This feature takes a slight twist.. As I have mentioned this series is all about people inside the industry and although my next guest is not directly linked to the industry he and a group of whisky mad colleagues are part of a ” club ” …. a club that many of us know.. ” The Malt Maniacs” , these guys put together a list of top malts every year and we all wait with anticipation as to what will be the top malt.. So as I have been lucky enough to to know one of the maniacs for a number of years I thought I’d try to get him on board to give us an insight to what goes on in his world..
I first met Keith wood on a whisky forum where I found out he was extremely passionate about whisky, more than anyone I knew at that time. The forum was
http://www.whiskywhiskywhisky.com/forum/ and this was several years ago Where he gave me and many others plenty of advice on great whisky and also information related to the industry. He was always the kind of chap that said exactly what he thought. Not only did Keith have a big role on the forum he also runs his very own whisky blog
This blog was always one I turned to for everything whisky related.. I then learned he was one of the malt maniacs, which is when I started to take a little more notice of what they had to say..
As you can imagine Keith is like so many of us in that his passion for whisky takes up a large part of his life do when he agreed to take part in the feature I was pretty happy.. This feature does take a slightly different path in that I asked questions rather than it just being a day in his life as like mentioned this is not a full time job ( although many would disagree there )
so over to Keith..
Q- How long have you been involved with The Malt Maniacs and how did you get involved with them?
Keith .. Hi Sorren, it’s good to catch up with you again after quite some time now and thanks for the invite to contribute to your own blog in this way.
I’ve been involved with The Malt Maniacs for almost 7 years now, since 1st January 2011. The Malt Maniacs was the brainchild of a Dutch chap called Johannes van den Heuvel and he had the foresight to create a mainly online community of what is quite literally a group of whisky-loving maniacs, just as the name suggests. Membership was always (and still is) by invitation although one still has to make themselves known to our collective without being pushy. Unlike today, back in those early internet days of 1997 there wasn’t that much whisky knowledge or experience online so one of the main strengths of The Malt Maniacs was to write articles (called E-Pistles) about whisky, whether scientific, about production or just about enjoying and experiencing it. These E-Pistles were published on the MM website for all to read. Anyone wanting to share their own experiences and wanting at the same time to be introduced to The Maniacs could write their own article(s) as Foreign Correspondents and at the end of each year The Malt Maniac collective would assess the articles and possibly invite the author(s) of the best article(s) to join them. This is basically what I did back in 2010 when I wrote an in-depth article about the sudden changes in EU taxation on alcoholic drinks.
I suddenly began to notice that online shops here in Germany were refusing to post whisky outside of Germany and many UK sellers, especially distillery shops were also refusing to post to mainland Europe, even though we’re all part of one supposedly single market. Yes, I know about Brexit and that will change things again in the coming time, but one fundamental rule of The EU is that of a free or single market. Sadly this isn’t the case with alcohol as there are some crazy laws about VAT & alcohol Duty having to be paid by the seller in the country of the buyer. Yes, you read that correctly. Anyway, I dug deep and the result was my E-Pistle entitled “The EU – A Single Market – can we have one please?” which makes interesting reading and can be found online here;http://www.maltmaniacs.net/E-pistles/Malt-Maniacs-2010-06-EU-whisky-taxes-by-Keith-Wood.pdf
At the end of 2010 Johannes contacted me and asked if I might be interested in joining The Maniacs, the rest as they say, is historyas they say.
Q- What is your role within The Malt Maniacs?
Keith .. It’s not that there are official roles assigned to each of our collective but there are a few duties that need to be overseen, not least of which is our annual ‘MMA’ competition; The Malt Maniacs Awards.
Just after I joined the collective in 2011 the person who had been co-ordinating MMA was too busy with his own (non whisky) business to carry on that year so being new and naive in respect to what would be involved, I volunteered. Oh boy, did I get a shock. I’m sure that as a whisky enthusiast and blogger you’ve done a little sample swapping which means pouring from larger bottles into sample bottles, packing them and posting them out? Perhaps your readers have tried this too?
