Which means that there’s still time to catch our ‘A Dram of History’ Tour. The experience is one of our most popular events at The Real Mary King’s Close. Comprising our Standard 1-Hour Tour with a 30-minute whisky tasting, the knowledge of our guides is ‘blended’ with an insightful presentation by local whisky ambassador, Kenneth (‘Ken’) Hanley.
This May, we were very pleased to be able to feature Ken, who we’ve collaborated with for a number of years now, in the promotion for the event! While last visiting us, he told us a little more about his introduction to whisky tasting and how he developed a passion for sharing the stories of its peculiar social history.
Read below to find out more about Ken and how he came to start helping others discover the origins of “uisge beath” as an official whisky ambassador.
How did you become interested in leading whisky tastings?
For Ken, it all started with visiting distilleries to buy whisky for himself. The location of these distilleries played a huge part in his growing interest. “Nowadays, it’s all open warehouses that you see”, he explained. “But back then, it was more secretive. Closed door. The novelty and secrecy was a draw”.
He recalls chuckling at seeing, “shh, whisky sleeping!” signs pinned on the warehouse doors. As a Tour Guide, Ken is automatically drawn to stories that reveal the quirks of everyday life in Scotland and its social history, so what better way to explore that than through the process of whisky making?
What do you enjoy about leading whisky tastings?
Aside to taste, Ken says he enjoys the strangely amusing anecdotes that make up the culture of whisky. The one that springs to mind is a distillery cat that was commemorated by the Queen for catching 20,000 mice! Secondly, the fact that the product and process is so natural.
“2% evaporation is lost from every cask, which is known as ‘the angel’s share’. You can tell when the angel’s share is coming out, because it blackens the surrounding trees – but this is all very good for the environment”. The surrounding area “inhales” these pure, natural fumes.
“You find the most beautiful angels in Scotland!”, Ken is pleased to say. “That’s all to do with… the water”.
When asked what surprises people most during his dram tastings, Ken is quick to answer that it’s the fact that whisky is only made up of two ingredients: water and barley.
“Mary King’s Close grows on you, history grows on you and whisky grows on you…”
As for Ken’s association with The Real Mary King’s Close, he has a deep fondness for the site given that he’s lived in the area his whole life. He explains that there are strong connections between Mary King’s Close, which once bustled with traders in the heart of Edinburgh, and the history of “uisge beath”, or “water of life”, which was first mentioned in a Scottish tax record in 1494.
“You’ve got to remember that water was a commodity”, he says. With no sewage system or fresh water being piped into the city centre, the people of Edinburgh used to chuck their waste outside the window with a cry of “Gardyloo!”. They also relied upon drinking ale or whisky, which was typically distilled illicitly owing to high taxes being introduced to the sale of Scotch from 1644.
The more you learn, the more “Mary King’s Close grows on you”, he says. Just as “history grows on you and whisky grows on you!”
And finally… what’s your favourite whisky?
“It changes with the seasons!”, reveals Ken. In winter, he enjoys anything from the West Coast of Scotland to the islands – peaty whiskies that give you a warm glow inside. However, he’s currently enjoying fruitier, sherry-aged spirits as the weather gets warmer and brighter outside.