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This article was published 15/11/2019 (271 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It’s a few minutes past 7 p.m. on the last Wednesday of the month and Mark Kaufmann, president and founder of the Winnipeg Whisky Club, a nine-month-old organization devoted to discovering and enjoying whiskies from all over the world, has just called tonight’s meeting to order.
Standing behind a table laden with the evening’s selections, 10 in all, Kaufmann lets those in the room know that this month’s dues, which ordinarily help pay for the spirits they’ll be sampling, are instead being donated to a charity called Drams for Fams, with proceeds going to the Children’s Hospital Foundation of Manitoba. Also, if anyone’s interested, there is now a line of Winnipeg Whisky Club swag available for purchase, including T-shirts, hoodies and ballcaps emblazoned with the group’s official logo, an image of a Glencairn whisky glass inside an outline of the city limits.
Next, after reminding everybody that there won’t be a meet-up in December due to Christmas falling on a Wednesday this year — "Humbug to that," murmurs somebody in the back — Kaufmann reviews how tonight’s proceedings will unfold. Every 30 minutes or so, members can approach the head table and choose the libation they’d like to taste next. They are welcome to try six of the 10 which, on this occasion, include a Knob Creek 120 Proof bourbon, a 10-year-old Ledaig and a Shinobu Mizunara Oak.
He and his associate James will handle the pouring, a little less than an ounce each, after which folks will be encouraged to sniff their choice and take a very small sip, "as if it was medicine that didn’t taste good," he instructs, before sharing their opinion about characteristics such as body and complexity, before moving on to whisky — or whiskey, if it’s made in Ireland or the U.S. — No. 2.
"If there aren’t any other questions, then... cheers," he says, raising his glass aloft.
It’s called the Winnipeg Whisky Club. That’s true, but the group, currently sitting at close to 30 members, traces its roots to Seoul. That’s where Kaufmann, a married father of three, lived for 13 years before moving back to Winnipeg in June 2018.
"I was 13 years old during the Seoul (Summer) Olympics, the first year taekwondo was an Olympic (demonstration) sport," he says, seated in a downtown coffee shop, not far from where he works as a commercial real estate agent. "That had a huge influence on me. I ended up taking taekwondo for a few years and, as far back as then, began thinking how great it would be to visit South Korea one day."
In 2005, Kaufmann, a University of Manitoba alumnus, was working in the fashion industry. He was being groomed as a regional director for a luxury men’s wear store when he decided the busiest time of year in the clothing biz, November to January, was precisely the time of year when he’d rather be travelling the globe, versus travelling from store to store. Kaufmann, 44, caught the tourism bug in his mid-20s when, as a professional cyclist, he competed in races all over the world.
Originally, he figured he’d live abroad for a year, two tops. But after falling in love first with South Korea’s language and culture, and then a woman — he and his wife Eunhye were married in 2009 — he put down roots, catching on at Sejong University, where he taught English as a second language.
Kaufmann had never been much for beer. In his late teens, when he and his pals headed to pubs such as Toad in the Hole or the King’s Head, he almost always opted for a single-malt scotch whisky such as Laphroaig, he says. So in 2010, to toast his 35th birthday, which coincided with his first wedding anniversary, he picked up a "nice bottle" of Glenmorangie, a single-malt whisky produced in the Scottish Highlands.
"I was beside myself with how amazing it tasted and, for the next three years, I went through the entire (Glenmorangie) line," he says. "I even got my dad, a cognac lover, and my mom, typically a wine drinker, to fall in love with it, too."
In 2015, by which time Kaufmann had learned about "this, that and the other" by taking courses offered by industry heavyweights Glenfiddich and Glenlivet, he started a YouTube channel, WhiskyWhistle, where he would spend each lighthearted episode discussing his "whisky journey," while showing off his uh... rye sense of humour.
In January 2018, when he was in Winnipeg visiting his parents, he hooked up with a couple of pals from his university days for "a few drams." As the evening wore on, Kaufmann, who had by then begun making plans to return to Winnipeg permanently, raised the idea of a locally based whisky club, mentioning that a whisky-centric Facebook group he belonged to once posted a map of where people in the forum lived, and that a fair number were from the Peg.
"They agreed with me about starting a club and this past February, fknowing that the Winnipeg Whisky Festival was right around the corner, I created a website and logo," he says. "I went to the festival (March 1-2) as an attendee, where I spent my time spreading word of our intentions with industry reps and pretty much anybody else I bumped into."
The first Winnipeg Whisky Club meeting was held March 27 at Kaufmann’s home in St. Vital. Seven people showed up, including one who’d been a fan of Kaufmann’s YouTube videos for years, but had never met him in person. Since then, growth has been steady, averaging two to three new members each month, ranging in age from 21 to 60.
From Day 1, the Winnipeg Whisky Club has been 100 per cent about education, not inebriation, Kaufmann stresses.
"I’m familiar with clubs in other cities that will drink exceptional-quality whisky, scotch or bourbon to the point where people wouldn’t even be enjoying what they’re trying, never mind operating a vehicle, if that’s how they got to the meeting in the first place," he points out. "That’s not us at all. Because it’s a complicated beverage, whisky is meant to be savoured. The entire purpose (of the club) is to try new things and hopefully broaden your horizons a bit the next time you visit a liquor store."
Tonight’s meeting marks the second time Carla King has attended a Winnipeg Whisky Club get-together. The only woman in the room, King knows of what she sips. A few years ago, she and a friend spent 10 days in Scotland, visiting distillery after distillery.
"It’s nice, because at the first meeting I attended, we were sampling one of my favourites from my trip, Bruichladdich, and I was able to share what I know," King says, remarking that she finds her first choice of the evening, a 27-year-old Balblaire, to be "light and fruity." (Sniffing the same whisky, Kaufmann comments it has notes of walnut and "something... kind of leathery, like a baseball glove.")
King, there on her own, says the club is a perfect fit for her because she’s an extrovert and doesn’t mind the fact she didn’t know anybody else when she joined. And she "really, really" enjoys whisky.
"It’s definitely a passion of mine, but what’s extra great about the club is getting the chance to try some of the more expensive whiskies without this big cash outlay," she says.
"At my first meeting there were a couple (whiskies) I didn’t like, necessarily, but rather than be disappointed, I was like, ‘Whew, I’m so glad I didn’t drop $200 or $300 on a bottle of whatever that was.’"
Stephan Possin is the general manager of Langside Grocery, a 30-seat restaurant-bar located at 164 Langside St. He learned about the Winnipeg Whisky Club through Facebook and attended his first meeting in April.
"As the manager of a cocktail bar, I felt it was important to increase my knowledge of whisky," Possin says, noting he had a little bit of experience with whisky when he joined the club.
"To be completely honest, my first time here I was a little leery, afraid it was going to be this roomful of pretentious whisky drinkers, which was the exact opposite of what it turned out to be. Everybody was super nice, very open and accepting, and everybody encouraged me to share whatever it was that came to mind about what I was trying."
By the way, after taking a quick glance around the room, we couldn’t help but notice a lack of cola and ice, in case anybody was in the mood for a good, old-fashioned, Manitoba wedding social staple.
"No, rye and Coke is not something we do here," Kaufmann says with a chuckle, "though if somebody was to offer me one in a pinch, I definitely wouldn’t say no."
To learn more about the Winnipeg Whisky Club, click here.
There are two events planned this month — Nov. 20 and 27 — first-timers are always welcome, Kaufmann says.
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.
Updated on Saturday, November 16, 2019 at 9:05 AM CST: Fixes typo.
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