Scotch Whisky 101 — Liz Goes to School

In this three-part “101” series, Napa Valley Wine Academy instructor Liz Pirnat explores the world of Scotch Whisky. Napa Valley Wine Academy offers WSET Level 1 and WSET Level 2 (online) in spirits immersion courses. 

Part III: Whisky School

I spent a week at the Springbank Whisky School—a fantastic experience, and one I’d highly recommend to anyone trying to up their knowledge of Whisky. You’ll work alongside the staff, as I did, for four days culminating with an exam and closing lunch on the fifth day. The accessibility to everyone and open dialogue was refreshing and provided for a memorable learning experience.

What makes the Springbank Distillery so unique is that the entire production process takes place on-site—from traditional malt floors through bottling, you see and work with the entire Whisky-making process.  

On the first day, after a quick tour and instructions on safety and security measures (where to go in case of a fire, a serious hazard in making Whisky), those of us “students” are handed shovels and wheelbarrows to help the malting staff layout a malting floor.  

Throughout the week, students rotate through the various departments: still house, malting floor, warehouse, and bottling.  

In teams, we laid the malt floor, cleaned it, and moved sprouted malt to the kiln. We also worked as a team to fill 40 casks!! Then, we moved them to the appropriate storage warehouses.  

Moving casks is similar to a Crossfit workout if you were wondering. Rolling the casks, making sure they end up with the bung up, keeping the casks in the correct numeric order—it takes a serious, dedicated team effort. Especially since we had roughly 30 casks that needed to be moved to the second floor of the dunnage warehouse and stacked neatly in one row, with a second “layer” on top. It was teamwork at its best!

Moving barrels

The bottling line was a great lesson in quality control for me.  In working the lightbox, I found many bottles with particles of char from the barrel that needed to be refiltered. Everything needed to be perfect.  

The funniest moment for me personally was on the first day. While doing some special bottles, they had me open a cask from 1995 to empty into a vat for bottling. The cask is lifted up on a forklift, overhead, and then opened upside down—you never know how it will flow out of the cask, a detail I found out…later. 

Yes, I got soaked. 

Drenched from my shoulders down with 1995 Springbank—I never smelled so good! This happens frequently enough that they keep a hair-dryer nearby for just such occasions. 

And there was more: pre-planned tastings, tastings while working, making a barley angel while leveling barley in the kiln—ya know, all in a night’s work. 

My understanding of whisky production is so much greater now and I am thrilled to be part of the Springbank family. For lovers of whisky, it just doesn’t get any better than a true immersion.

Napa Valley Wine Academy offers WSET Level 1 and WSET Level 2 (online) in spirits immersion courses. 

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