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Have a Wee Dram: Whisky Tasting in Leeds

· Joseph Sheerin · Food and Drink

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Whisky is the connoisseurs tipple of choice, but there are bars in Leeds that are more than willing to show you the worth of a wee dram or two.

It’s a daunting choice to plump for at the bar – whisky is often an acquired taste, one that may seem like it requires experience and knowledge to truly appreciate. Such qualities aren’t the easiest to seek out either, unless that is, you have the help of an expert – and with a host of whisky tastings in Leeds, you can have just that.

51% Bourbon

Whiskey Tasting in Leeds - 51% Bourbon Lounge-web

With a name such as 51% Bourbon it would be naive to think that these guys wouldn’t be able to help. Tucked away in Hirst’s Yard, 51% is the Leeds bar to visit if you’re in search of a laid back whisky tasting.

With contributions from the likes of Jim Beam, Heaven Hill, Four Roses, Buffalo Trace and Kentucky Bourbon, it’s fair to say that 51% aren’t short of quality Bourbon – which is their main focus of course – for you to delve into. This is where the wonder of whisky shows itself – in the sheer amount of choice on offer, which will often translate to different qualities for different palates.

Stuart Wright, Bar Manager at 51% Bourbon, explains why their whisky tasting goes down so well in Leeds, “I want people to enjoy themselves, to be educated and understand that whisky isn’t as pretentious as people think it is. It’s a good fun drink, I just want them to go away happy, and come back again. As long as they go away and they’ve learnt something, they know a bit more about the whisky then I’m happy.”

It’s in this openness, and accessibility, to 51% Bourbon’s whisky tasting sessions that means Leeds folk are not being excluded even if they’re relatively new to it. They cover a range of whiskies, five per session with some rare, and some not so rare as Wright tells us, “They’re all imported in, we get a specialist supplier, you can’t buy most of these in shops, you just wouldn’t be able to find them.”

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That’s reflected in their prices that range from £22 per head, featuring Evan Williams Extra Aged and Pikesville Rye, to £50 per head with the likes of George T Stagg and Woodford Reserve 1838 Sweet Mash. What’s more, you can book it in for when you wish – just ask them at the bar. It takes away the exclusivity you may find in bigger whisky tasting sessions in Leeds, whilst also adding a personal touch that’s been curated to you and your own Bourbon specifications.

The sessions are relatively straightforward with Stuart giving those involved a chance to see the subtle differences each person experiences across each sample. “I talk a little bit about each whisky, and then we’ll try them all,” explains Wright. “I’ll get everyone to smell them and basically tell me what they think. Everyone’s palate and nose is completely different. One person might think it smells like a car tyre and another person might think it smells of roses, and no one is particularly right or wrong. You get the dominant smells in there like oak or burnt sugar, but people smell different things.”

In Leeds, 51% Bourbon is quite possibly the ideal whisky tasting if you’re looking to make your way into discovering a new liquor world. “I think ours is for everybody, from advanced to beginner. You don’t have to know anything about whisky to come over, and you don’t have to feel intimidated that you don’t know anything. They’re light-hearted, they’re fun and people get a lot out of them.”

Whisky Tasting at 51% Bourbon is available at your request.

Yorkshire Fellowship of the Still

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This is no J.R.R. Tolkein masterpiece, as unfortunate as that may seem. The Yorkshire Fellowship of the Still is in fact an order of whisky aficionados whose community club-esque whisky tasting sessions in Leeds have gone down something of a storm.

The fellowship is run by Hugo and Nick, who’ve brought together their own appreciation for whisky, and tied that together with an obvious urge from others to get together and taste and discuss the finer details.

A not-for-profit business, there is a real authenticity to the group that stems from the two minds behind it and their love for a dram or two. That’s the reason why any money made from ticket sales or membership fees, is poured straight back into the glass, and spent on sufficient supplies – what good is a whisky tasting session without, erm, the whisky?

Hugo told us a little bit about the Fellowship, “We are a non-profit club – basically a group of people who just get together,” he explains. “All the money we generate through tastings goes into buying whisky for future events so we aren’t a commercial enterprise, we are just a group where we are not completely focused on money, which might be the case of other people, where they give you a professional type tasting where you are more or less looking to find flavours. There might be this tendency to induce people into ‘oh you need to smell this to taste that’. We are friendlier – it’s a relaxed event, and every time people come they like it.”

It’s that laid back attitude which has seen the Fellowship of the Still become one of the more popular whisky tasting sessions in Leeds, with their events taking place at Lazy Lounge on Wellington Street, the first Monday of the month.

