Michael Jackson's whisky masterclass
Students are famously enthusiastic about boozing, but how much do they know about the merits of fine drinks? Aren't their tipples dictated by their budget? Will many, for example, pour a single malt Scotch tomorrow to celebrateRobert Burns?

Yes, I am assured by my adviser on student matters, Ed Ibbetsen. Mind you, he has the double advantages of having been born in Scotland and of studying there. Ibbetsen, from Dunkeld, near Perth, is reading geography at Aberdeen University. Despite his associations with the east, he favours a West Highland malt - the salty, appetising Oban. Don't such extravagant tastes cause problems in the student bar? "No, all my mates drink Oban," he assures me.

Among students who enjoy whisky, Ibbetsen is one of Britain's top tasters, and I recently saw him in competition with some of his peers.

Perhaps Scottish names help. Contestant Colin McAdam is reading English at Caius College, Cambridge, but recently switched from Irish whiskey (with an "e") to Scotch whisky (without). McAdam, from Toronto, was offered a glass of the honeyish Balvenie during a visit to Scotland, and has been experimenting with malts ever since.

Neil Mothew is studying electrical engineering at Imperial College and lives nearby in Kensington. He is a devotee of the seaweedy Islay malts.

Katie Drummond, whose great-grandfather came from Islay, is studying Latin poetry at Christ Church, Oxford. She has graduated to cask-strength Caol Ila, and will be swooshing its oily flavours on to her haggis tomorrow.

Christine Kay gained a doctorate in biochemistry and immunology at Bath, and is now doing research there into heart diseases. Her first encounter with malt whisky was with Knockando: "Flowery, fruity - coconut!" Then she plunged into a Lagavulin. "Wow! What flavour!! Hospitals!!!" she recalls enthusiastically, the last comment no doubt referring to the iodine note in Lagavulin.

Five hundred students in university wine or whisky clubs entered the most recent annual Malt Competition, organised by the producers of the Classic Malts range: Glenkinchie, Dalwhinnie, Cragganmore, Oban, Talisker and Lagavulin. The five finalists, who had all won regional contests, were flown to Edinburgh to face the ultimate test. I was to judge their efforts.

We stayed at an inn near the Lammermuir Hills, and much practice drinking ensued. Dawn seemed scarcely to have broken when we were off to tour the Glenkinchie distillery, the only one I know with its own bowling green. We followed the malted barley from its infusion in the waters of the Kinchie burn to distillation in copper stills.

Having absorbed all they could, the five students were seated round a table in the manager's office, watched over by a stern portrait of Earl Haig, who once held the licence for the distillery.

The students were confronted by papers setting out a dozen questions, several concerning the procedures and equipment at Glenkinchie, others testing general knowledge of whisky. Typical questions in the latter category: which are the principal types of Scotch whisky? (answer: malt, grain and blend); at what age does the spirit legally become whisky? (three years); how much whisky is typically lost by evaporation during ageing? (2 per cent per year).

Each student was also required to guess the ages of two whiskies, as well as the type of casks used in maturation, and write a tasting note for a third, unidentified, example.

Ibbetsen hit the younger malt right on the nose: eight years. McAdam correctly identified the older malt as having been aged in sherry wood. Drummond offered a detailed tasting note on the mystery malt, pronouncing that the water had flowed over peat, the aroma suggested cigarette smoke, and the palate burnt sugar. Kay thought its grassy aroma conjured reveries of hay-making.

With the best score on the factual questions and a high rating for her tasting notes, Christine Kay squeaked home in a close-run contest. The prize was the traditional vessel from which to drink Scotch - a silver quaich - and pounds 500, which she plans to spend on a whisky tour of the Highlands.

What about the notion that whisky is a male taste? "At college, there are no barriers between male and female," she explains, elliptically

Out of the woods

Glenkinchie usually has the grassy sweetness typical in a Lowlander, with a spicier, finish. A new range called Distiller's Editions offers a version finished in Amontillado sherry casks. The contrast between sweetness and dryness is heightened, as though crystal sugar suddenly gave way to oak. A lovely, soothing malt. A similar interplay characterises the five further Distiller's Editions: a Dalwhinnie finished in Oloroso sherry, with the peatiness becoming rooty and licorice-like; a Cragganmore in ruby port, with a cherryish fruitiness counterpointing the usual herbal notes; an Oban in Manzanilla, with flowery sweetness accentuating the contrasting peat and salt; a Talisker, setting the typical pepper against nutty Amoroso; and a more rounded Lagavulin in Pedro Ximinez.

Distiller's Editions are currently available only in duty-free shops, at pounds 32-pounds 35 per litre, but will shortly be in wine merchants.