Whisky festivals have established their presence throughout the annual calendar, in recent years have prospered and grown in excess of whisky prices themselves. At times festivals are almost uniform in nature, armed with the same assortment of stalls and vendors, pouring a repetitive assortment of products. Formally resident in capital cities, they’ve now spread outwards into towns, villages and soon the supermarket and multi-storey car park near you.
The point being, a violent and bloody cull of the herd is required. Any decent gardener or whisky collector will need to undertake necessary pruning on an annual basis. Speaking with some regular representatives I meet on the circuit, you can feel their exhaustion when faced with a touring schedule that would make the Rolling Stones think again. Distilleries are rightly being selective and questioning the value and purpose of such events beyond merely lining the pockets of the company who lines up the weekend dates. We’ve stepped beyond the breaking point as there are far too many festivals and quite rightly these companies are questioning their value. When a regular organiser quotes a 5-figure price for simply being a headline sponsor you have to consider whether things have gone too far. Yes, let’s not forget that there are good festivals organised, staffed and run by those who have a real passion for whisky rather than profit maximisation.
Clearly there needs to be an evolution of the format and one that offers more for enthusiasts wishing to go beyond the staple core range from distillery XYZ, or a convenient afternoon drinking session. It’s an important distinction that those who view such festivals as a cheap few hours to load up on drink will be forever happy with the current status quo. For the former, a natural progression and realisation that many enthusiasts desire that little bit more. The majority of festivals have served their purpose and we now have a very well informed and educated consumer base. Whether it’s a greater depth of whiskies from bygone eras, more distilleries, styles of whisky and the facility to discuss such offerings or merely just a little more breathing space on the festival floor. The whisky festival that harnesses such demands will become an essential destination regardless of the country, or the time of year.
Last year’s Glasgow’s Rare & Old show was a big step in the right direction. Collectors from across the world brought whiskies for all to enjoy. For an initial foray it was a successful format. Criticisms often from those who did not attend included the use of tokens, the lack of options to sit and relax – this was fixed for the Sunday – the price of the show exclusive bottles and the 1cl measurement. The 2018 incarnation will be an evolution although not what I would have initially anticipated. The dropping of tokens included in the initial ticket price for a buffet seems a wrong footing. Being held in the centre of Glasgow, food – or precisely fast food for that matter – is not an issue. More than likely with the token system, you’ll need to venture outside for more cash anyway and combine both needs. We’ll see what February brings for what should be Scotland’s most prestigious whisky show and an open mindset must be maintained in the meantime.
By the arrival of the Glasgow show last year, word was already reaching the quarters of the debut Whiskybase Gathering show held in November 2016. Located in an old industrial building in the heart of Rotterdam, it offered a similar format but arguably more focused around the whisky community itself than the pursuit of profit. The dram measures are a more familiar 2cl. Armed with an inquisitive nature, it was only fitting that I decamped from my Fife headquarters and flew out to Rotterdam for the sequel Gathering and to discover how our continental chums put on a whisky event.
Unlike the Glasgow offering, the Gathering is held over a single day and the ticket price is around £25 compared to £75 in Scotland. The Gathering price includes 5 euros in tokens to get you started, whilst Glasgow for 2018 is ditching the starter pack of tokens. A 2-night stay in convenient Rotterdam hotel set me back £100, whilst for Glasgow a similar central location would be around £130 for a single night – partially inflated by the awful Sterophonics being in town on the Saturday. If I decided to travel by train to the West coast this would be around £22, with flights to Amsterdam coming in at £90. You can appreciate the costs are not widely different and we haven’t come to the in-house events themselves nor the price of whisky. The point being that sometimes events further afield can represent good value for money.
On a side note I love the free Whiskybase glass (pictured further on beside the Clynelish) that’s included in the ticket price. It’s more sturdy than the modern equivalents for everyday use and compared to the Glencairn, offers a greater dramming experience.
