In the past couple of years, I swear time has been speeding up. There I was, enjoying one of the hottest summers on record here in England when suddenly, the leaves had gone golden and I was tweeting and prepping yet again for The Whisky Exchange (TWE) Whisky Show.
Suffice to say, I’ve been finding myself humming my favourite song from the Rocky Horror Picture Show frequently – though, often without the images of suited and booted transvestites also dancing in my head. Time warp anyone? I’m sure I’m in one.
Anyway, so here I am, in some random space where time frequently speeds itself up – it’s already been over a month since the show at Vinopolis and I feel like I’ve only just been. Especially since, this year, there were some real corkers and so the drams still stand firmly in my mind’s eye.
Last year, I made the decision to only try whiskies and brands which I’d not had the chance to in the past and I continued that theme for the most part this year, though there were some repeats of brands because there were some irresistible things on offer.
My first stop was over to the Number One Drinks stand. While I know I had been there at Whisky Live Paris the team had different bottlings on offer at their stand for this show and I could resist since I’m a big fan of Japanese whisky.
First up was a retry of the Chichibu Chibidaru, my favourite of the whiskies that have been released from the fledgling Chichibu distillery (for more on that distillery, check out this interview with Number One Drinks owner, Marcin Miller).
Aged in smaller, 125 litre oak casks, this whisky may only be four years old but it is wonderfully complex already. At 53.5% it’s punchy, with a nice bit of dark nutmeg spice, but with the additional notes of peaches, melons, orange blossoms, figs and caramelised raisins. It’s got a lovely long finish and I confess I had more than one pour while at the stand.
Next I had to sample the single cask, American oak ex-bourbon Kariuzawa from 1983. It’s very rare to come across one from this distillery that has been aged in an ex-bourbon rather then ex-sherry cask and – given how rare this whisky is anyway – it was a real pleasure to try it.
Bottled at 55.8% the nose had loads of tinned fruits (cherries, pineapples) with a dash of cream but the palate moved to a different level, with notes of smoky embers, rich spice cake and a final, sharp whack of acidity. I loved it.
I followed this up with a wander over to visit Billy Abbott who was somehow still standing after three days of non-stop whisky pouring at the TWE Official Bottlings stand. I think it was because he was eating Haribo.
I confess, I’ve never been to the show’s official bottlings stand before so I was keen to do so this year and a couple really stood out for me.
The first of those was the 16-year old Clynelish, a single cask, ex-sherry butt whisky bottled at 56.1%. On the nose, it was very delicate for this type of maturation, with some white flower notes (jasmine or lilies, I couldn’t decide) and a nice buttery note too. On the palate, there was a lovely warming spice at first but then after a few seconds in the mouth it literally blossomed, bursting into delicate, floral notes. All I wrote was: “There it goes like a cloud burst – poof! Gorgeous.” Call me pretentious if you like but that’s exactly what happened in my mind’s eye and I tend to quickly jot down how a whisky makes me feel.
Next up was a 29-year old Dailuaine with a brilliantly retro label featuring a fiercely proud stag. Bottled at 53.2%, it was quite fresh on the nose, with lots of lemon peel and apples (if we’re talking colours, this was definitely in the ‘yellow’ spectrum for me). On the palate, it started lightly but then rolled into sharp, tart fruits, with dashes of white sugar and an underpinning of marzipan. It was lush.
After snagging a few Haribo sweeties from Billy to keep my blood sugar levels up as I rushed around the show, I darted out of the main hall to the back portion where the Glenfiddich had set up a cosy yurt, in which structured whisky tastings were taking place. Leading them was The Spirits Bureau‘s Mark Thompson who had three seriously special drams on offer: a 1974, a 1987 and a limited bottling called Spirit of a Nation in aid of the Walking with the Wounded campaign it supports.
I was keen to get along to this tasting because I find that sometimes I miss out on big brands at these shows on my hunt for more random drams and it can be a shame. As I wrote in this post, sometimes the big companies can be brilliant and the whiskies I tasted in the yurt were no exception.
