The art and lore of Scotch whisky
Post Independent Arts Writer
Glenwood Springs, Colorado CO
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado – If you’re wondering why an article about Scotch whisky has found its way to the arts and entertainment section, just ask Robert Sickler.
“Making whisky is an art, much like the art of making wine,” said Sickler, who is known as a “master of whisky,” a title somewhat similar to a sommelier. “It’s an art passed down through ages.”
It makes sense, then, that for its largest winter fundraiser, the Glenwood Springs Center for the Arts (GSCA) has chosen to host a Scotch tasting event featuring six fine single malt whiskies from the Scotch-producing regions of Scotland.
“From the light, drafty lowlands, the heathery highlands, and the rich peaty coasts,” said Sickler, “each region has its distinctive style.”
Conceived by GSCA executive director Gayle Mortell and now in its fifth year, The Favorite Malts of Scotland is being held this Saturday at the arts center.
Besides focusing on the artistic components of fine Scotches, there’s another reason that a Scotch tasting is a good choice for an arts center fundraiser, said Christina Brusig, GSCA program assistant.
“A new audience who might not typically come to one of our art exhibits may enjoy attending a Scotch tasting,” she said.
The GSCA’s staff would be hard pressed to find anyone more capable to host their tasting than Sickler, who works for Diageo, an international spirits, wine and beer distributor.
To become a master of whisky, Sickler has received extensive classroom training in whisky history, chemistry, and production. Diageo has invested in Sickler as well, sending him to Kentucky, Tennessee, Canada, Ireland and Scotland to apprentice at Diageo’s various brand distilleries.
“Scotch is a fascinating part of Scotland’s culture,” Sickler said of his travels throughout the country. “Going to Scotland and not experiencing Scotch is like going to France and not eating.”
Sickler also has an extensive background leading tastings. Although his initial territory included six Midwest and western states, now he focuses exclusively on Colorado.
“Twelve of us are based throughout the U.S. in key geographic areas,” he said of his fellow whisky masters.
During the past seven years, Sickler estimates he’s conducted more than 1,100 Scotch tasting events – and they’re all different. This will be the second tasting he’s conducted for Glenwood’s arts center.
“Sometimes they’re relaxed, like Saturday’s will be,” he said. The event will focus solely on tasting Scotch, with just rice crackers being served to cleanse the palate between tastings. “Other times, they’re very elaborate and formalized – a Scotch paired with every dish being served.”
Don’t expect to slam down shots in quick succession. A Scotch tasting with a master like Sickler is much more refined. This is sipping, not shooting.
“The whiskies being served are elegant,” said Sickler. “They’re to be contemplated.”
The six Scotches served at Saturday’s tasting are:
• Talisker, from Scotland’s northwest coast on the Isle of Skye and a favorite of Robert Louis Stevenson.
• Caol Ila, from Scotland’s west coast on the Isle of Islay; founded in 1846.
• Cragganmore, from inland, in the Speyside region; established in 1869.
• JW Green Label, a blended whisky from Johnnie Walker.
• Clynelish, from the northern highlands; founded in 1819.
• Oban, from the western highlands; founded in 1794.
At a tasting, Sickler takes participants on an in-depth journey of the history of whisky – how it’s made and what influences its taste. Factors such as ingredients, water, regionality, barrel wood and time make up a Scotch’s flavor.
“And once we tackle why this fantastic liquid is so unique, we taste it,” he said.
Ken Robinson of Roaring Fork Liquors in Glenwood Springs is supplying much of the whisky that will be sampled on Saturday.
“Ken is a big supporter of the arts,” said GSCA’s Brusig.
Robinson also appreciates a good whisky.
“Scotch isn’t just Scotch,” said Robinson, of the qualities inherent in a fine whisky. “It’s like beer or wine. It has different characteristics based on where it’s from.
“Whisky produced closer to the water can be more masculine. As you go up in the Highlands, it can turn more feminine, leaner. Water and territory have a lot to do with its flavors.”
Sickler said that he understands enough about fine whisky that he can identify Scotch during a blind taste test.
“I can tell you what region a whisky is from,” Sickler said.
“I’m sure he can,” Robinson said. “Guys like that spend their lives learning about things like that. They’re like sommeliers.”
Brusig said it’s beneficial for attendees to eat dinner prior to the tasting.
“Besides Scotch, a cleansing bite of cracker and spring water are all that will be served during the tasting,” said Sickler.
And although the amount of alcohol per person will be relatively small, the center is making Valley Taxi available to anyone who may need a lift home.
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