Sitting back with a dram from the Whiskybase Archives range, it’s a perfect moment to reflect on the Gathering event as a whole. The bewildering range of whiskies did not come as a surprise with the majority being well priced. The array caters for all needs it was straightforward to navigate the event within the old industrial unit that also hosts a rave at weekends. This stark totalitarian setting was easily served by the various Dutch public transportation options. The floor layout was divided into a trio of blocks with 2 comprising of whisky and a split offered by a food court featuring a fine selection of Dutch cheeses and much more besides, but the cheese was particularly good. Navigation was straightforward and with so many benches and tables available throughout the sections, these were eagerly used by attendees. I particularly enjoyed the live music, which was a bluegrass country style band that almost had me reaching for a bourbon and screaming for rawhide! Not normally my cup of tea, it just set a relaxed vibe and offered a sanctuary away from the busy floor areas.
The overriding sense was one of community. Whiskybase is a virtual online library with a physical shop in Rotterdam, but an event such as this transcends mere electronics and devices. The Gathering offered a chance for many familiar online faces to finally engage in face to face conversation – hi to everyone that I met on the day – and catch up with old friends. Technology was still embraced with the Gathering website allowing attendees to select their drams of interest prior to the event and then score any whiskies live on the event floor. Large screens displayed a constant flow of scores and bottles with a top 10-leaderboard offering assistance as to what was going down well. The favourites list of your own, meant you could easily locate and saviour those whiskies that had been flagged on your radar. Indeed being able to interact with the whiskies and scoring brought a fun element to the event and underlined the fact that everyone has a valid opinion.
The community ethic was visibly dynamic with the events team consisting of volunteers who ensured the day ran smoothly. The team spirit and camaraderie was inspiring – especially when Whiskybase invited a few of us along to the post-event staff meal. Rewards were given out to the volunteers and speeches of thanks from the core team were well received. We all moved onto the bring your own bottle event in downtown Rotterdam where the hardened whisky drinkers unleashed delights from their cupboards. Ah, memories of a delightful Canadian whiskey, a Bowmore hand fill, a 25 year old MacDuff, a 1981 Rosebank from Daily Dram, then some Signatory Glenlochy and well far too many to mention here.
It’s the community spirit that still burns strongly as I now sit in the airport lounge reminiscing about the weekend. Speaking with attendees who had also made the effort to come over from the UK, they were clearly impressed with the whole experience. The demographic was also pleasing as a good gender mix and range of ages ensured the event was more than the domain of the geek. Yes, with nearly a thousand attendees within the venue it did become extremely busy at some points – given the apparent success of this 2017 incarnation perhaps expanding the event over 2 days is a worthwhile consideration? The Gathering is held just over 6 hours and it results in an intense level of work from behind the stalls and those attendees trying to navigate such a realm of whisky nirvana. Credit to them for such a large undertaking and a special mention to the Dornoch Castle Whisky Bar team and Angus MacRaild for making the voyage by ferry, book ended by a long drive. Hopefully some of the European stalls will take note and make the effort to come over for the Glasgow Rare & Old show. It can be done and whilst you’re in Scotland we do have a couple of distilleries…
To celebrate the 2017 Gathering, the Whiskybase team unleashed 5 exclusive releases from its Archive range. I purchased samples of all bar the Cameronbridge, as I had run out of sample glasses thanks to an earlier tasting event. This left the Heaven Hill, Linkwood, Clynelish and an Orkney Malt. A nearby shop allowed visitors to purchase the whiskies throughout the day before heading home. A new addition from the 2016 event, the minor flaws were the shop only accepted cash or debit cards – not great for international clientele – and surprisingly you didn’t need to show your event ticket. Potentially someone could have walked into the annexe where the shop was located and snapped up a few bottles. However, it seems flipping is less prevalent in Holland and it was a far more positive experience than the Dornoch Whisky Festival bottling rush, with most of the Archive releases still available at closing time. Sales were brisk and any left over releases would be appearing at the Whiskybase shop and website.
With only 80 bottles of the Clynelish, this was my solitary choice pre-tasting and I may have regrets, as we taste the others right now. However, I’m sure I’ll be doing a tasting in the near future with an Archive theme.
Linkwood 2005 Gathering release – review
Distilled on 20th July 2005, this Linkwood resided in a bourbon barrel (number 95) before being bottled on 8th November 2017. An outturn of 194 bottles at 56.2% were released costing 80 Euros.
Colour: white grapes
On the nose: an extremely green nose. This has the feeling of un-ripened mango, icing sugar, green apples with a hint of sourness, green olives and a touch of peach in the background. There some creaminess bringing another layer with a pinch of cinnamon.