Preview: Whisky Tasting at the Wrens Hotel - CC Image - Paul Joseph

What can people expect from their sessions? Hugo’s effervescent in his passion for what he and Nick do, and their next event explores Leeds’ own fine whisky reputations, with the ‘Leeds Whisky Crawl’, where folk – it’s open to all – will start off at Lazy Lounge on Monday 4th August 2014, before taking on some of the fine establishments in the city, trying out personal choices from each venue. Sounds like the perfect, informal whisky tasting in Leeds, right?

It might sound like an exclusive club, whose whisky tastings are only aimed at those in Leeds who have a deep passion for whisky, but you’ll find yourself quite mistaken, as the whisky crawl itself highlights. Hugo is sure to get across that the Fellowship, whilst membership is offered, is not just for those who know their Scotch from their Bourbon.

“It depends on the level of interest each person has got. If you are into your whisky or any other sort of spirit drink – the more you get into it, the more you want to know different things about it so by supporting,” He told us, “we are giving a different perspective on a drink which is, in a way, so accessible to everybody.”

So what’s their focus? Well, like many of Leeds’ whisky tastings they’re at pains to differentiate their choices from the ones people usually think are renowned whiskies – no JD and Coke here. “We are basically looking at small batch whiskies or new or less well known ones which we think are very good quality and not sort of that expensive to buy. It’s just trying something that might change people’s perspectives on the drink which they might have tried with Coca Cola or something like that.”

The latter point is an important one – Yorkshire Fellowship of the Still isn’t exclusive by any means, it’s here to spread the good word of whisky, with a mixer of expertise and stress-free fun. Sounds like a perfect Monday night (although you might need our hangover cures on Tuesday).

The Yorkshire Fellowship of the Still hold their whisky tasting events at Leeds’ Lazy Lounge on the first Monday of every month.

The Whisky Lounge

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Few have done as much for the rise in popularity of ‘proper whisky’ as The Whisky Lounge. Based in York, this wise-palated group of people are dead set on fulfilling the promise set out within their mission statement.

As Joe Clark, ‘Whisky Preacher’ at The Whisky Lounge told us, “our mission statement is to turn everyone onto whisky.” And who’d argue with such poise and commitment to the cause? Not us, for starters, but there’s more to The Whisky Lounge than merely prophesying the good word of the ‘water of life’. Their events are somewhat notorious for attempting to go further than your usual whisky tasting session, be it in Leeds or elsewhere.

Their enthusiastic and knowledgeable ‘preachers’ educate and entertain within their events, which has gone on to provide the bedrock for The Whisky Lounge’s continual success. It’s something that has gone down particularly well in our city. Leeds, as most folk will know, is fond of its drink, particularly that of a more artisan nature, and few are more skilfully and intricately produced than a fine whisky.

But how do they do it? Clark explained, “We do it through various nice little tasting events that we run around the country. I think without a platform for people to try new stuff these whiskies never reach the spotlight. It’s an expensive drink at the end of the day and people are quite reluctant to shell out £60-70 on a bottle if they haven’t tried it. It’s about getting them across in the right way so they understand them.”

That conscientious approach stems from their ideals as a company – one Joe was eager to point out is that the Whisky Lounge is an independent company, separating it from the occasional pushiness of bars or retailers. The key aspect to it is that attendees and preachers are all coming at it from the same stand point – to delve into the intriguing and tasty world of one of the finest drinks in the world.

“You’re not getting the sales pitch and you’re not getting an overtly brand message,” he points out. “We’re run by enthusiasts. Myself and my boss Eddie do 90% of the tastings we run – because we’re not selling these bottles, we’re there to tell you about them and explore them. I think that makes us quite unique. “

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Their whisky tasting presence in Leeds and Yorkshire as a whole is no rarity.

Their appearance at Beacons Festival in Skipton will no doubt be highly anticipated. Joe looks forward to the event, “We are running a specialised whisky bar in the arts area with around 30-40 different single malts and a few liquors and a few other bits and bobs. We are also running some free tasting workshops as well with whiskies giving numerous people the chance to come along, try some whiskies for free, learn a bit about it in a quick 30 minute tastings.”

A weekend devoted as much to food and drink as it is music and culture, there’ll be thirsty festival revellers queuing up to take advantage of their knowledge (and their drams) in the Into the Woods stage.

Following on from Beacons later on in September is the Yorkshire Whisky Festival, which although is based at York Racecourse is not an event to deprive yourself of, especially with around 150 whiskies on show and tickets just £50 a pair.

Yet, it’s their more frequent events in Leeds, as well as across Yorkshire and the rest of the country, where you get the most out of The Whisky Lounge – a dedicated, knowledgeable group of folk with whisky in their armoury are new friends ready to be made.

The Whisky Lounge runs regular tasting events in Leeds and will be at Beacons Festival and Yorkshire Whisky Show.

Featured image copyright Image Revolution. Whisky Lounge images by Boyd G Photography/