The arrival of the Glasgow Rare & Old Show last February was a welcome tonic for whisky enthusiasts north of the border. It felt only apt that the home of whisky should play host to an event that celebrated the vast range of whiskies Scotland and other countries have provided us with.
Everything nowadays is focused around London as it’s more convenient and accessible in general – not just whisky – although such factors don’t necessarily equate to it being superior. Speaking of which, the event organisers would admit not everything was perfect with the 2017 incarnation. For a first stab at an event north of the border it was a successful experience and I left fairly satisfied and more appreciative of whiskies in general. Plus there was a very memorable Masterclass Rare & Old 101 with a stunning array of whiskies.
Prior to the show there were various commentators criticising the entry fee and 1cl pours. Speaking to some of these negative voices, post-show their attitudes had somewhat changed upon reflection. Arguably realising that their pride had prevented a treasure-filled whisky nirvana of delights and experiences, they looked ahead to the 2018 incarnation and redemption. My own recollections were that 1cl can work with the correct glassware (not a Glencairn) and it was more rewarding as a social event with friends from further afield than just the UK. Since last February, the benchmark has been raised again with the Whiskybase Gathering show in Rotterdam. This successful Dutch event has given me food for thought with a cheaper entry fee, a real sense of community and 2cl measures. It felt, well, that’s the thing – it’s difficult to put into words. The Gathering experience was more organic, relaxed and an enriching celebration. The Rare & Old show had more of a stuffy – for want of a better word – or formal vibe, no doubt enhanced by its plush surroundings. Whereas the Gathering was in an old industrial building that has been kitted out to host raves.
Still, I really enjoyed my Glasgow experience. All set for the sequel then huh? In reality yes, but then there was the change in ticket price, which dropped the starter pack of tokens in favour of a buffet. This seemed like an odd decision but was apparently driven by feedback. The decision for whatever reason was enough to prompt those critics to resurrect their concerns. Being set in the middle of Glasgow, food is never far from the venue so it felt a bizarre choice. I guess some attendees are on a very limited budget and it’s easy to overlook this if you’re jetting in from afar. Having a clutch of starter tokens may have been a psychological boost for some. At least for 2018 the whole token dynamic was ditched in favour of a cash-only approach with some stalls actually accepting card payment. With some whiskies fetching £200 for 1cl it does seem like the future.
For the record I didn’t immediately snap up a 2018 ticket once they went on sale. There are so many other whiskies out there that you have to budget for releases and trips up to Sutherland. However, a windfall with an old Spacemen 3 t-shirt meant that the entry ticket had essentially become a freebie. Not can you give me a free-entry-freebie but a quick PayPal deposit and within seconds I had purchased a ticket.
All of this turned the wheels inside my head. I know from my recollections of the 2017 Rare Old Show that it’s a great experience to try some illustrious and legendary whiskies for a fee. That’s a given. How about for those on a limited budget that have already splashed out on the £75 ticket price and walk in with just £50 for an afternoon of whisky? The silent majority. They could, in theory, visit the famous Pot Still bar nearby and have an excellent few hours with £50 and a bunch of strangers, or they could take a chance and step into the Rare & Old realm. Thus motivation acquired, I’m doing the 2018 incarnation on a budget for you.
To last the afternoon at the show, I’ll just be spending £50 at the stalls. This probably won’t go down well with the organisers or vendors, however, I feel it’s a different tact to show it’s possible to enjoy such a show without having to save up for months in advance. Potentially I could mix things up and have a couple of attractive whiskies by some lesser unknowns. My own preference is to sink right to the bottom and discover what hidden gems are being overlooked and ignored in favour of the bright lights of the closed ranks and legendary bottlings. We’re going to have a wee bit of fun and save some cash – what’s wrong with that? It’ll prove hopefully that you too can attend a show such as this without destroying your bank balance.
Introduction completed. Let’s jump ahead to the Saturday 24th February. Yes, that’s the same day as Scotland were playing England in the rugby. Maybe the Sunday show might have been a better option? A slight error with the weekend choice? Potentially, but with bottles being scarce you could miss out on something special…
Initial word of advice. Ditch the standard glass you’re given at the door. This is purely only good for sizeable measures and in this hall of 1cl pours you have to change tact. This means the 1920’s blenders glass that works better with minute measures and amplifies the aroma and character of the whisky. There were more tables this year to sit at but these were constantly full meaning you had to often move away from the main hall for a seat or leave your bag – German beach towel style – occupying a space whilst you grabbed another dram. Not ideal, but thankfully when I attended on the Saturday, the event wasn’t a sell-out so there was more space to move around in.
