Sunday, 4 October 2015

Respecting My Elders and Playing the Field. 3rd October, The Whisky Show

It is 10am or thereabouts. My bus from Bristol, which left at 8 and should even now be pulling into
Victoria Coach Station is stuck at the back end of a 12 mile tailback on the M4, and Google Maps is estimating another 2 and a half hour wait before we reach our destination. Which would mean I would arrive at Victoria at precisely half 12, which is when the Gordon and Macphail Masterclass that I have a ticket for begins at the Whisky Exchange's annual Whisky Show. And I would be miffed to miss that. Quite apart from what I paid for it, the four whiskies lined up to taste exceed, when in bottle, my annual before tax earnings. Principally because one of them is the newly released 75yo Mortlach, coming in at a cool £20000 a bottle. (In a dull hour I worked out that the ml or so spilled down the rim of the bottle when poured would give you a loss of upwards of £30!) Such whiskies rarely enter my day to day life. At this point the total stands at 0. So yes, I would be miffed to miss them.

As it happened, thanks to some bullish driving from our bus driver we made it in time for me to

navigate the hefty Whisky Show queue and reach the masterclass with 5 minutes to spare. And I am a rather excited pilgrim. Finances have dictated that I have never before this point drunk a whisky older than the Highland Park 25 I bought my friend for his 25th, but at this tasting hosted by Charles Maclean and Gordon and Macphail's Stephen Rankin we will be tasting a 1938 malt bottled in the 80s, a 1954 bottled in 2012 and of course the 75yo. My horizons are about to be broadened.

But then a sour note. I mention this fact to a chap in the queue, to which his response is to raise his eyebrows, and with not a note of humour reply 'this'll be a bit out of your league then,' before turning away. I am seething. The English language contains many useful words for dealing with instances such as this, but at this point they all fail me, and I'm not the sort to vocalise them anyway,
at least not to his face. But this, for me, represents the rankest depths of arrogant ignorance. It is the precise reason why so many people outside the whisky (and indeed wine) industry attach to it the mistaken stigma of exclusivity and snobbery. In order to get my ticket for this masterclass (and indeed the whisky show) I have had to set aside a considerable chunk of my monthly salary. Furthermore to secure a masterclass place I had less than a minute's window to click the 'purchase' button, prior to which I spent 5 minutes with trembling hand mashing the F5 key to refresh the screen. Frankly for anyone to get this ticket demonstrates a bloody minded commitment to and love of whisky which deserves more than a sneer and a curt snub. Besides which I believe that all whisky is created for the enjoyment of the consumer whosoever they may be; that once you have the power to put it in your glass it is yours to enjoy as you will and to the extent of your own 'ability.' And it is certainly no one else's business how and with what you do so. Rant over. (Or at least suspended indefinitely.)

My ire is cooled considerably by the sight of the sets of 4 glasses on the tables in the 'classroom.' I
can see quite a lot of the ticketholders walking with an exaggerated crouch to discern which glasses are fullest before picking their seat, but deciding that they're near as makes no odds identical I just plonk myself into an available spot nearish the front. Stephen Rankin introduces himself and the tasting, before Charles Maclean arrives a few minutes late and the tasting begins.

Over the next hour we are taken gradually through the four Mortlachs, three of which are detailed above, and the 4th of which is a 12yo distilled in the 60s. Both Mr Maclean and Mr Rankin are incredibly warm in their welcoming, enthusiastic in their speeches and clearly passionate about their subject. There was a moment when Mr Rankin was doing his introduction during which Mr Maclean was quickly nosing the 4 whiskies privately in the background to reacquaint himself, and such a look of pleasure came over his face that it almost felt intrusive to watch! But lovely and somewhat
inspiring to see that, after so many years, whisky clearly still brings so much joy to him.

And what of the Mortlachs themselves? Well, as expected, my horizons are now broader. There was certainly one (not the 75yo as it happens) which had been too long in its cask, but overall the Masterclass was exactly as it should have been; something astonishingly special - the sort of moment that you don't want to become routine, because then you would have nothing to aspire and look forward to. Would I (if I were able to) pay the bottle prices for any of them? No. Simply because I cannot justify in my head the price tag, despite understanding why it is set as it is. Do I hope to try such whiskies again? Yes. Sincerely and fervently. But not too soon. Just long enough to keep it special when it happens. I did take some notes, but in this instance I'm afraid they're just for me. And that makes them special too.

