The latest incarnation of the Whiskybase Gathering was unleashed last month. Held annually in Rotterdam, the event for its 2018 edition has outgrown its single day format and now encompasses a weekend of whisky enjoyment.
MALT attended last year’s show and the whole experience exceeded our expectations. Frankly, we were blown out of the Nieuwe Maas – or the water – if you want to ditch the geographical reference. This thriving industrial city is a modern gateway to Europe, with its huge ports accepting cargo shipments from across the world. It felt only fitting that attendees from far and wide descended upon Rotterdam for a celebration of whisky. For 2018, over 1500 ventured into the distinctive former industrial Maassilo building that has been revamped into a modern-day venue. Situated by the waterfront, the location is easily reached by a nearby metro station and from the outside has a distinctly ominous nuclear power plant presence.
An occasional rave venue by night, the boom times of hardstyle tunes reverberate within its thick walls on a regular basis. However, for 2 days in October, the ravers are dispatched elsewhere as whisky takes over the decks and lays down its own mesmerising beat. The Maassilo is split into 3 halls, wrapped in industrial tones and materials from a bygone period. I’m no Kevin McCloud of Grand Designs infamy, but there is a re-energizing atmosphere within its walls and a metamorphosis of old versus new.
The middle hall acts as a rest point and sanctuary. Here you can watch a stream of live performers on the stage or take in some local cuisine. Thanks to the 2-day format, a more thorough examination of the food stalls was on my menu. A particular highlight of 2017 was the local cheeses; confirming that the Netherlands is only 2nd to Scotland when it comes to this dairy product.
What constitutes a successful whisky event today? The positives remain in the eye of the beholder. The Whisky Show in London is to industry centred for my tastes and the Old & Rare Show in Glasgow labelled elitist by some onlookers. These and the more traditional festival events that dominate the calendar all year round have their place and tangible benefits. In the last 12 months more than ever, I’ve become disappointed and frustrated in whisky. It has become a commodity, an investible product that bypasses the sheer enjoyment harvested from opening and sharing a bottle.
The Gathering offers a diverse assortment of established independent bottlers from across Europe including Claxton’s, Hart Brothers, Whisky-Fasssle, Murray McDavid and the Archives from Whiskybase. These are bolstered by the presence of importers who represent several brands and a series of collectors who bring their cavalcade of bottles to much fanfare. Put all of these into the 2 remaining industrial halls and for any whisky enthusiast, it is a nirvana of rich pickings.
Ticket prices for each day were a very acceptable 27.50 Euros or a combi ticket coming in at 45 Euros. This allowed you entry for the 6 hours of opening and included 5 tokens per day to kick-start your spending along with the glass that in my mind has replaced the Glencairn as the essential whisky vessel. Given that many attendees travel far and wide to Rotterdam it has become a tradition that there is a Friday whisky dinner held locally. A more costly option at 125 Euros, for 2018 this included 4 unicorn whiskies including that Cadenhead’s Bow Street.
After a splendid dinner and whisky experience has been consigned to the history books, the evening venue becomes a bring your own bottle event. With more attendees arriving and opening bottles left, right and centre. There are no rules only to share and enjoy. The end result is a stepping stone onto the main days themselves.
Admittedly I am spoiled when it comes to whisky. I make the effort to attend such shows and build up my own points of reference. The Gathering is well named and if you cannot find a whisky here to delight or change your world, then you never will. All whisky roads will eventually lead here and my time on our Instagram channel over the course of the weekend underlined the sense of awe from onlookers. Questions highlighted a common theme such as where is this event? How can I attend? Search and you will find.
The overwhelming sense of Dutch friendliness is woven into the event. There is a warm welcome for everyone and a can-do ethic. Staffed by volunteers over both days, the overall experience is memorable for all the right reasons. There is no sense of elitism or a class divide. Stallholders have the time and space to answer your questions and provide guidance. They’ll happily talk to you all day about whisky and guide you on your journey through their Aladdin’s cave of bottles. Making the Gathering the most essential whisky festival date on your calendar.
For this year’s Gathering, Whiskybase bottled 2 exclusive releases for visitors and in MALT tradition we’ll review these now for you.
Archives Burnside 1989 – review
Bottled at 28 years of age from a hogshead cask #4556, this resulted in an outturn of 84 bottles at 46.2% strength.
Colour: Light honey.
On the nose: Gentle meadow fruits, natural sugars with honey and a gentle layer of smoke. A light vanilla and gentle approachable nature that you associate with these Speyside distilleries.
In the mouth: Vanilla marshmallows, buttery and with a tinge of alcohol. Very easy drinking with marzipan, almonds and cask charr. A little limited when considering the age of the Burnside.
Archives Glen Moray 2007 – review
Bottled at 11 years of age from barrel #5713, this resulted in an outturn of 237 bottles at 62.2% strength.
Colour: Gold leaf.
On the nose: Vanilla sponge and most noticeably banana chews. There lemon peel and a summer vibe here with a touch of citrus and Bird’s Custard. Memories of a barn full of straw abound and aromas of cream crackers, icing sugar, pine nuts and pineapple cubes. Adding water reveals a calamine lotion quality and a floral dynamic.
In the mouth: A freshness and immediate realisation of a very good bourbon cask. Lime zest and caramel mingle alongside a buttery shortbread and grapefruit. A very pleasant dram at cask strength. Water delivers a pleasurable duo in honeycomb and toffee popcorn.
The Burnside isn’t for me and I do prefer the 18 year Spirit Still release in comparison that had a more youthful vibrancy that’s lacking here. The Glen Moray is a lovely thing and well priced, so much so that the limited number of bottles in the shop were snapped up on Saturday morning. A shame indeed, but word is it’ll reappear once another batch of labels have been printed.
Beyond the Gathering whisky releases what about the main event itself that had expanded to an ambitious weekend format?
A huge success upon reflection seems the only viable summary. Speaking with several attendees who have their pick of the growing international festival circuit, the Whiskybase Gathering was their highlight of the 2018 festivals. A treasure trove of whiskies plucked from today’s realm and bygone decades; a remarkable level of variety with something for everyone. Enthusiastic patrons showcasing a visible passion for whisky reflected by attendees meaning both sides were happy.
Back in Scotland now, I can only add that a warm welcome from the team and the motivated group of volunteers remains a fond memory. A slick and well-run event with the relaxed vibe on Sunday allowing even more time for discussion and exploration. Plus the rarest of things to create around a festival being a positive atmosphere. Yes, the stallholders are here to inform and make money from their opened bottles, but it never felt like mere economics to me.
A whisky enthusiasts delight regardless of your level of experience, or inexperience. The Whiskybase Gathering is an event for everyone while it lasts.
The first 2 photographs kindly provided by Noortje.