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And 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. Not only does it include our Standard 1-Hour Tour experience, but also a 30-minute whisky tasting led by local whisky ambassador, Kenneth (‘Ken’) Hanley.
This May, we were very pleased to be able to feature Ken in the promotion for the event! He has collaborated with us for a number of years now. Whilst last visiting us, we asked him to tell us more about his introduction to whisky tasting. Also, how he developed a passion for sharing the stories of its peculiar social history.
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 especially 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”.
For instance, 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. 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. Another reason is 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, as he’s lived in the area his whole life. He explains that there are strong connections between Mary King’s Close and the history of “uisge beath”, or “water of life”. It was first described as such in a Scottish tax record in 1494.
“You’ve got to remember that water was a commodity”, he says. Due to there being no sewage system or fresh water in the city centre, the people of Edinburgh used to chuck their waste outside the window. Moreover, they relied upon drinking ale or whisky. Unlike today, spirits were typically distilled illicitly owing to high taxes being introduced to the sale of Scotch from 1644.
Altogether then, the more you learn about Mary King’s Close, the more it 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. For example, 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.