The Australian Malt Whisky Tasting Championship

The Australian Malt Whisky Tasting Championship is a bit like the internet. It’s something you might think is a relatively “new” thing, when the reality is that it’s been around for decades longer than you gave it credit for.

In actual fact, the Australian Malt Whisky Tasting Championship has been around since the late 1980’s. 1989 to be precise. As the name suggests, it is a tasting competition, and has its origins in Adelaide, South Australia. Adelaide already had an established malt whisky appreciation scene at that time with several clubs around, including one based in the Earl of Zetland pub. It was chiefly from within the Earl of Zetland that the AMWTC arose, becoming an annual event that would see keen whisky folks put their palates to the test to determine who was Australia’s Malt Whisky Tasting Champion.

The competition’s principal format and structure has remained largely unchanged over the years: Competitors are presented with eight whiskies pre-poured before them, and a list of nine possible whiskies – in other words, the eight whiskies that are on the table, plus one red herring. Competitors are then given 30 minutes to identify which whisky is which and to write their answers on the answer sheet. Of course, having a list with all of the possible contenders in front of you makes the exercise seem a little easier, but the challenge is also in establishing which whisky of the nine on the list is not on the table!
For obvious reasons, the whiskies used in the competition must be non-variable official bottlings that are widely available commercially. The eight whiskies poured out on the day of the event must come from a pre-published list of 30 commercially available whiskies – being a national event, the whiskies must be bottlings that anyone can purchase anywhere in the country. As such, small batch, one-off, limited edition, or single cask expressions are not valid for the event. And for those who want to “study up” and train or prepare for the event, the list of 30 possible whiskies is sent to each competitor when they register.

The AMWTC ran annually out of Adelaide from 1989 until 2002, although it was in recess for a few years from 1997-2000. It attracted some healthy international attention during this run, even tempting the late Michael Jackson (the whisky writer, not the singer in the pirate suit) to fly out one year to compete. However, with the owners of the Earl of Zetland effectively retiring and selling the pub, the competition lost its home and – more critically – the infrastructure to run it, and it lapsed into remission. Until….

In late 2007, one particular Director on the Board of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (wink) decided it was time this national event returned and became truly national. The Society subsequently took custodianship of the AMWTC and set about re-birthing it. Through its membership network and beyond, the event was advertised far and wide and it was re-launched at the Sydney Opera House in 2008. Competitors flew in from Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, and even from as far away as Singapore to attend the rejuvenated event.

The Society’s original aim was to hold it as a biennial event, and so it was repeated in 2010 and 2012. However, such was the atmosphere and success of the 2012 event – helped in no small way by William Grant & Sons’ generous sponsorship of the after party – the event had enough interest and momentum to return to becoming an annual affair, and so it has been since (i.e. being held in 2013 and again this year on Saturday July 26th, 2014.) And, once more, William Grant & Sons (Australia) have come onboard as principal sponsor for this year’s event.

What I love most about the AMWTC is that it is so honest. Whilst the evening is held in amazing surrounds (the Dinosaur Room at the Australian Museum) and has all the looks and trappings of a major whisky event, once the bell sounds to trigger the start of the competition, it’s just you and your palate. Strip it all back, and it’s just a bunch of people in a room tasting some whiskies; using and focussing their senses to identify aromas and flavours; and either seriously or playfully guessing what they’re drinking. There are a small number of uber-enthusiasts who take the event seriously every year, but certainly for me, it’s a bit of a laugh and a lot of fun.

The process amuses me every year: You stare at the eight glasses before you, carefully assessing the colour to see if you can make some easy eliminations. (No, the really pale whisky won’t be the Macallan Ruby!). You do a first pass nosing of the eight whiskies, sniffing each one to identify the primary aroma. (Which ones are peated? Which ones are sherried?). Depending on your drinking preferences and what’s on your liquor shelf at home, you’ll either be totally at ease in identifying a Talisker 10 from a Glenfiddich 12; or you’ll be racking your brain to try and remember when the last time was that you actually tasted the Aberlour a’Bunadh. (And you might think that picking the 60% ABV a’Bunadh would be easy in a line-up, but if it happens to be sitting alongside the Glenfarclas 105, then good luck to you!).

So that’s what it’s all about. Whilst the event is organised and hosted by The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, it is not a members’ event, and it’s open to anyone over 18 to compete. If you enjoy malt whisky and you’re looking for an excuse to visit Sydney on the weekend of July 26th, I earnestly encourage you to consider participating. Bookings and enquiries will be available through the Society’s website (www.smws.com.au) and full details – including the list of 30 competition whiskies – are being published in the Society’s Winter Outturn & Unfiltered Magazine, due for release in the last week of May.

[Late edit: After initially publishing this, I realised I didn’t mention anything about the prizes!  Apart from the significant bragging rights, there are always great prizes up for grabs for coming first, second, and third.  In previous years, these have included a trip for two to Tasmania to do the four day tour and whisky making school at Lark Distillery; bottles of SMWS whisky; free tickets to attend SMWS tasting events; and gift vouchers for use at the Oak Barrel liquor outlet]

Slainte,
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