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27 March 2020

Our world may be looking rather different for the time being, but members can rest assured that the Society’s Tasting Panel is continuing to sample and evaluate drams for future release – even if we’re doing it from our own homes (and possibly even in our pyjamas). One Tasting Panel participant tells us about his first online experience

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The Society’s Tasting Panel started out in our founder Pip Hills’s kitchen, before moving to its usual home at The Vaults in Leith once we’d purchased the historic but dilapidated building and made it fit for habitation.

Well, with the spread of Coronavirus and the need to practise social distancing, it looks like the Tasting Panel may have to revert to being set up in kitchens, living rooms and home offices across the country.

The Tasting Panel must go on - whether we're able to sit at The Vaults or not!

I was lucky enough to pick up the required sample bottles from SMWS spirits manager Euan Campbell from The Vaults before the Members’ Room there and the Society office shut its doors. A couple of days later, Euan co-ordinated a video conference so that I and other panellists could call in from our own homes around the country.

So far so good. With a pair of headphones on and our glasses at the ready, it didn’t feel so different from sitting around the same table together in the Tasting Room at The Vaults.

A recent advance in Tasting Panel technology helps in the current situation. All of our notes are now written and scores collated online anyway as we sample and evaluate each dram.

Once we’re done with each whisky, nosing and tasting neat, scoring and writing our notes and then repeating the process with some water, we all save our input to share with the Tasting Panel chair. This online process was exactly the same, even if it was being done at a distance.

I asked a couple of the other online participants how they felt about the change in set up.

“It’s been quite a journey,” said one long-term panellist. “The first Tasting Panel I ever participated in was a long time ago, around the large table in the Tasting Room at The Vaults. I had expressed an interest in observing how it worked, but was then told: ‘We don’t have observers in this room – if you’re here you’ll have to participate!’

“That was quite an intense experience, with about six or seven people I think around the table, talking away very intently. So it feels like quite a long way from that to this, but you know what – it’s just as good, maybe even better in terms of having a focussed discussion about the samples in front of us. We’re well set up to continue and have a robust system in place to make it happen, no matter the challenges around us.”

Another of the panellists said he was embracing the technology that allowed the online Tasting Panel to take place.

“It’s really cool, especially since we can still have the usual chat and back and forth about the whiskies online, but using an app to gather all our notes has helped to move everything forward a lot. Being able to do it like this feels like ‘business as usual’, and it’s not all that different from members sitting in their own homes enjoying a dram.”

With that, we work our way through the session’s samples, nosing and then swirling the whiskies around our mouths before spitting them out – we might be working from home, but it’s only 11am (well, they do say your senses are better in the morning) and we’ve all got plenty more to be getting on with during the rest of the day.

It all works well – as long as my wife doesn’t discover what I was using as a spittoon.