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The young man's guide to whisky

WHEN it comes to whisky, achieving mastery in discerning the various complex flavors in a fine dram is a field usually dominated by elder statesmen rather than young aspiring connoisseurs.

But at just 25 years old, Stephen Notman is fast establishing himself as an expert in Asia on whisky, having launched the region's first festivals dedicated to appreciating both single malt and the blended varieties.

"I am probably 15 years younger than most other whisky writers or those held in high regard in the industry," he says. "It is sometimes funny tasting a whisky that is older than I am."

Notman arrived in Shanghai two years ago and last year launched the Chinese arm of Whisky Live, a global brand of whisky festivals that holds events in 16 countries.

Held at the Shanghai Exhibition Center, the event proved a smash hit, attracting more than 8,000 people.

Notman expanded the franchise to Taiwan and has plans to take it to Malaysia and later to Hong Kong.

"We thought, 'hey we will give it a go, if we get 350 people, well we could say we gave it a try'," he says. "I had never really done anything like organize a major event so it was an amazing feeling to get 8,000 people."

Despite being in just its first year, Shanghai's Whisky Live event was the third biggest in the world and the inaugural event in Taiwan attracted more than 9,000 people, making it the second biggest event of its type.

Whisky Live will hold its second event in Shanghai on May 21-22 and it will have a range of new exhibits and activities, including giving people a chance to blend their own whisky.

The festival will also provide a range of introductory educational sessions on single malts, providing information on the different regions and the respective characteristics of whiskies from these different areas.

There will also be three brands that will launched for the first time in China and a mix-off among the four best bartenders in Shanghai to find the best cocktail using whisky.

Festival-goers will be able to rub shoulders with master blenders and distillers, brand ambassadors and other whisky enthusiasts as well as taste some of the world's finest and rarest whiskies.

If one runs into Notman, it is not unusual to find him clad in his kilt, bearing the colors of his mother's side of the family, the McLoughlin clan from the northern Irish county of Antrim.

He dons the kilt for the whisky education classes he runs throughout Shanghai and other parts of the country and which he will roll out in the UK Pavilion during the upcoming World Expo 2010.

It will form part of Notman's role as an ambassador for "The Taste of Scotland" trade promotions and education he conducts around China.

"Education is even more important over here, and there is more to whisky than adding green tea to it. I want to highlight that there is more to whisky than the age and color or darkness of the whisky," he says.

Whisky accounts for approximately 25 percent of Scotland's exports, and Notman visits golf clubs around China holding events covering whisky appreciation and also promoting tourism, golf and the Scottish culture.

Notman grew up in Mansfield in Nottinghamshire, close to the famed Sherwood Forest.

His father ran a packaging company for some of the major whisky producers and shared his appreciation of fine single malt whisky with his son.

"It started as an interest and a bit of a hobby that has later become a career," he says.

After graduating with a degree in political science from Hull University, Notman went into the packaging industry.

It was while working with Whyte and Mackay, one of the world's biggest whisky blenders, that he gained a deeper knowledge of whisky.

"Whyte and Mackay's master blender Richard Paterson basically took me under his wing," he says. "He showed me how to nose whisky because as a blender you may need to blend up to 50 different types of whisky to get the right characteristics and complexities, so it puts a lot of emphasis on the nose."

Developing a so-called "nose" for whisky allows the drinker to identify certain notes of a whisky like smoky or floral characteristics that can identify where and how a whisky has been made.

Notman says it took him up to two years to begin developing a nose for whisky.

"It is like training, it's like going to gym every day, if you are tasting a variety of whiskies, you will start to pick up subtle flavors, and it took me at least three years to get where I am now," he says.

Not only is he developing his nose and palate, but Notman is also working on his prose and is writing a book matching whisky with China's rich and varied culinary culture.

The book will attempt to match whiskies to famous Chinese dishes and various regional cuisines.

He is also researching matching China's wide variety of quality teas with particular whiskies and whisky-producing regions.

It is a departure from normal whisky pairings that attempt to match the complex flavors of a single malt to types of cigars or chocolates, truffles or cheese.

For Notman it is just another way of making single malt whisky accessible to Chinese palates.

For more information on Whisky Live, check or call 6438-5820.

Stephen Notman

Nationality: British

Age: 25

Profession: Owner of Whisky Live Shanghai & Taipei, educator, drinks writer


Self-description: Creative, energetic, tenacious.

Favorite place: 789 Nanjing Lu Bar & Lounge at the Le Royal Meridien Shanghai hotel, with a fantastic view of the city at night. Great place to enjoy a gin and tonic and to sit back and relax.

Strangest thing seen in Shanghai: Three people on a scooter holding a toilet basin above their heads.

Worst experience: Sitting in the back of a cab behind the driver with the window open and getting covered with the driver's saliva.

Motto for life: Do as you would be done by.

How to improve Shanghai: Recognizing zebra crossings; motorized bikes observing red lights.

Advice to newcomers: Don't sit in a cab behind a taxi driver with the window open!


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