Friday, 1 July 2016

Doing it on a cold, rainy summer's afternoon. Stoke Whisky Festival 2016

I can’t help it. Despite my better judgement, I love whisky festivals. Wine festivals too – hell, anything that involves sticking a glass in my hand and pointing me towards umpteen bottles of grog. But whisky festivals particularly. Mind you, I don’t go to many, partially because of my alluded-to gripes, but mostly because of travel and expense. I’ll always have a think about it though, and thus on Saturday 25th June I find myself pulling into Stoke-on-Trent Station with Pilgrim Snr and consulting Google Maps in search of King’s Hall.

Let’s go back to those gripes first, because they’re worth a few hundred words. What could possibly be wrong with a huge room filled with all-you-can-taste whisky and dozens of like-minded imbibers? A question friends have asked me a couple of times now, when I’ve mentioned my love-hate affair, and to which there are several answers.

First off, those imbibers. I’ve done enough shifts on the dull side of tasting tables to know that in a hot room after a few hours and a few hundred pours there are some habits that make you want to take one of the bottles by the neck and start swinging. For example, ‘the glass sling.’ Science has yet to explain why people with the full use of two arms insist on buying these round-the-neck abominations, plonking their tasting glasses in them, and then
leaning over the tasting counter gesturing (with their free hands, I might add) for the beleaguered rep to slosh a sample essentially into their chests. There’s nothing you’ll see at a tasting festival that looks more pretentious, unnecessary and moronic, and to their protests of ‘but it gives us a free hand to write notes with’ I would reply ‘everyone else is getting along perfectly fine without trying to peacock.’ If you happen to be the proud owner of such a device, may I politely suggest that you consign it to the most convenient dustbin. It is impressing no one.

Secondly, spittoons. Use them. Look, you’re sampling whiskies all afternoon, some of which are very tasty indeed. Obviously one or two are going to go down the right way. But it’s not your house and it’s not a bar, so don’t get drunk. And don’t make asinine claims that spitting the whisky back out again shows a lack of respect for the drink, as one chap memorably shouted at me in London, having grabbed me by the shirt-front. There’s no point coming to a festival and not getting your money’s worth, and you don’t have any tasting apparatus in your throat anyway. Fact.

Thirdly, and this is the worst habit of the lot – the fight pickers. Look, in a room with a few hundred whiskies there are bound to be a couple of duds, and a couple of bottles you simply don’t like. But giving the person pouring an earful on why you don’t think a whisky comes up to snuff is just not on. Of course you’ve the right to an opinion, and of course you should chat to the people serving – nine times out of ten they’ll be glad of the conversation – but there are far too many people whose comments run along the lines of ‘this is awful, I’ve had loads better, why don’t you make whisky like that table over there, I’m an authority on whisky, listen to my
well-thought-out reckoning and act upon it, damn-your-eyes.’

All of that aside, on top of things like VIP tickets and reps who lecture rather than chat (sadly more likely to happen to you if you’re young, and particularly if you’re female I’m afraid...) I’d still heartily recommend making your way to a whisky festival now and then, because it simply is your best chance to taste across the widest possible spectrum, sample whiskies out of your usual price bracket and closely compare expressions next to each other. A fair few people seem to sneer at festival samples as a way of making notes, and it’s true that you don’t have either time or quantity to make a thorough appraisal, quite apart from the fact that your palate will naturally start to flag a little bit after tasting for a few hours. But you can certainly get a line or two scribbled, and a solid impression of a whisky formed – at least enough to know whether it’s worth returning to on its own, and where it sits on your list of preferences compared to the other expressions available. Besides, once you’ve been to a few of these festivals you learn a few tricks to keep your palate fresher for a little while longer.

I’ll cut to the chase. Stoke does a very decent whisky festival, and if you get a chance next year you should go.

It may not be the biggest selection of whiskies you’ll ever find at a festival, and the emphasis on Single Malt Scotch was absolutely immense, but what commended Stoke to me particularly was an admirable weight of whisky from less trumpeted sources and distilleries. Not that you couldn’t also find the usual suspects – Diageo and Pernod Ricard both had tables – but when I look back through my sipped’n’spat selection it certainly doesn’t lack for distillery diversity. First blood was drawn from a Balmenach for example, and if a single one of my friends has ever heard of those chaps I’ll buy a hat and eat it. There was also a strong representation from independent bottlers, which reminded me that I ought to stray from my more-trodden ‘Distillery Own-Bottling’
path a little more often.

