bad, she thinks. It’s smells a bit like Mr Kipling’s Battenburg cake. Oh yes, this will go perfectly with a night in front of the fire and a good Scottish drama.

With Waterloo Road on the TV, the lights dimmed and the flames up full, Laura wiggles her toes in her knitted bed socks and swirls the golden dram in her glass. The atmosphere is just perfect. The delicate Battenburg scent intoxicates her and she believes that, finally, tonight is the night that she and whisky will find each other.

But when Laura takes a sip, it’s just the same sensation as every other time: chargrilled turpentine and disappointment.

Laura considers that maybe her taste buds just need some more time to mature; she is still prepared to try different whiskies and let them into her heart. But she is conscious that the process seems to be going on forever and she wonders how much longer it will take. With five months experience under my belt, I tell her it will take time, I like whisky a bit more now than I used to. But as I am still a probationer myself I cannot be certain. I can only hope that Laura finds her whisky feet someday.

Juliet www.singlematlfemale.co.uk Jura

Across the other side of Edinburgh, my friend Juliet is also experimenting with the golden grain, but is a little more advanced in her studies.

A brave adult, but scarred by youthful experimentation with cheap blends, Juliet could easily have been put off whisky for life. However after many years living abroad, Scottish nostalgia fired her interest in the drink. Memories of Hogmanay parties, of people dancing, singing and scoffing shortbread meant Juliet would never drift through duty free without buying a bottle of single malt  to sip and think of home. Circa 2009, she could often be found watching a Chinese sunset and lesson planning with a glass of Scotch by her side.

Now, back in Scotland, Juliet is lesson planning to the sound of crap weather, but her enthusiasm for whisky hasn’t abated. Last year she visited the Talisker distillery and loved learning about whisky production. She also has several inspirational whisky drinking friends: one is a member of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society and another has an exciting and humorous whisky discovery blog.

But for Juliet, it is simple. Whisky is locally produced and is part of the Scottish landscape. We should be embracing it, whether it’s having a swift half in an old man’s pub on the way home from Lidl or a rewarding a dram by the fire after a day spent roaming in the Autumnal hills. It’s one of the few drinks that really has an atmosphere that goes with it.

Juliet recently went for a break to a hotel overlooking the isle of Jura. She considered the complimentary whisky sour upon arrival an original and impressive touch. She also considers that maybe if more establishments followed this lead, whisky newbies would get in the swing of things.

And I agree – because, some novices need encouragement to get into whisky. And that encouragement might just be whisky chapping on our door, wearing its cocktail jacket.

www.singlemaltfemle.co.uk Dewars CabinetDee

I should also mention my friend, Dee, another non whisky drinker. The last time Dee featured on this blog she was pretending to take photos of some whisky but was actually snapping a good looking gentleman next to the whisky. After attending that event, Dee went to the pub (on a different day) and drank the following in one sitting: a Balvenie Doublewood; a Macallan; a Bowmore and a Dalwhinnie 15 year old. She thought the Dalwhinnie tasted like a Kwik Fit garage.

And if that tasting note in itself isn’t enough to entice a non whisky drinker to give it a go, I don’t know what is.

Single Malt Female

Then there’s me. Where am I at nearly six months into my whisky tasting project? Well, I have progressed somewhat. After attending a whisky cocktail event, I lusted after such concoctions for some time, and I do believe that drinking these has helped attune my palate to the taste of whisky. For example, the Edradour 10 year old which I first thought tasted of vanilla and booze, now tastes sweet, citrusy and rich. It’s like liquid, alcoholic pudding. I have also found that whisky, when sipped slowly, is far kinder to my head the next day than wine.

So, if you are not into whisky but feel like you might want to try, maybe start with a whisky sour or an old fashioned, or pour a dram over your ice cream or sticky toffee pudding. Mix it up a bit with other things until your palate becomes attuned. And then when you are feeling up to it, stop on the way home from Lidl and grab yourself a Kwik Fit flavoured dram in the pub – the real old fashioned way.

Whisky, Werther’s Originals and a Wee Nightcap

Aberfeldy 12 year old Single Malt FemaleMy quest has only been going for a week, and although I’m still not a fan of whisky, I am, officially, a fan of trying to like it.

Mr Malt and I dine out in a posh pub. After eating, we go for a drink in the bar. I suggest that we have a whisky before hitting the bus stop. Mr Malt, not quite in the spirit of things as much as I am, says, “Why don’t we just go home and have a Talisker?” For those of you who don’t know whisky and haven’t been to my house, lately – that’s a type of whisky made on the isle of Skye, a bottle of which currently resides in my kitchen cupboard.

I have to remind Mr Malt that this quest is meant to be interesting enough that people might want to read about it. If every post revolves around me sitting at home drinking a glass of Talisker – albeit in a different pair of pyjamas – then things are going to get a little Groundhog Day rather quickly.

As if to get his own back, Mr Malt then sends me to to the bar to choose a whisky for him as well as myself. I go over to the bar, stare like a sad Labrador at the bottles on the shelf before the staff ask if they can help me with my choice. What a relief. This bar is clearly used to people who like assistance in their whisky drinking; they have kindly categorised all the bottles into the regions of Scotland from which the whisky originates.

I opt for an Auchentoshan (not sure of the year) as it is sitting in the “Lowland” category and I read that the Lowland malts are slightly more mellow than others: perhaps good for an apprentice whisky drinker like me. Unfortunately, there is only a dribble left in the bottle, however, the barmaid is kind enough to let me have this remnant for free along with another selection. I choose a Glenfarclas 10 year old for myself and an Aberfeldy 12 year old for Mr M.

