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Is your virtual whisky or cheese tour missing an ingredient? Try one with samples.

Participants raise a glass (or mug) of tea during a virtual tasting led by Savvy Tea Gourmet, a tea shop in Madison, Conn. (Phil Parda)
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correction

An earlier version of this article misidentified a cheese featured in a tasting held by New York City’s Murray’s Cheese. Because of a substitution in products sent to participants, the writer was tasting a Cabot clothbound cheddar from Vermont while the instructor was describing a clothbound cheddar from England.The story has been updated.

On a Wednesday evening in November, Robbie Wroblewski led a virtual tour of Seed & Smith, a marijuana dispensary in Colorado. The thickly bearded employee moved from room to room, explaining how a seed becomes a smokable substance. At one point, a jungle of cannabis plants consumed my computer screen, a tease to the senses.

When I took a marijuana tour in the First Recreational Weed State years ago, every dispensary stop included a visit to the retail shop. To better understand the creative process, it always helps to taste the goods, whether the widgets are foodstuffs, beverages or decriminalized drugs. Unfortunately, the pandemic has forced businesses to move their tours online and split off the sampling portion of the experience. Now, instead of experimenting on-site, participants receive the products along with the Zoom link. (Caveat: The edibles must abide by federal and interstate laws. Even if Seed & Smith wanted to send us an eighth of Meat Breath, it couldn’t.)

“Covid-19 forced me to convert our tea education program to an online platform,” said Phil Parda, who hosts tea tastings through his Connecticut shop, Savvy Tea Gourmet. “The tastings now have become even more interactive than the tastings we were doing in-person, so the learning experience is more hands-on and direct.”

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After the dispensary tour, I set off on an odyssey of tours with samples. I found a number of options in various food and beverage categories, including wine, whiskey, tea, coffee, cheese, chocolate and olive oil. However, planning was more challenging than simply booking and showing up. The biggest obstacle: making sure I received the goods before the event, a gamble these days.

“Since we ship cheese and accoutrements to the participants before class, we rely heavily on our shipping partner to deliver the box on time,” said Alexandra Horne, senior manager of events at Murray’s Cheese in New York City, which holds private and public cheese tastings. “Naturally, there can sometimes be delivery delays that are out of our hands.”

By some pre-Christmas miracle, the precious cargo from Murray’s arrived two days before the Dec. 17 event, even as a winter storm was brewing. (To minimize the risk, the fromagerie closes reservations six days before the event.) However, the whisky from Isle of Raasay Distillery in Scotland showed up several days after the Dec. 29 class; the distillery rescheduled my tasting for the next date, nearly a month later. For the Savvy Tea tasting, I avoided the gummy Postal Service by picking up the loose-leaf tea directly from the store. (I was in the neighborhood.) However, on the morning of Scrooge’s Tea Party, Phil sent us an email that opened with “I am bummed-out!” He explained that only eight out of 36 people had received their packets and that he would have to postpone. By the time we finally sat down with our cups of holiday-themed teas, Mr. Scrooge had retired for the season.

Once I had all of my samples, the rest of the journey was hiccup-free. The Zoom links worked, as did all five of my senses. The companies I tried out (see below) plan to continue their virtual tastings after the pandemic. This means that if I can’t attend their tour in, say, San Francisco, NYC or Scotland, I can still eat and drink as if I had.

Cheese from New York

Murray’s Cheese, the venerable Manhattan cheese shop, started offering virtual tastings in March. In addition to private sessions (minimum 10 people), the store holds six public events a week for about 400 people. I chose the two-hour Virtual Wine and Cheese Pairing ($75), which came with six quarter-pound samples. Drinks are BYOW, unless you live in New York.

Our instructor, Michele, was the only person on screen, so I wasn’t distracted by the faces — or cheese boards — of the other 81 participants. We started with a goat cheese from Vermont Creamery, which she credited as one of the first businesses to help the domestic cheese market break away from the processed pack.

While we sniffed and chewed, Michele discussed the anatomy of cheese and the alchemy of carbonation and fats. “They are best friends, like champagne and fried chicken,” she said. The second cheese, a Fromager d’Allinois from France, sparked a discussion about rinds (ingest or discard?) and mold. “Spoiler alert: You’re going to eat six pieces of mold.” The Cabot clothbound cheddar from Vermont shattered my assumptions about the apple pie topper. The English-style cheddar was crumbly, not Wisconsin smooth. “The U.K. invented cheddar in Cheddar,” she said. “Very original.”

The Alp blossom was my favorite, because of its transportive powers. The rind, which was bedazzled with dried herbs and florals plucked from the mountainside, sent me on a magic carpet ride to an alpine meadow in Austria.