My favourite of the three was the 1974. Comprised of mostly ex-bourbon casks, this has been limited to 1000 bottles and was bottled at 46.8% in 2011, making it 37 years old. On the nose, it was so surprisingly vibrant, with long notes of bananas, apples, breakfast bars and cream. On the palate, meanwhile, there was great structure but hardly any dry, tannic woodiness that one can sometimes find in a dram of this age. Instead, it shouted ‘banana split’ – bananas, vanilla, cream, cherries. It was delicious and it reaffirmed my continuing (but sometimes forgotten) love for ‘bigger’ brands.
My next stop was over to The Whisky Lounge’s stand to try some of the ‘Breaking Bad’ inspired whisky called ‘The Bomb’. Adorned with an image of Heisenberg, this was too trendy to resist, especially since Eddie Ludlow had actually shaved his head and grown a beard just like Walter White (ps: if you’ve managed to miss Breaking Bad, I’d recommend signing up for Netflix and abandoning any of your weekend plans).
There were two versions of this (a PX finish and an Oloroso finish) with the original whisky being Westport (Glenmorangie teaspooned with Glen Moray) that had first spent 15 years maturing in a hogshead before being transferred to 50 litre octaves seasoned with either PX sherry or Oloroso for a finishing period of six weeks.
I preferred the PX, which had a lighter nose than expected with lots of gooey butteriness, while the palate was filled with chocolate, cinnamon and a good burn midway through to ease out those potentially overwhelmingly sweet notes you can sometimes find with PX finished whisky. I did try the Oloroso but the PX was the one that really stood out for me and garnered the lines in my notebook.
Realising I’d had a fair few drams by this point, I headed over to the food and whisky pairing area where I sampled some comte cheese matched with Chivas 18 year old – all the food pairings had been done by the inimitable Martine Nouet and with this she showed her prowess yet again in putting together flavours I wouldn’t necessarily contemplate. The saltiness of the cheese matched the smokiness and darkness of the whisky, but together they brought out the sweetness in each element. Gorgeous.
As I continued on my way through the pairings room, I overheard the announcers mention that Martine herself was about to do a whisky and oyster pairing and so my feet did a quick turnabout to head back over to the stage area to get in on the seafaring action.
She explained that she “likes the feel [scent/experience] of the sea and when it comes to marine whiskies, I think Laphroaig is on that end.” Paired with the oyster, the Laphroaig suddenly softened and brought out the creaminess of the oyster. It was a sensual, delightful pairing and I recommend if you have any Laphroaig 10 year old and oysters near to hand in future, that you give it a go yourself.
With the realisation that the day was winding down, I suddenly clued into the fact there was one stand that I had to get to before the end of the day. I’d missed the New Zealand Whisky Company (NZWC) when I was at Whisky Live Paris but I’d made note to make sure I got to the company’s stand when at this show.
With a final dash I ran over to the main hall to visit the team there. As background, the NZWC isn’t actually a new distillery. Instead, it does further maturation and bottling of whiskies which were originally distilled at the now-mothballed Willowbank distillery, which Seagrams shut down fully in 2000. The last 600 casks of whisky (previously released in the majority form as Lammerlaw single malt) were bought up by the NZWC and a range are available on the market just now.
I managed to try five before the show sirens started wailing to kick us out and my favourite of the line-up was the 1993 single cask whisky, matured for its life in an ex-bourbon cask from Four Roses. At 51.9%, it had loads of white fruit (white grapes and peaches), cream and lemon on the nose, and a nice kick of rich, wood spice and thick, punchy vanillay marzipan on the palate. It was mouth-filling and punchy, and a great dram to finish off a long day with. I was also graciously given [read: I stole but they didn’t mind] a small, stuffed penguin since the show was ending and I’m guessing the team didn’t need to take him all the way back to New Zealand. This made me a rather happy lassie at the end of the day [He’s watching me type right now from his vantage point on my desk].
And so, there I was, leaving the show, penguin under my arm, thinking how I couldn’t believe that yet another year of the Whisky Exchange show had ended. But that’s the joy of the time warp – it swirls and spins and wraps us in its crazy ways. And to it – and all the TWE organisers – I raise a dram of cheer, for at the end of the day, regardless of the speedy nature of time, whisky does give us that: good cheer all around. And penguins. Let us not forget the penguins.