But today is not just about the Masterclass. It is the Whisky Exchange's Annual Show, with literally
hundreds of bottles available to taste. And so I leave the classroom after the tasting and, in the bewildering labyrinth of whisky stands am unsure where to start. I walk around the room seeking inspiration and taking the whole circus in, and because a close friend recently visited their distillery and a colleague described their 15yo as his favourite I eventually settle on the Glenfarclas stall to draw first blood. Tentatively holding out my glass I request a drop of their 10yo, work my way through the available flight and the day begins in earnest.

If you love whisk(e)y then you must must must visit the Whisky Show. If you quite like whisk(e)y, then you must also go along, because I suspect you will come away again loving it. I'll admit I baulked a little at the ticket price initially (£99 per day or £160 for the weekend, not including any masterclasses) but when you get there and you realise what that price gets you, you realise that it is basically a steal. Quite apart from the 'dream drams,' for which you get one token with your entry price, quite apart from the two-
course meal thrown in and quite apart from the staggering number of bottles open what really got me was the sheer quality of what is available to taste purely as part of your entry fee. Between 1:30 and 6:30 I made my way through 87 individual whiskies, which I reckon was less than a third of what was on offer. And it was a slog. I've done quality control for wine tastings in which I've got through about 100 different wines in an hour or so, but the toll that whisky exacts is just so much more brutal and demanding. 87 was the most that my palate could take - any more and I don't imagine I'd have been able to pick out much difference whatsoever.

But what an 87! I took in Scotland, Wales, England, Ireland, the US, India, Japan, Taiwan and Sweden. I even had my first (and hopefully not last) experience of expressions from France and New Zealand. I tasted several whiskies that I have lusted after for years, rekindled some old acquaintances and managed to surprise myself with my own self discipline in spitting every last drop out. (Much to the chagrin of an elderly chap from Edinburgh who literally grabbed me by the arms and shook me by the Balvenie stall demanding that I drink it
properly, insisting that no one could taste anything after three or four, so you might as well swallow it all and describing me as 'a disgrace' when I proceeded to spit out the 25 year old single cask. Actually, on that particular dram I could sort of see his point...)

Highlights? Well, those Mortlach Masterclass drams rank highly. It's not every day you try a whisky more than three times your age (in fact I'd be curious to know how many, if any, other people have done so) and the distilled in '38, bottled late '80s expression is probably the best nose I've ever experienced on any alcoholic drink. Meeting Mr Maclean and Mr Rankin was also rather special, though I wish I'd had time to actually have a chat. In terms of the whiskies from the main show, finally experiencing Redbreast 21 and the
Octomore fulfilled some long-held dreams, as did the '83 Balblair, the Balvenie 25 and numerous, numerous others. It's always nice to come back to old favourites too, and I very much enjoyed the Springbank/Hazelburn/Longrow flight (my dream dram token went on a SB21 bottled in the 80s) as well as the English Whisky co selection and the new batch of Aberlour A'Bunadh (52). But my particular high point, partially because I had no idea they would be there, partially because I had never tried them (from any vintage) before but mostly because they are just so staggeringly awesome was the full flight of the 2015 Antique Collection from Buffalo Trace. For those unaware these comprise The Eagle Rare 17yo, George T. Stagg, William Larue Weller, Thomas H. Handy Barrel Proof Sazerac (Straight Rye) and Sazerac 18 (Straight Rye.) If you are to any degree a fan of American Whiskey, do whatever you can to try any and all of the above. But you may struggle, because they keep most of it on the other side of the pond, the selfish bastards!

I can't imagine that too many people follow up tastings of whiskies worth up to £20k per bottle by eating a Sainsbury's meal deal and taking the national express home, but that is what I proceed to do, almost immediately falling asleep in my seat and trying not to crush my tasting glass in the process. Arriving in Bristol I blearily pick my way through throngs of Saturday Night Students, and feel terribly old. Almost collapsing through my front door I pour the complimentary miniature each show visitor was given into a glass and sip it slowly, barely registering what's on the television as I do so. But that glass is raised, albeit tiredly and feebly, to the show, to the Whisky Exchange, and above all to the countless distillers, blenders, coopers, craftspeople and representatives whose work went into making such a unique experience possible. I can't wait to visit
again next year.


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