Through the summer and autumn, there have been a number of online festivals and tastings, so many that it has been impossible to keep up with all of them. The move online has allowed me to participate in events that I could never attend in person, taking place as far afield as Belfast, Yorkshire, London, Campbeltown and Toronto. The Whisky Exchange’s Virtual Whisky Show was the largest of them all, producing a vast array of tasting packs, and a quite substantial amount of content. With hours and hours of tastings and seminars still available to watch for those who had a ticket, the show never really came to an end, and I’m still working my way through some of the samples.
For all of the grand ambition, and the sheer scale of the thing, there were a few areas where the show didn’t quite deliver. The platform used was clunky and tough to navigate, and the sheer number of talks and tastings made it hard to find what I was looking for in the schedule. We’re back to the good old ‘less is more’ mantra here; at some point along the way it needed paring back a bit. I felt the set up was constrained by the idea of what the Whisky Show would normally look like, which meant that distillery and brand stalls were open throughout, which was surely quite a drag for the different brand ambassadors involved, and at times when entering a distillery booth, it felt like I was gate-crashing a work reunion.
The other main gripe was the make-up of a majority of tasing packs on offer. I don’t go to a whisky festival to try a flight of core range whiskies from the same distillery, but would normally try things of interest from a variety of stalls. Mainly, that means the drams I haven’t yet tried, limited editions, or favourites I want to taste again, but cannot afford or justify buying a bottle of. This meant that I bought sets from independent bottlers in the end, Signatory (that features at the end of the article), and Gordon & MacPhail. The exception was the Waterford set, which I bought so that I could try the different farm expressions without having to buy full bottles. Thanks to the Waterford session I finally think I understand what the intent is going forward, and what the idea is behind the plethora of single farm releases (but not enough that I feel confident to write about it!).
The Gordon & Macphail tasting set was consistently good, and I feel the need to give a commendation to Luke, their brand ambassador who from his family home, in the evening, led me through the drams in a one to one session (an absurd happening that highlighted the shortcomings in the week-long festival set-up). I found it encouraging to hear that whisky drinker’s preferences are finally being taken into account in their rebranding, such that things look promising for future G & M releases. The Distillery Labels range is about to see a welcome boost up to 46%, and the Connoisseur’s Choice range is now focusing on cask strength bottlings.
In terms of ‘Main Stage’ content, the Whisky Show gave space for discussions on terroir, the different stages of whisky production that influence flavour, and happily debunked myths around such issues as regionality. All of these subjects will be familiar to those who are already well-versed whisky enthusiasts, but to many a casual Whisky Show attendee there was much that would have been informative, and plenty of opportunities to learn more about many of the distilleries involved. There’s never going to be the level of critical analysis of the whiskies on offer that we might like in this kind of festival, a pinch of salt has to be taken, and we can’t forget that the main purpose of the show is to sell us more whisky, but on the whole, I enjoyed it.
Dawn Davies and Billy Abbott are both clearly enthusiastic about the products they endorse, and Dawn, in particular, brings insight from beyond the world of whisky, due to her background in wine, and love of rum (following the rum tastings this was evidenced quite clearly!). I found Dave Broom engaging, he asked good questions of the different brand reps, and he dropped in nuggets of information throughout that held my interest, even on subjects where I consider myself to be well informed. I should probably confess here that Dave Broom’s blogs on scotchwhisky.com really got me started on this whisky journey of mine, pulling together a sense of time, place and provenance, that I can only hope to convey in my own writing. He was only ever going to be a selling point for me!
I was happy to see that the show placed an emphasis on sustainability, including shining the spotlight on new distilleries that have been set up to be carbon neutral. It was also a good move to feature a discussion around discrimination in the world of whisky in a prime-time position, on the opening evening of the show, ensuring that the audience would be as large as it could be, and trying to set an inclusive tone for the week. It was helpful that it covered racism as well as sexism, both issues that need our ongoing attention in our increasingly divided world. The glaring problem though, is that many of those who need to hear such stories, and have their behaviour challenged, would have chosen not to take part in this session and gone elsewhere!
In giving time to such subjects, The Whisky Exchange leaves itself open to some serious questioning. With regards sustainability, and environmental responsibility, it seems to fall a bit flat when the dram sets for the festival are distributed in non-recyclable boxes, and surrounded by lots of bubble wrap that can’t be recycled by many of our local councils. This shouldn’t be something that is hard to get right, as there are plenty of more environmentally friendly options out there that other sellers have no problem using. I can see that good presentation might be wanted for presents, but maybe the showy box should be an optional extra for those that care about such things.
The show was also able to highlight some of the good relationships that the Whisky Exchange has developed over a number of years. One of those has been with the independent bottler Signatory, that has its base at Edradour Distillery near Pitlochry. It means that The Whisky Exchange has a regular range of Signatory exclusives, and is often well-stocked in its other releases. There are some gems to be found here, often at good value (although like with most whisky releases the prices are creeping up at present), and all are bottled without chill-filtration and often at cask strength. Four of the drams in the tasting set came in at over 60, including a pretty fiery Deanston at 66.6%. Even though I didn’t drink the entire 3cl samples, I felt it by the end! The Signatory tasting was the last thing in the Whisky Show that I engaged with live, and it so it seems a fitting place to close.
Following a long and varied week, that was engaging but sometimes tiresome, it was good to finish with some Whisky Exchange exclusives that give us a chance to celebrate and enjoy whisky, which at the end of the day, is what the show should be all about.
Signatory Longmorn 2002 17 Year Old 56.2% – review
Colour: Quite pale, like an Italian Pinot Grigio.
On the nose: It took a while to open up, but the wait was worth it. Apples and pears, tinned peaches, Werther’s Originals, wood shavings, a hint of mint and something slightly bitter, dark chocolate perhaps. Boiled sweets keep coming and going, I could be in one of those old-style sweet shops.
In the mouth: All a bit tight at first, but eventually peaches and cream come through, toffee, vanilla, and some oaky spice in the background that dials back the sweetness. Water helps, allowing orchard fruits through more, and toning down the wood and alcohol spiciness.
A decent summer dram, that given time and water reveals hidden depths. I would never guess this is 17 years old, there’s a youthful quality to it, in part due to the high abv, but it’s also clear the cask hasn’t been overly active. At £135 a bottle there are better options out there. I’ve docked a mark for the price, could easily be a 6.
Signatory Glenlivet 2007 13 Year Old 65.3% – review
Colour: Ruby ale.
On the nose: Rich sherry bomb, raisins, candied orange peel, dark chocolate, sticky toffee pudding (a traditional one, including the dates!). Baked apple is there too, the Glenlivet spirit character is not fully overwhelmed.
In the mouth: Very oily texture. The sherry butt brings a boozy Christmas pudding, cherries, and mulled spices, but it is held in check by dark caramel, apples, and vanilla.
This is a sherry bomb, but one that has been bottled at the right time, leaving the Glenlivet spirit space to make itself known. It can take a good deal of water, making the flavours more accessible, which is not surprising given the strength, but each drop chips away at the intensity and wondrous mouthfeel. It costs £99.95, a bit more than I’d like to pay, but it seems more bang for your money compared to the Longmorn. The Signatory Edradour 10 Year Old could be your better value equivalent, although that is bottled at 46%.
There are commission links within this review if you fancy trying either of these releases, but as Jon says there is better value elsewhere.