American whiskey didn’t have much of a presence there, which was a shame, as I’d hoped to use the festival as a way of converting my father a little. Buffalo Trace did have a table though, and whilst I’d tried their flagship and the Eagle Rare 10yo before, I was able to sample their 1792 for the first time. Deeper, richer, drier and more mature than the ultra-fruity flagship, it’s a bourbon I will certainly be looking to add to my collection when next I make my way to a bottle shop, though my father preferred ER 10.

A standout table, both for quality of product and friendliness of service was the Bartels Whisky stand, and their Highland Laird selection in particular. Some of the more mature whiskies at the festival; these featured a 26yo Glen Spey, a 21yo Auchentoshan and a 27yo Jura. All three were decent, but the Jura absolutely blew me away, in a manner I didn’t previously believe that distillery to be capable of. Bottled at about 52% (cask strength) from a First Fill Bourbon Hogshead it was a scintillating harmony of sweet and savoury, of alcohol perfectly integrated but still providing structure, of nose, palate and finish each having a different but equally vivid story to tell. And when a whisky puts me into that sort of flowery rhapsody you can guarantee it’s a cracker. If, at the end of the year, that Jura isn’t in my top 5 bottles of 2016 I will be astonished – and will have been very lucky. Pilgrim snr and I were unanimous in naming it our pick of the festival.

Other standouts? Well, there was an 18yo Ben Nevis bottled by Douglas Laing for their ‘Old Particular’ range that ran the Jura pretty close. Another ex-bourbon as it happens – indeed I found a fair few ex-Bourbon stunners across the tables, and a couple of very disappointing ex-sherries. I rather liked the 35yo Blended Whisky #1 from That Boutiquey Whisky Company, though I did wonder whether it was beginning to get just a little tired from age, and I know that Pilgrim snr wasn’t altogether keen. The 2016 releases of Machir Bay and Sanaig from Kilchoman are just spectacular, though I’m still not a big Loch Gorm fan, and the 100% Islay, whilst good, is a step down from the outrageously excellent 2015 expression.

I have been looking to try the 18yo Arran for a while now – after spending so many summers on the island, and having been introduced to whisky by its distillery, their stuff always has a special place in my heart – but I have to say I wasn’t altogether sold. I’ve heard a rumour that they didn’t spend massively on their earliest casks, which would make sense given that their 10yo, which I tasted next to the 18, was absolutely brilliant, and excellent value for money too. Talking of 18 year olds, Mortlach’s was on cracking form – though at about £160 for a 50cl bottle, value for money it ain’t.

The final dram I put a star next to (I am very stingey with my stars) was the Aberlour A’Bunadh Batch 55. If you’ve read even one or two of my posts you’ll know my thoughts on the A’Bunadh. More than any other it’s the whisky that really got me into whisky, and you may be thinking ‘I bet he gave it that star before he’d even tasted it.’ Thing is, other than 50, which was exceptional, the last few batches, whilst still excellent, have fallen short of what A’Bunadh has achieved in the past. In the last year it has also crept over the £40 per bottle mark, and though it still represents superb value for money I’m nonetheless concerned that it may end up North of £50 sooner rather than later. So I’d been prepared to give Batch 55 a bit of a writing-off, but am thrilled to report that it represents a stunning return to top A’Bunadh form – as good an expression as I can remember since their glorious run in the early-mid-thirties. Not a smidge of sulphur, booze totally matched by flavour and malt singing in beautiful harmony with fruit. I will certainly be buying a bottle, and heartily recommend you do the same.

All in all I retired on 50 whiskies sampled, plus a gin and a single malt spirit from Cotswolds Distillery. (Not a whisky, as it’s less than 3. Also, on that subject, whilst I think this distillery is excellent, and the potential of their whisky immense, I’d beg them to consider not bottling the moment they hit that three years and one day – to my tasting their spirit simply won’t be ready at that point, and it’d be a shame to let something so good go uncompleted. Besides, they have their gin, which is absolutely A1, to bring in revenue in the meantime.)

Thanks to the organisers of Stoke Whisky Festival for a stellar afternoon’s dramming. As I say – recommended for next year. I’ll certainly try to be there again myself.

Cheers!


    

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