I love a good whisky show.
Hopefully you know the type I am referring to: a large conference space, usually in a hotel, with displays from exhibitors around the outside of the room and down the middle. Hopefully several dozen different bottlers or distilleries on tasting, each with three or four bottles open to sample. Put those elements into place, and I am in for a good time.
And that, folks, is the key to all this: a good time. Returning home after my first whisky show, in 2017, I was on an enormous high from the sheer enjoyment of it all; the chat with fellow patrons and exhibitors, the browsing of the bottles on offer in the show store, the chance to sample dozens of different whiskies. I was immediately addicted.
There are a small handful of shows that tour Australia, and I try to get to one of them annually. I’ve noticed the cost has spiked in the last few years, and this can affect my decision whether to attend. Discussed here will be the 2023 Melbourne version of the aptly named, The Whisky Show. I purchased a ticket back on the second of February during a brief 25% off sale, meaning I was able to attend for exactly $100 Australian dollars.
On the Saturday morning of The Whisky Show, I woke up refreshed after not having touched a drop of alcohol since Tuesday night. After-work drinks with my boss extended later that I’d anticipated and I thought it probably best, with Saturday’s festivities looming, to purify the body for a few days beforehand. My wife had offered to take a turn to drive our eldest child to her basketball game, so I had ample time to fit in a workout in our garage while my youngest watched the iPad upstairs. My theory was, with a reasonable amount of bodily damage due later in the day, to have some credits banked.
The session I had a ticket for ran from noon to 4 PM. Quite a few shows only do 3-hour or 3.5-hour sessions, therefore I knew I had more than enough time to get to all the displays I wanted to. Like any whisky show veteran, I had analysed the list of exhibitors beforehand to earmark what I absolutely had to sample early in the session. Then I made a rough list of what I could afford to get to a little later on and what, in all honesty, I was probably going to skip altogether.
The redoubtable and eminently sensible Adam Wells wrote on this site that he uses spittoons at whisky shows to avoid severe inebriation. I cannot do this. I do not get the same enjoyment or experience without sending the sample down the old gullet. Therefore, I know my recollection and appreciation of the drams I’ll sample later in the show will be limited.
In no uncertain terms, this write up will not be a comprehensive overview of everything the show had to offer. I will break it down into three categories based on my personal, subjective experience.
This section will be the longest, as I skipped tables that didn’t appeal (actually, I now wish I had checked out Jura; it’s been too long). Ranking highly was The Rolling Cask exhibit. TRC are an online spirits retailer based in Sydney and the first table I sampled. On tasting were a 15 year old Glen Elgin, 14 year old Glenrothes, and 10 year old peated Glenturret (Ruadh Mor). The TRC labels are all striking and imaginative. The Glen Elgin was my favourite of the three, but all were top quality.
Next in The Good, we have GlenDronach. I remember not that long ago GlenDronach would turn up to these shows with their 15, 18, and 21 year olds all available for sampling. Not so this time, as they had a 12 year old, and no age statement Port Wood and Peated for sampling. I have noticed chat in the whisky community about GlenDronach’s recent skyrocketing prices, which might explain the winding back of the quality of samples at the show. Be that as it may, I still did enjoy all three samples well enough, along with a 2012 single cask The Whisky Show exclusive… but more on that later.
Also achieving my approval were Starward, who don’t do things by halves, with an impressive display and four whiskies on tasting: a Muscat Cask, Ginger Beer cask, Stout cask, and a limited release to celebrate their 15th year, the Vitalis (pretentiously?) named after Starward’s founder David Vitale, though I can’t blame him. If I’d founded a distillery of international renown, you’d see my name on a few releases too. The staff member at the Starward stand joked with me that he was surprised David hadn’t placed a picture of his face on the label. Starward were also giving out these pins which I happily grabbed, but now have no idea what to do with.
Finally, though there are more I could include, I will place the ever-popular Bruichladdich in this section. On tasting they had the 2013 Islay Barley and 2013 Port Charlotte Islay Barley, Port Charlotte 10 year old, and the Classic Laddie, as well as Octomore 13.1 and 13.2, a generous selection and all well received.
Apologies to Cotswold’s, The Whisky List bottlings (a 10 year old Ben Nevis and an in-house coastal blend), and Penelope Bourbon, which I also enjoyed on the day.
Only a couple to note here. Firstly, to the organisers of the show: you need to provide some complimentary food to patrons! This is the first show I have attended where we did not receive anything to eat in a show bag upon entering. Water was plentiful and I certainly drank a fair amount, but the catering consisted of toasted sandwiches starting at $13. In case you aren’t familiar with Australian pricing, that is silly. I was glad I had grabbed something before I left home to satiate my hunger.