Outline done. Let’s kick off with our £50 budget spree that did last me most of the day quite easily. Events like this there is a large proportion of socialising to be done with friends new and old appearing on a constant basis. We kick off with a classic blend in the form of a 1960’s Cutty Sark from the Fiddler’s Loch Ness. The nose has plenty of character with toffee, orange peel, roasted coffee beans and chocolate with a malty vibe. On the palate it’s light and wholesome with more milk chocolate, orange and the grain comes through towards the end. That’s £3 down and a nice warm-up piece. In fact, the Fiddler’s has some great value drams we plump for a 10 year old Mortlach Scottish Wildlife bottling from Signatory. This is a different beast from Dufftown sherry releases we all fondly chase annually. Light and zesty on the nose with delicate vanilla pod you’d never pick it out as a Mortlach. The palate is timid with a gentle caramel, white grapes making for a pleasant sipper with a drying finish. Price again £3.
We’re moving over to the Whisky-online auction stand for a taste of a historical Deanston when it was bottled in the 1970’s as Deanston Mill. Yes, always a favourite of mine it’s good to see others are catching onto this up and coming distillery. More blending fodder or white label Bannockburn back then, just £3 again for a malty whisky upon nosing with delicate floral and perfume notes and a touch of white pepper. On the palate more of that floral aspect followed by lemon sponge, vanilla, marzipan with an oily nature and cask char on the finish. That’s another £3 spent wisely. Where next? It’d be rude not to visit the Whisky Show stand and depart for another era. A whisky that’s hard to ignore for just £7 is a pre-1914 Finest Scotch Whisky from B.McMillan of Dundee – possibly the last great thing to come out of Dundee? The nose is surprisingly fragrant given the low level of the bottle – which was finished off soon afterwards – with apple pie, pears, pine nuts and raisins with a touch of smoke. The palate is very gentle and distinguished with apple, caramel and a herbal nature.
While we’re at this stand let’s check out a constant favourite at Malt in the form of Caol Ila. About time we had a pre-demolition whisky from this distillery that was bulldozed and rebuilt in the early 1970’s. For £7 we’re helping ourselves to a 1969 Caol Ila from the Connoisseurs Choice range. Jonny suggests that this is a different style to the whiskies we associate from this distillery today. All I know is we’ve jumped into the £20 bracket as we touch upon half way on our spending. There’s a different type of peat from this Caol Ila on the nose. More herbal in nature and less coastal with black tea and resin with that traditional Gordon & MacPhail taint or style this range delivers. The palate offers more gentle peat, black tea, liquorice and vanilla with cinnamon. A whisky for deep thought before it’s time to move on again.
Diageo had a small assortment of whiskies on their stall. It’s an odd corner as you’d expect such a huge corporation to bring a wide range of goodies. Instead, the 1947 Johnnie Walker acquired from Argentina seems a good place to pause given it’s just £5. Ah, perhaps the blend should be first on the list? Perhaps but I’ve always recalled these old Johnnie Walker’s to possess more body and gusto that today’s equivalent. The nose is dusty reflecting its opening today and lower fill level, but there’s still a vibrancy with oranges, juicy fruits with coffee beans and a herbal note. The taste has a light diesel nature and enjoyable texture. More coffee notes and burnt vanilla cream with delicate notes of basil and thyme.
Time to make this around £30 on the budget. There are plenty of £1 and £2 offerings but I’m tempted by the Malts of Scotland range given that 28 year old Tormore in 2017. The 1995 Malt of Scotland Benrinnes 20 year old seems like a perfect midway point. At £2 the aromas are strong and thick with wood varnish, vanilla, mushroom, crème caramel, roasted coffee beans and a metallic tint. The palate is more fruity than the nose suggests with an oily texture, allspice, cardamom, rubber and toffee.
A £5 oddity treat on the Whisky Auctioneer stand and a lightly peated whisky distillate you’ve probably never heard of before known as Dunglass. It was an experimental style produced at the closed Littlemill distillery in the 1960’s for a year or so. Just a handful of bottlings exist – all independent – as the stock exclusively went into blends. This is a first even for me. The Dunglass 1967 The Animals Moon Import nose is nutty with orange peel and a faded peat with an odd perfume aspect. The palate confirms the issue. It’s soapy but not full on like the Blair Athol Manager’s Dram that did taste like a bar of soap. Almost peat soap with a peppery aspect and a gentle aspect. Perhaps this was when Littlemill was churning out any old rubbish, but it’s another notch in the book of whisky experiences.
Now I did make a promise to a friend on Instagram (@fromwhereidram) that I’d sit down with a Bruichladdich at the show. There are multiple choices however I’m always drawn to the pre-closure efforts of the distillery – basically before Jim turned up and got his hands on the production side of things and the quality suffered. Oddly it represents the big purchase on our budget of £8 over at the Whisky Show stand again. The Bruichladdich 10 year old Moon Export is bottled at 54% and being from the 1980’s would feature 1970’s distillate. Again, there’s a nuttiness, caramels and a touch of smoke that’s more prominent in these old Bruichladdich’s. Worn books, walnuts, a touch of cherry menthol and very wood driven. The plate again features that wisp of smoke, honeycomb, toffee, figs, tobacco, blackberries, caramelised apples resulting in a simple and pleasurable balance.