In the mouth: very light and water is beneficial to bring out more of the fruity characteristics. The apples are there with a touch of marzipan, Kiwi fruit, a pleasant sugary aspect and some lime juice.
Heaven Hill 2009 Gathering release – review
Distilled on 31st May 2009, this whiskey was bottled on 8th November 2017 after residing in a bourbon barrel. In total, 271 bottles were struck from cask 152716 at a strength of 63.5% with an asking price of 77.50 Euros.
On the nose: very familiar given its origins with vanilla marshmallows, fudge, sweet cinnamon and milk chocolate. Not hugely layered but it never was going to be anything else however these punchy flavours are well balanced.
In the mouth: perfectly pleasant with those core bourbon flavours of vanilla, caramel and some cask char. Towards the end its more rye-like with the spices appear through the wood shavings as black pepper, cardamom and fenugreek on the finish.
Orkney 2002 Gathering release – review
Distilled on 6th June 2002 this spirit resided in a refill hogshead until 30th October 2017 when it was bottled at 58.7% strength. An outturn of 270 bottles with a price of 90 Euros. This is from an unspecified distillery and its not Stromness – go look at tags at the foot of this article if you cannot work it out!
Colour: mellow gold
On the nose: smoked peaches from a tin is my initial thought followed by a touch of cream and dried oats. Apples yes and of course you’ll be expecting a smudge of dirty vanilla. It’s not an epic nose but ticks the core boxes. A bit of a metallic tint on the edges and an oily buttery quality. Returning to the whisky again more toffee, a touch of beef stock and milk chocolate.
In the mouth: that smoky oiliness comes through again, More of the apples and an evident vanilla freshness towards the end before a nuttiness then black pepper. A honey element and Custard Creams rounds off a solid whisky from the distillery that isn’t a Scapa.
Clynelish 1997 Gathering release – review
Heralding from a bourbon hogshead, this was bottled at 55.8% with an outturn of 80 bottles – a partial split – and was originally priced at 135 Euros before selling out.
Colour: Peruvian brown
On the nose: a festering pot of candle wax, apples, cinnamon, dirty vanilla and resin. There’s a touch of smoke, the hint of an old school whisky at play with dried orange, apricot jam and an oiliness.
In the mouth: more of the waxiness magnified, pulped apples and oranges continue the forest fruit theme. The texture is oily and resin-like displaying real assurance. Milk chocolate and a rich toffee comes through with a spicy finish ending a pretty impressive ride. More of those old school whisky notes and the tremendous sense that is what Clynelish can be.
I had written off the Orkney whisky initially but the opportunity to sit down with Noortje with a bottle for a few drams has lifted it up a notch. It’s a solid drinkable whisky with no flannel or fanfare. You could plough through a bottle quite easily. It bodes well as this distillery is currently dumping a great deal of casks onto the independent market, but they are becoming fickle about using the distillery name. I guess, that’s what a brand is all about even one with utter Viking nonsense that seems to go down well with our North American chums.
The Linkwood is what I’d term very green. Still in those stages of deciding what destination it wishes to venture towards. With water I’d expect some delights can be triggered, but it lacks the subtle charms and immediacy that Linkwood can offer. Whereas the Heaven Hill displays its rugged American charms for all to see. Boisterous, its the muscle car of the Gathering releases and if you enjoy bourbon then you’ll be pleased with its capacity. I’d actually have been really interested to see where the Cameronbridge lined up amongst this field. It’s certainly the odd one out and may have split the Viking bottle and Clynelish. Speaking of which, it’s an epic Clynelish and just shows what a bit of patience and a great cask can achieve. Thankfully I picked well and it’s a lovely memento to take back to Scotland.
All there is left to say is a big thanks to everyone involved with the Whiskybase Gathering and to all those that I met from across Europe. An amazing weekend with plenty of events outwith the main festival and we’ll be taking in a couple of these in the forthcoming weeks at Malt. A new benchmark has been set for what a whisky festival should represent.
Additional thanks to Noortje for these photographs excluding the Clynelish. The venue preferred the use of red lighting giving a warm glow to the event photographs. We were also live from the floor on Facebook.