We shifted into a sweeter and nuttier gear with the Ewephoria sheep Gouda from England — the “kettlecorn of cheese” — and closed with the divisive Point Reyes bay blue from Northern California. “We have four loves and one yuck,” Michele said, reading the reviews on the chat board. After we had tasted all six cheeses and downed the companion wines of our choosing (but with Murrray’s guidance), Michele opened the channel for questions. Someone asked for fondue bar suggestions in New York City. “There aren’t any, unless you want to sit outside in the snow with a pot of fondue,” she said, “which sounds amazing right now.”

Chocolate from California

Before the pandemic, Dandelion Chocolate was a veritable Chocolate U, with classes on tasting, sourcing and making, plus factory tours. The company started by two Stanford grads in their friend’s garage had been planning online courses for the fall but fast-tracked the project when the novel coronavirus hit. Since April, the San Francisco company has been holding three to eight classes a day six days a week. I signed up for Online 103: Tasting, which cost $70 for five bars and was more 101 than AP level.

The package arrived without drama, the dark chocolate bars fully intact. The box included educational materials, including tips on creating an optimum tasting environment. I found a “quiet space” — a friend’s garden — with minimal distractions. However, we ignored the recommendation for a palate-cleansing glass of room temperature water and boiled a pot of tea to reduce the sting of sitting outdoors for an hour.

We peeled back the thick, creamy wrapper on the bar from Tumaco, Colombia, one of four samples made with 70 percent cacao and 30 percent Brazilian cane sugar. The brittle square snapped like a twig between my teeth. Robert, our chocolate educator, provided us with the tools to describe the chocolate, based on such flavor categories as “earthy,” “floral,” “spicy” and “off-flavors,” which included the subgroups “hammy,” “cardboard” and “baby vomit.” For the chocolate from Vietnam, the consensus was “apple cider.” I had muted myself (the neighborhood dogs were barky) but mouthed the words “cherry cordial” after tasting the Belize bar. Robert described the Madagascar chocolate as “wow,” because of its bright, fruity flavor. I nodded in agreement, as the chocolate took its sweet time melting on my tongue.

In between tastings, Robert held mini-seminars on such topics as the cacao plant, fermentation, roasting, tempering and conching, a mixing step used to develop flavors and texture. (The cacao beans are grown abroad, and the company turns the raw ingredients into chocolate at its San Francisco facility.) He illustrated the lessons with slides and photos worthy of an influencer’s Instagram account. We ended on a strong note: the 85 percenter from Ecuador. Robert said it reminded him of scotch; another participant threw out coffee. I took a swig of tea to round its edges. Before signing off, he suggested we consume our bars within two years. Mine barely made it out of 2020.

Tea from Connecticut

Phil, who runs Savvy Tea Gourmet in Madison, Conn., with his wife, has been studying tea for more than 50 years. Since March, he has been sharing his wealth of knowledge online, through Saturday afternoon tastings, such as Phil’s Favorites, and special events, such as Scrooge’s Tea Party. The classes cost $15 and include six packets of loose-leaf tea. While at his shop, I picked up an infuser for the occasion.

On our new night, 16 of us gathered around our full tea kettles and empty mugs. Phil, who blends most of his own teas, kicked off the party with a Partridge in a Pear Tree, a Chinese white tea studded with pieces of dried mango and pear. “The long-term objective is to help you become quite astute at preparing your tea and enjoying your tea,” he said.

A spirited tour of the United States

After we inhaled the scent and inspected the leaves, he encouraged us to slurp the steaming liquid as if it were a bowl of pho. “Slurping is important because we want to agitate the volatiles,” he said. “You’re looking to connect with the character of each tea.” I asked whether slurping a hot liquid was a safe activity. He responded that I had heated my water too high; the ideal temperature for white tea is 180 degrees. After emptying our vessels, he advised us to return the wet leaves to the plastic sleeve, for subsequent steepings. He also shared a travel tip for an even more distant future: Visit the Map Room Tea Lounge inside the Boston Public Library.

Over two hours, Phil toggled between sip-slurping and educating. He taught us the golden rules of tea drinking and described the beverage’s prodigious health benefits, the so-called 10,000 medicines, according to ancient Chinese beliefs. To be sure, we were swimming in polyphenols after downing Cherry Christmas, a green tea; Plum Puddin, a black tea; and the Weather Outside Is Frightful, also a black tea. We capped the night off with a pair of rooibos teas, made from a legume that grows exclusively in Cederberg, South Africa. Some participants added booze to their drinks, with Phil’s blessing, but the Christmas Cactus didn’t need any special sauce: It tasted like watered-down brandy. After our final tea, the Night Before Christmas, a cozy tranquility set in. “What is it that the British say when something great happens? “Have a cup of tea,” he said. “And when something terrible happens? Have a cup of tea.”