By my reckoning we have just £7 left to spend and a whole realm of whiskies are left at our disposal. There’s a clutch from Chichibu or a fantastic 21 year old Strathisla, but we’ll save those for other reviews. Instead it’s over to Michiel’s stand and a 1974 North Port (Brechin) Sestante, bottled at 15 years of age and residing in sherrywood. The nose is oily with lemon peel, peaches, lychees, Kiwi fruit and apricots. The palate offers more sherry influence with hazelnuts, praline, toffee, vanilla pod, brown toast and caramel wafers.
This brings our £50 spree to an end with £1 to spare, which I could have spent on several other options but it felt right to step away from the mission and meet old and new friends including guys from the San Francisco Whisky Club, but what of the event itself?
As much as I enjoyed the event this year and showed it’s possible to have a great experience on a modest budget, this doesn’t detract from the costly nature of the event itself. The venue brings nothing to the experience and arguably only inflates the cost. It’s a soulless empty room, adding to the stuffy feel and the £75 entry fee is too much. Charging this at the door can limit the spending power or desire to open a wallet inside. Empower the attendee with a reasonable ticket price and they’ll feel more willing to unleash their hard earned cash across the vendors.
The offer of a buffet this year was a disappointment – even more so after tasting it – with overcooked pasta, new potatoes with herbs, some cold options and little lasagne dishes. It was substandard for an event which deems itself to be prestige and somewhat taking the ££ piss. In reality, I actually had a better lunch during the 2017 event by going downstairs to the bistro for a hearty soup and fresh sandwich for under £10. The stodge served up instead meant I left my plate unfinished and departed quickly back to the event hall. Apparently the buffet was only open for a certain period and some attendees were surprised to discover it was closed when they ventured along the corridor later in the afternoon. Unfortunate if so and an oversight if it was only open for a certain period as this was not communicated, as far as I’m aware.
The minor details were also missing such as the cloakroom being open during the key hours just after arrival. Thankfully there were more tables this year but these weren’t enough and some attendees were left to prop themselves against sofa’s or hang around tables. Far from ideal. Then the lack of signage upon arriving at the hotel – I only knew where to go from attending in 2017 but the theme continued with aspects such as finding the buffet. Located at the end of a long corridor and through a door that was not highlighted. I’m sure some attendees may have wandered into the champagne bar by mistake! However, the staff were always to hand and very friendly. I felt that the 2018 Masterclasses were generally excessively priced without a full range of whiskies during each option to warrant the entry fee. Only the Scotch Malt Whisky Society offering on the Sunday attracted my interest but this was on the wrong day…
Last year we did have some exclusive show bottles that remained on the shelves due to the pricing strategy. This year the shop was more of a Whisky Exchange old and rare offering with very few show bottlings despite the website claiming these would be revealed nearer the time. Yes, Berry Bros had an interesting Ardmore for £120, or the Whisky Show offering of a 42 year old Benriach for £750. The prices were excessive at the shop and the best sellers seemed to be the 1cl sample bottles (25p) and the 1920’s professional blender’s glass. In general, I also felt the social media aspect was lacking. Very little information online and despite asking a question via Twitter earlier in the week, I did not receive a response regarding my glassware query. On Malt if you make a comment or ask a question its automatically emailed to the author who can respond directly below. Despite the team here having day jobs we manage to respond in a timely fashion, which begs the question…
Yes, in general the online aspect was disappointing. The website itself is a shell of 2017 and the guests of the show page still suggests more details coming soon as does the show bottlings page. If you’re not going to support a function or offer content then please just remove it. Otherwise it’s misleading.
After a successful start in 2017, the 2018 incarnation feels like the team has rested upon its laurels. Whether that’s an oversight, laziness or just pure greed I’ll leave down to you. In reality, it’s probably a mixture of everything, yet the chance to build and develop the show has somewhat stalled this year. No doubt I’ll be back in 2019 for further whiskies and meeting familiar faces, however, more work needs to be done to fully capitalise on its potential. For a more thoroughly enjoyable whisky experience, I’d still recommend the Whiskybase Gathering wholeheartedly as the better experience for the vendors and attendees. Yes, I know the Whiskybase team personally – full disclosure on Malt as always – but I was blown away by the whole event and it was a celebration of whisky. Whereas the Old & Rare Show feels more like a stuffy, genteel old friends club for a select audience. Still, let’s remain positive as its fantastic to actually have an event such as this in Scotland and hopefully audience feedback will prompt several desirable improvements.