Well, when speaking about getting hold of the sample bottles (which are ordered new each year) the previous organisor said “you do realise we’re talking about a pallet of glass?” I think this was the first time I began to realise what I’d let myself in for!
We limit the total number of entries to a maximum of 200 bottles but when we have 10-12 or occasionally up to 15 judges we’re talking about 2000-3000 sample bottles to be ordered, delivered and then filled!
Just to give you an idea what this looks like:
We hopefully try to finalise the competition and be able to announce the results on or very close to December 1st, which means if we work backwards in the timescale I have to send out the invitations to participate during late July or early August, so right now as I write this!
The deadline for receiving entries is in late September and that’s also the time we call “filling weekend”. All entries are here, up to 200 of them and a small team of volunteers who are crazy enough to give up their weekend have the marathon task of pouring up to 200 large bottles of whisky into up to 3000 sample bottles which then have to be packed and sent out and yes, I did say within one single weekend.
Q- What is actually involved in your reviews / decision making for the Awards and are the reviews done as a group or individual
Keith .. Great question and one which highlights the essence of MMA as our judges are selected only from the amateur members of The Maniacs although we do have 5 professional members (Charles Maclean, Martine Nouet, Davin De Kergommeaux, Mark Gillespie & Ulf Buxrud) who earn their living from whisky-related business. This means that our judges are based in various countries from here in The EU to America, Canada, India & Asia and bringing them together just to judge is not what we consider best practice, especially as we like to give each judge as much time as possible with each sample.
As I mentioned earlier we can have up to 200 samples and looking at the timeline all the results must be back with us by late November so they really have a tight schedule considering postage times outside the EU for parcels up to 31kg (25-30kg is normal for an MMA parcel) will usually be up to 10 working days for The USA and maybe even double that for India. This will typically leave some of our judges with a mere 4-6 weeks to sample 200 different whiskies and assign their definitive score(s) for which we use the 100 point scale.
I did judge in some of the MMA’s and can assure your readers that sampling 6 drams every single day for 6 weeks in my spare time after work was not the holiday it may seem to some. Often many have be re-tried in a different order to be sure of assigning a definitive score, but I was lucky, I didn’t have to wait for postage and had more time than most of the judges!
So, late November arrives and our judges return their scores (tasting notes are also encouraged but not compulsory) which are entered into one large spreadsheet to work out the average score for each sample across all judges. The entries are then assessed by price category (we have three; daily drams up to €50, Premium up to €150 and Ultra Premium over €150) and the main Award winners are identified as the highest scorers in each category.
It’s also worth pointing out that all samples are sent totally 100% blind to the judges. They have no idea about the contents of each sample bottle, whether strength, distillery, region or even country of origin. All they get are up to 200 individually numbered samples and have to rely on their own senses to determine their scores.
Q- I guess you have a set number of judges, are they the same ones each year and what about back-up ones just in case?
Keith … The optimal number of judges is 10-12 but occasionally we can have up to 15 and although a core of our judges is the same each year, they can vary quite a bit too. When starting the annual organisation of MMA the first thing I have to do is put out a request to our collective for MMA judges. Realistically we need a minimum of 10 judges each year so once it’s clear we have that number things can then really start as I’ll send out the letters of invitation to participate. Last year one of our judges was uncertain whether he’d be able to complete judging due to personal reasons so I organised a back-up just in case. Fortunately the back-up wasn’t needed and that was a one-off situation, not something we’d normally do. We always seem to get some kind of unforeseen problem, perhaps work commitments prevent a judge from completing in time, or as often happens a parcel delivery can be delayed or even temporarily lost which will drastically cut down the time left for that judge to get through his reviews. In these cases we have to make the decision whether to extend the deadline for results or in drastic cases just run without his scores. This is why we insist on a minimum of 10 judges and preferably 11 or 12 so that resilience is already built in.
Q- So what size sample is given to each judge and do they actually drink them?