Next, on the Glasgow 1770 exhibit they were sampling a blended malt called Malt Riot. The only riot would be from disappointed patrons who sampled this tasteless concoction. The exhibitors almost seemed apologetic and suggested it might be good for a mixer.
Hellyer’s Road are an institution in Australian whisky. However, the lad pouring samples must have left his common sense at home that day. It’s well known at these shows that some tables will have something special stashed away to pull out now and then and pour for appreciative patrons. Hellyer’s Road did have an older bottling for discretionary tasting, but it sat out on the tabletop and after I saw it poured for three or four fellow patrons, the rep refused to pour it for the person standing next to me. I stuck around briefly out of genuine curiosity to see if I would rate a pour, but quickly decided to move on (not before grabbing a good handful of whisky fudge). A message for Hellyer’s Road – you cannot pour a dram in plain sight of other patrons and then refuse them a pour. This is extraordinarily poor form. Such things should only be done on the down low (and hopefully with me receiving the dram).
Finally, Waterford, Mark Reynier’s great adventure into proving terroir in whisky. I had marked Waterford down as a table to get to early, and so I did. Third cab off the rank I believe. I have always been less interested in the answer to the question “can whisky exhibit terroir?”, than I am “but how does it taste?” I’ve followed their progress and had hoped the original founder of Malt, Mark Newton (now working in marketing for Waterford) might’ve made the trip down to Australia to attend the show.
That wasn’t to be, but they did have four bottles to taste: the Cuvée (a blend of barley from 25 farms), the Gaia (Ireland’s first organically certified whisky), the Luna (the world’s first entirely biodynamic whisky) and the peated Fenniscourt. I started with the Cuvée and stopped dead in my tracks when I took my first sniff: a distinctly unpleasant maritime smell. If anything, it smelt like chum that fisherman throw in the water to attract fish to catch. Fish entrails and rotting seaweed; quite the flavour profile.
It translated accordingly to the palate, and I struggled to finish my sample before gulping down water to relieve the situation. Things picked up a little with the Gaia, which I thought was bland enough to be harmless. The Luna displayed enough character to be pleasant and the Fenniscourt was the highlight of the group with its lightly peated nature.
I’d love to champion Waterford and rebut some of the social media discourse which can be… unkind… but based on this tasting, I can’t get there. I’d happily sit down with a bottle of the Cuvée and cross my fingers that first impressions were wrong, but at around $150, my money is better spent elsewhere. Hopefully they turn up at the next show I attend so I can have a second go round in the ring.
I had earmarked the GlenDronach single cask as a possible purchase before I attended the show. I was tempted mightily by the Rolling Cask releases but, ultimately, the chance to buy GlenDronach single casks doesn’t come round that often down here in Australia… and when it does, the younger, more affordable bottles sell out quickly. I haven’t owned a single cask GlenDronach for a few years now.
The GlenDronach rep had a quiet word in my ear that they only had around 22 bottles for sale. I am not sure if that was per session or for the entire show, but when I wandered back to the store only 4 or 5 bottles were left. I secured mine for $210 and shortly afterwards they were sold out. $210 is right on what you would expect to pay these days for a single cask GlenDronach, so pricing isn’t unfair.
GlenDronach 2012 Whisky Show Australia Cask Bottling – Review
656 bottles produced from an Oloroso puncheon. Distilled 5 June 2012, bottled in 2022. Cask no. 937. 60.5% ABV.
Colour: Deep gold.
On the nose: Distinctly leathery, like an old polished shoe. Syrupy peaches, dates, and honey. Some bark. An unexpected saltiness that resolves into salted caramel, which makes more sense. Then a strong shot of black coffee and dark chocolate. Very inviting.
In the mouth: Mulled wine very strongly and cinnamon, baked pears drizzled with maple syrup, caramel fudge. Warm strawberry jam donuts. Orange peel and also beef stock. Quite drying on the palate. I add water to open up that big stonking ABV and get rich fruit mince pies and some oakiness, then also gingerbread.
Part of the enjoyment, the overall experience of attending any whisky show is a takeaway souvenir (something more permanent than a hangover the next day). This GlenDronach had a hefty price of admission – just because I call a price not unfair doesn’t mean it is cheap – and I think the product delivers on the cost. I immediately want another pour as soon as I finish my tasting dram, a sure sign a high score is justified.
Thus, another memorable whisky show experience in the book. The session was sold out but never seemed overwhelmingly busy. I did not even get to my thoughts on BenRiach, Michter’s, Sagamore Rye, and others that were in attendance.
Mind you, my memories of these may be a little hazy.