I love the smell of the Auchentoshan. It is sweet and warm scented. It honestly does smell like – and I am not just saying that to try and be like Michael Jackson – Werther’s Originals. The palate is still quite confronting and I taste the alcohol more than anything, but it is probably the whisky I like the most, so far.

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When the dribble is gone, I actually can’t stop smelling the empty glass, so wonderful are the aromas coming from it. It is sweet and woody. After about twenty minutes of sniffing constantly, I decide the smell is a mixture of Creme Brûlée, furniture polish, pipe smoke and the inside of a sauna. You might not think that that would be pleasant smell, but it really is.

The Glenfarclas both smells and tastes to me like vanilla and butterscotch. I am glad to be able to pick out these smells, but I feel as if I am still missing a lot and think that I would like to get some proper guidance on how to approach tasting properly.

Mr M’s Aberfeldy, he tells me, smells of coconut and has a “tropical taste” to it. He makes it sound like a glass of Lilt. I smell it. I kind of agree, and make a mental note to get a can of Lilt on the way home.

We go home and do indeed have that glass of Talisker. Now, to me, this whisky smells like a medicine cabinet. To Mr M, it smells amazing; this is his kind of malt. But, I think his whisky compass might need recalibrated when he tells me it tastes “like Scotland,” ” like one of The Proclaimers” and “like Gavin Hastings’ pants.” For clarification from a normal person, I look it up in the MJ book where it is described it as “very peppery, huge and long”. A bit like a Pepperami. It is, indeed, a strong flavour, and probably too much for my tender palate at present. I think I will temporarily retire from Talisker until I have got used to the more mellow guys. And retire to bed feeling good, so far, about where my quest is going.

Can a Whisky Doubter Learn to Love Whisky?

IMG_2489Whisky – to some people it tastes like caramel, cinnamon and warm October evenings. To others it tastes like a glass of floor cleaner. But, whether you like it or loathe it, there’s no denying whisky is a complex and multi-faceted drink.

I have never been a whisky drinker. However, for a while now – and especially since I moved to Edinburgh, where it seems like every second shop sells the stuff – I have thought that it might be nice to enjoy drinking whisky. I want to smell smoky apple-orchards on the nose. I want to taste peat-infused bonfires on the palate. I want the Water of Life to be part of my life.

I am perhaps being carried away by romantic ideas. It is true to say that in my whisky dreams I’m reclined on an expensive leather couch, next to a roaring log fire, glass of malt in my hand, laughing wholeheartedly with a sexy, bestubbled man and having an altogether splendid time. The reality might turn out to be closer to a game of dominoes at a musty lock-in with some lobster-cheeked, bulbous-nosed gents. I don’t drink whisky, so I don’t know.

And, I will never know if I don’t try.

IMG_2672I have tried to like whisky before. But, like violin lessons when I was 8, I never really gave it my all. Often, after a night drinking wine, I would brazenly order a dram in the spirit of being adventurous (or a show off – I once ordered a Laphroaig simply because I could pronounce the word) then, after one antiseptic sip, gift it to someone who would appreciate it more. I wanted to like it, but it tasted just too awful for me to push on through. I didn’t have the staying power.

Now, however, I am older and stronger. I am tenacious and prepared to work for the things I want. And I want to know, if I get the right guidance, and if I really persevere, can I learn to like whisky?

So, for one year, I plan to immerse myself in the world of whisky to see if I can acquire a taste for the drink. I plan to visit distilleries, pubs, and whisky tasting events. I will read books about whisky, cook with whisky, and climb mountains and celebrate with a dram at the top. I even have a grand vision of hosting a whisky cocktail party. Basically, I will try all sorts of different ways to consume and learn about the beverage. Initially, I will limit myself to Scotch whisky, but, if things go well, I may promote my palate to more international flavours.

This escapade is not just about whether women can like whisky. It’s probably true that far fewer women drink it than do men, but a quick search of the web brings up details of women who are master blenders, whisky consultants and enthusiastic whisky bloggers: women who have broken through the taste barrier and found that their palates have adjusted and embraced this complex and often misunderstood drink. This, therefore, is about answering the question, can those who think they don’t like whisky – laddies or ladies –  learn to like it? IMG_2675

If, after several months, it looks like my palate is unconvinced, I fully plan to carry on anyway. I may never acquire a love of the malt, but I think the very least I can gain is an appreciation and an understanding. If, however, by July 2015, I am not a full-on whisky lover then I will accept that it is not meant to be.

There will be no criticism of whisky here – only recognition that it may not be for me. If things do not appeal to my palate, I have an enthusiastic human spittoon (let’s call him Mr Malt) who is on hand to tell me what my unfinished dram tastes like to the cultured palate.

It should also be noted that I am sponsored by no one and this is purely a self-motivated quest. I simply like a challenge and I love writing.

All business proposals and crates of Scotch will be considered, though.

The following are what I am starting with at the beginning of this quest. I like to think of these items as my Whisky Starter Kit.

Whisky Starter Kit

Whisky Starter Kit

A whisky tasting journal and pen

Michael Jackson’s Malt Whisky Companion (not the Moonwalker, the whisky expert)

Some money for the bus to whisky drinking venues

Feel free to join me in this quest. I would love to hear other non-whisky lover’s stories.

 

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