Keith … Firstly we ask that each entry is at least 70cl and each judge is given the choice of receiving a set of 3cl or 6cl samples. It may seem like a no-brainer that all will ask for 6cl but they each have to consider postage weight restrictions, import duty and cost. Did I mention that each judge personally pays the cost of the sample bottles and postage? Krishna, our India-based MM has the biggest problem in that parcels to India can not weigh more than 20kg which just about covers a parcel of up to 200 samples of 3cl, but he likes to have 6cl which means I have to share the samples across two parcels as these would weigh close to 30kg. In turn it means he generally has the largest postage cost at somewhere around €300. Some judges do prefer the smaller 3cl option, especially when it comes to import restrictions on alcohol.
I know from experience with MMA judging that 6cl is nice to have, but 3cl is enough to sample a whisky twice and come to a definitive score for it.
As for whether they drink them, I guess you’re referrring to the swallow or spit question? Again we have no actual rules on this and it’s a judges’ own preference as to which he goes with. I’ve tried both methods whilst judging MMA and I’m sure that my scores didn’t differ or suffer between the two methods. Remember, we’re talking of having to sample 200 whiskies over only 4-6 weeks and directly before the Festive season too.
As I mentioned earlier; many of your readers will have enjoyed some sample swapping (if not, then try it as it’s a great way to share whisky and at the same time broaden your experience with new distilleries and expressions), so let me quickly throw some numbers at you which show just what MMA 2015 meant for me; a total of almost 3000 sample bottles were filled by two people in two days, packed into 300kg worth of parcels which together cost over €1300 to post to destinations on 4 continents. Oh, don’t forget the cost of the (new) sample bottles too at €1100.
If your readers would like a deeper insight to MMA 2015 here’s a link to my post-MMA report which highlights the highs and lows of running such a competitionhttp://www.maltmaniacs.net/MMA/MMA%202015_Gathering_of_the_Drams.pdf
Q- Quite a few people know one or more of The MMs but has, or was it ever considered to keep it all secret and keep the group more mysterious?
Keith … A secret society? No not at all. It’s a group of like-minded whisky-loving people across the planet who appreciate a good dram and in their own ways spread the word to others either through their own blogs, reviews and scores on our MM online database “The Whisky Monitor”http://www.whisky-monitor.com/home.jsp or via our Malt Maniacs and Friends facebook page.
Q- How do you prepare for a typical tasting session, any special preparation or routine?
Keith … I’ll answer this one in a context that your readers will associate with, so private rather than in an MMA judging context: No not really routines or special preparations although I do like to ensure I have a clear palate if it’s to be an actual tasting session when I’m looking to write some notes or assign scores. Generally this means no oily or Garlic-y or too spicy food and have some bread to hand for between drams too.
Sadly I don’t have the time I’d like to update my own website at the moment and have a massive backlog of a few hundred notes to add to the 1250-ish currently online, but I still like to add to that backlog occasionally. Maybe one day I’ll get the time again. I’m lucky to have a great little den or what many refer to these days as a man cave where I do most of my tasting. I’ll sit in my favourite corner with the drams to be sampled, a glass of water for the palate and yes, I even have a pipette to hand so I can try each whisky (or whiskey) with and without a few drops of water. Music is good too, usually something classical or perhaps Gaelic (think along the lines of Clannad, Enja .etc) or perhaps blues or jazz, but that’s just my own preference, anything to get you into a relaxed and pensive mood is good.
Remember, whisky is to be enjoyed and savoured and when possible shared, so invite a couple of friends along too.
Speaking of my Den, here’s my MMA archive with 5 years of entries and almost 2000 sampleS
Then as for my desk itself, well, it usually looks something like this and yes, that is a miniature working still on there
My thanks were sent to Keith for taking the time to answer the questions, I am sure you will all agree this was a very interesting insight into the malt maniacs and into the life of Keith Wood, and the professionalism of the guy even replied to my thanks with ..
“My pleasure, but not quite “a day in the life of..” as that would have been far too boring. Good luck with your blog.”
Keith your a superstar and I hope you know it.. Thanks Sorren