Olive oil from Michigan

Any other year, Fustini’s would have heralded the fall arrival of olive oils from Chile with tastings at its four Michigan locations. Instead, the oil and vinegar purveyor had to celebrate online. Since September, Fustini’s has been offering Tuesday tastings.

When I called to reserve a spot in late December, I learned that the Spanish oils had not yet arrived, so I moved my thumbtack south, to Chile. I ordered the $60 kit, which came with three 200-milliliter bottles of oils, a mystery sample labeled with a question mark, pourers, tasting cups, and a chemical analysis and profile of each olive oil. We were encouraged to supplement our tasting with ice cream, cheese, shortbread cookies, dark chocolate and apples, a palate cleanser. However, for most of the event, we drank the olive oil straight, like a Jell-O shot.

Karen, our guide, beamed in from Traverse City, where Fustini’s founder first set up shop 13 years ago. She explained the olive-oil-making process, from shaking the stone fruits off the trees to pressing the oil out of the milled paste. (The names of the oils refer to the olive types.) To ensure quality, the entire operation takes three hours, from orchard to bottle. She instructed us to pour the arbequina into the plastic cup, but a California couple couldn’t contain their curiosity for the mystery oil, so we cracked that bottle open first. We warmed the dish in the palms of our hands, then swallowed the yellow liquid. “Sip it. Let it go over your tongue,” Karen said. “Don’t dunk,” she warned a participant gripping a piece of bread. She referred us to the aroma and flavor sheet, which contained such descriptors as banana, nettles and fresh cut grass.

We returned to the arbequina, which contained the lowest number of polyphenols (295) and was less bitter than the koroneiki (330) and the coratina (507). The husband of a Florida couple was curious about the ice cream’s purpose. Karen said the staff had tried the combo during a company trip to Spain in 2019 and found the pairing revelatory. The husband, narrating every bite, agreed. We waited for the big reveal and quickly amended our original impressions. (You really thought I was going to give away the secret? My oleaginous lips are sealed.) Karen ended on an optimistic note: “When you’re in Traverse City, please stop in.”

Whisky from Scotland

At the Isle of Raasay Distillery, on the itty-bitty Scottish island of Raasay, visitors can lap up the whisky experience. In addition to four different tours, the island’s first legal distillery runs a six-room luxury hotel at its facility. Guests awaken to views of the production yard (so dreamy) or the Cuillin mountains on the Isle of Skye (not bad, either). The company suspended public activities and amenities in March but returned a month later with a virtual tasting program featuring three to four events a month. I reserved a spot on the two-hour Christmas Special tasting and paid about $46 for six samples, plus $63 for international shipping. My justification for the mailing expense: It was cheaper than a plane ticket — and safer.

“Good evening,” said William as he welcomed the 64 participants, most of whom were on Greenwich mean time. Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the Atlantic, I was settling in for a martini lunch, but with whisky instead of vodka. William, whose father, Bill Dobbie, co-founded the distillery in 2017, shared hosting duties with Calum, who was inside the distillery and frequently plunged into darkness when the motion sensor lighting switched off. “We’re actually distilling right now,” he said.

The pair explained how the tasting was going to unfold. We were going to sample three unpeated (non-smoky) whiskies from different casks — virgin chinquapin oak, ex-Bordeaux red wine and ex-Woodford reserve rye — and three peated (smoky) spirits from the same types of casks. They advised us to leave “wee bits” that we would mix together, a preview of the signature Isle of Raasay Single Malt that the company plans to unveil in May. “This tasting is a really good way to show off the recipe,” Calum said, “which is hard to do on a tour.”

Before our first pour, Calum shared some island facts, such as its size (roughly the length of Manhattan) and population (about 161 residents, 10 percent of whom work at the distillery). He also paid tribute to Robert Burns, the revered Scottish poet who is celebrated worldwide on Burns Night (Jan. 25). He recited a verse from “The Author’s Earnest Cry and Prayer” by heart.

While we sipped, William and Calum explained the whisky-making operation (all of the major steps take place on-site, including growing its own barley) and how the casks affect the flavor. Midway into the tasting, several participants rose up in the name of peat. “WHY AREN’T WE PEATING ALREADY?” a guest pleaded.

After the three peats, Calum shared rough calculations for the upcoming release. We measured and swirled like mad distillers. A guest told the group that since March, he and a friend have been on a single-malt drinking quest; the Isle of Raasay brought their total number to 178. I was only on six, but I raised my glass and toasted “slàinte mhath” as if I, too, had been drinking since the dawn of this dark age.

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