Good Spirits!

Andrew Ferguson is a Scotch Whisky Expert and co-manager of the Kensington Wine Market in Calgary, Alberta. He was the first Canadian retail whisky expert to be made a Keeper of the Quaich, and one of only a few Canadians who have been so honoured by the Scotch Whisky Industry. He also runs a whisky tourism business called Ferguson’s Whisky Tours which takes people on week-long premium whisky tours in Scotland.

What is your own heritage/ethnic background?
I am Canadian as are both my parents, and can trace my roots back to Scotland and Northern Ireland. On my father’s side, my grandfather was born near Derrygonelly, County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland in 1898. He immigrated to Canada in the early 1920’s to teach classics at the University of Saskatchewan. The Ferguson Clan has a strong presence in Northern Ireland, especially in County Fermanagh and in and around the town of Enniskillen. One of my father’s cousins has meticulously traced the family tree back for centuries. It is likely that our forbearers emigrated from Scotland to Northern Ireland in the 1600’s. On my mother’s side I am Clan Gunn, which is a fierce clan from the Northern Highlands of Scotland. She was born in New Glasgow Nova Scotia and our family’s roots there go back at least 200 years.

When did you develop your passion for Scotch Malt Whisky?
I first developed a taste for it in University. After school, while working part time at the Kensington Wine Market my interest in it took on a life of its own. The process was organic, and seemingly directed itself. I’m sure my heritage played a role in the process, but this is not something I ever even considered as a career for myself. Life as they say happens while you are making other plans, and fortunately, I really enjoy what I do. And my passion has grown with my career which has been really rewarding.

How and when did you get involved with The Scotch Malt Whisky Society?
I was introduced to the Scotch Malt Whisky Society by Rob and Kelly Carpenter, who are the owners and operators of the Canadian Arm of the Society. I met them through my work here at the Kensington Wine Market and the tastings I conduct. We became good friends and from time to time they would bring me back Society bottlings from Scotland. In 2008 I took my first group on a distilleries tour in Scotland, and Rob and Kelly were among the participants. They suggested I include a dinner at one of the Society’s Edinburgh venues, and I’ve been a member ever since. When Rob and Kelly began lobbying for a Canadian franchise for the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, we were a big part of their proposal.

What is your role there today?
Kensington Wine Market is the Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s Canadian Home. We sell memberships and Society bottlings to members. We also help organize and conduct Society tastings. My role in Canada for the Society is as an Ambassador for the brand. This has become an important part of my job as the Scotch Whisky Expert at Kensington Wine Market. I am the day to day face of the Society, the person who can answer questions about products and memberships. Rob and Kelly are still heavily involved and running the show on the macro level, but much of the day to day is conducted here at the store. -What is the organization’s core mandate?The Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s mandate is to bottle good and interesting whiskies (mostly single malts, with some other whiskies and occasionally other spirits) for its members. To this end it bottles some 300 casks a year which are sold through branches in 18 countries. At last count the Society has some 26,000 members around the world, and branches in 18 countries. The casks are meticulously chosen by tasting panels consisting of industry professionals and respected whisky enthusiasts, and the bar is set very high. I’ve had the privilege to sit on one of these panels, and have seen how exacting their standards are.

Who are your members?
Our members come from all walks of life, professions and income brackets. There is a membership fee to join the Society and maintain your membership, but it is very reasonable, and there are many perks: New Members Kit, Monthly Tastings, the quarterly Unfiltered Magazine and monthly releases of 7-10 new whiskies. The memberships and whiskies have been a huge hit, in 6 months in Canada we already attracted more than 200 members and sold out of nearly all of the 70 whiskies we’ve released (at last count there were only 5-6 in stock).

What kinds of events do you host?
We host Society First Friday tastings, on the first Friday of every month to announce and taste the latest Scotch Malt Whisky Society Canada releases. I also conduct a variety of whisky tastings and events both in store and privately. We pride ourselves at Kensington Wine Market for having not just the largest selection of single malt Scotch whisky in Canada, but the best selection. Every month there is something new and interesting, and many of our events are built around that. We offer beginner, intermediate and advanced whisky tastings at a range of prices, ladies only whisky tastings, whisky festivals and high end tastings of very rare and often expensive whiskies. Most of our competitors rely on brand representatives to come in and conduct tastings focused on their brands. I conduct 95% of my own tastings, which gives me the flexibility to pour what I want, and offer a broader range of brands, flavour profiles and in general experience. In addition I also organize and guide small group premium whisky tours in Scotland. (old site, the new one is under construction).

What makes a good Scotch Malt Whisky?
What makes a good Scotch whisky is in the eye of the beholder, at the end of the day most of it comes down to taste and personal preferences. My job is to recognize good Scotch whiskies from across the spectrum and help customers find something they like. The range of flavours in Scotch whisky dwarfs those of almost every other spirit category including beer and wine. Individuals will often have preferences based on a relatively narrow range. Whisky is a little like music in that there are some people who can appreciate all of it, but most people have relatively narrow preferences. I love the opportunity to try and stretch and grow their tastes. More generically, a good whisky should have a pleasant nose (scent), palate (tastes), body (feel) and finish. 

What are your thoughts on the state of Celtic Culture in Canada today?
I can’t speak to Canada as well as I can to my home here in Calgary. Calgary is a city with strong Celtic roots; it was established by a Scott and named after his childhood summer home on the island of Mull. Many of the towns surrounding Calgary are named after Scottish towns too: Airdrie, Banff and Strathmore to name just a few. Many Calgarians espouse Scottish heritage and are very proud of it. There is a local Celtic radio show, many Burns Suppers, Highland Dancing clubs, Pipe Bands, Highland Games in Calgary and surrounding towns and several shops selling Celtic garb and attire. I have the feeling that it is quite strong considering the multicultural society that Canada is and tendency for people to blend in.

What’s on-tap for you, and the organization, for 2012?
With respect to the Scotch Malt Whisky Society we are looking to continue growing the brand in Canada, especially into Edmonton and Northern Alberta. With respect to Kensington Wine Market, we will continue to strive to be Canada’s best whisky store, offering the best selection, most interesting tastings and knowledgeable service. And on a personal level, I will be conducting week long small group whisky tours in Scotland in May and September.