Whisky festivals – or rather, whisky shows in particular – are curious beasts. I separate festivals, the likes of the Spirit of Speyside, which are a few days long and tend to be a bit more relaxed, and almost more about the company you keep as much as anything else.
I don’t tend to go to all that many shows, largely as they’re all the way down in London and a train to London these days is (a) overcrowded and (b) almost as much as a bottle of Brora. But I do make an exception for the Midlands Whisky Festival, which I attended a few weeks ago now. Another reason is that, although whisky shows are a great opportunity to taste lots of new whiskies, they’re also not a great place to appreciate new whiskies. And when you get into the industry as deep as we tend to, it’s the appreciation that matters more than the taste.
That’s not a snobby comment (even though I’m quite happy to make snobby comments).
You see, last year I had way too many whiskies cross my path: Whisky Magazine samples, a little bit of whisky judging, on top of this gig, tastings at festivals… You get the point. Now, I’m not going to sit here and say that I’m sick of whisky. On the contrary, having so many is a privileged position to be in, makes me respect the liquid a little more, but does make me massively discriminating in what I like, and there’s plenty of dross out there being served up as luxury items. But I tasted most of those whiskies in my house, in conditions that allowed me to pick them apart in my own time – and often in miserable but not unappealing silence.
Perhaps a festival isn’t about appreciation, then, but rather it’s about exploration? That’s a very different thing entirely, and the Midlands Whisky Festival is excellent for a drinker to explore. It’s leisurely, laid back, and unlike me completely unpretentious. But one has to be even more thorough and calculating with exploration. You have to pick and choose wisely because even though there are spittoons present, your mouth starts to feel like roadkill after a while.
But there’s also a point where festivals for me are no longer about tasting whisky, but catching up with people and meeting new ones. A social event. You see, as a relatively young old dog, I’ve been to quite a few gigs over the years, and met lots of great whisky drinkers out and about, or I’ve grown to know the people behind the brands, that when everyone comes together it’s less about the whisky than more about talking around the whisky.
There’s also guilt involved. I probably used a spittoon for 90% of whisky I tasted, but a couple of drams slipped in. Largely because of people who offered me that particular dram sometimes worked for a company, and I felt it a little rude if I spat out their wares; or someone used one of their ‘dream dram’ tokens (part of the premium ticket is that you get fancy tokens to spend on fancy drams – although, in the name of transparency, I was invited to the festival anyway) in order for me to try something they felt was the best whisky at the show, as they were fans of Malt and the likes.
Not to say, by any stretch of the imagination, that I am a whisky celeb. I’m sure there are many veteran writers who would turn up to the opening of a cork, or provide tasting notes for dog biscuits and get entangled in all sorts of ethical transparency dilemmas if it meant a free jolly. No indeed, I just know what it’s like when someone is keen for you to share in their enjoyment. And thus, never mind using a spittoon, I might as well have been spitting into their faces. Or at least it felt like that.
And I wonder, then, if we as drinkers – and the brand ambassadors who tend to the stands – still need to actively encourage a culture of spittoons at festivals. They all do have the whiff of getting tipsy. Maybe I’m getting a bit too old or, like I say, I’ve been ruined a little by last year’s magazine tastings. Or perhaps I’m just being very English and over-thinking the whole thing.
So I enjoyed people’s company, chatted shit for a few minutes as I tend to do, bored some people by talking about biodynamic barley, and then just enjoyed a few robust old drams: Douglas Laing grains of a spectacular age. And the new Cotswolds Distillery whisky, which is only a nipper at 3 years old, stood out in a crowded room; which just goes to show if you make good spirit and use good wood then your whisky doesn’t have to be decades old to rise above the competition. It’s a classy young thing.
The Dalmore masterclass was rather swish, though perhaps a little late in the day for me to appreciate them fully. These whiskies are soft, tender things, not the robust drams that I’d had earlier (a glorious 23 year old Springbank from Murray McDavid comes to mind, along with their eye-watering, one-off Bunnahabhain from 1978), and perhaps needed to come right at the start of the day. Among other whiskies, we tasted the Dalmore Constellation and Quintessence, which are off the chart in terms of price for most people. I’ve covered Dalmore a few times already on Malt in the past, especially some of their rarest releases, so I don’t really know if I can add more to the brand – other than perhaps the house style feels, at times, perhaps too laboured at this end of things. An old Dalmore is a fine thing, don’t get me wrong, but are these too narrow in flavour profiles? Does someone who spends a small fortune on something like this really want variety anyway?
So this is a bit of a meandering post, but that’s what whisky festivals tend to be like anyway. They’re not so well structured, and they don’t really need to be. No neat conclusions, no profound observation, just my personal reflections. Great to meet new people and old. The whisky industry feels as if it’s doing much the same thing as it’s been doing the past few years, with a slightly younger crowd than I recall previously (or is that a sign of me getting older?). Yet again hardly anyone wanted to – or even could – talk to me about what whisky was made from: barley. I wonder if I could get through a wine festival without talking about grapes? (And why don’t many drinkers care about that? Is it because most distilleries don’t care about that? But that’s another rant for another day.)
Thanks to the guys at Nickolls & Perks for putting on another fine show. I was kindly invited along by the team there – so in the name of transparency, consider it declared here.
Note: photos taken from the Midlands Whisky Festival Facebook page.