As mentioned in my post on Friday, in January, I headed out to the Victoria Whisky Festival. Celebrating its ninth year, the not-for-profit festival attracts hundreds of visitors every year to the Hotel Grand Pacific and I was fortunate enough to make it out myself as an event host and attendee.
The main day of the festival – the Saturday – sees an incredible 37 masterclasses held over a six hour period. Run by a meticulously efficient set of volunteers, each class lasts exactly an hour, with 40 minutes in-between to take down and set up for the next one. It’s ruthlessly planned. If you don’t believe me, drop Billy Abbott (aka: @cowfish) a tweet and he’ll confirm, as he saw it all in action last year.
My day at the festival began on the other side of the podium – rather than attending a class, I hosted one of the first ones at 11am (they start early in Canada) on behalf of Nikka whisky, the history for which includes one of my favourite whisky stories – that of Masataka Taketsuru and his wife and fierce whisky woman Rita. I wrote about some of their adventures and Nikka in this post here, so do check it out if you’re interested.
But all the proper excitement was yet to come. You see, for the very first time I was able to spend a whole day learning about whisky alongside my dear father, who happens to live in Victoria. He’d attended my class and, once that was wrapped up, we headed off to take in an afternoon of masterclasses.
And what an afternoon it was!
We started off in Ranald Watson’s Springbank masterclass. I was keen for us to take in this class because with Springbank you get to learn about not only one brand, but the three that comprise the company’s staple – Springbank, Longrow and Hazelburn.
As background, Springbank is one of the last standing distilleries from the 19th century in the whisky region of Campbeltown Back then, Campbeltown was awash with distilleries but various crises caused them to shut. In operation since 1828 (with a brief shut-down period in the late 1970s/early 1980s), Springbank is still a family owned company, with the Mitchells owning it since the 1830s. Everything – from floor malting, to maturation and bottling – is done on-site, making it a special distillery indeed.
As mentioned, the company produces its main brand – Springbank – along with two others: Longrow, which is heavily peated, and Hazelburn, an unpeated, triple distilled malt. At the tasting, we were able to sample a blended whisky the company makes called Campbeltown Loch, two Hazelburns, two Springbanks and one Longrow.
Of those, my two favourites were the Hazelburn Rundlets & Kilderkins 10 year old and the Springbank 18 year old, while my father also liked the latter.
The first is a special release made from whisky matured in smaller casks – Rundlets & Kilderkins, we were told by Ranald, are the old names for 60L and 80L casks, respectively, which the company had specially coopered from ex-bourbon casks at the Speyside cooperage. Released at 50.1%, this whisky was rich gold in colour, with notes of chocolate covered strawberries, fresh grass and sticky toffee pudding on the nose, and a richer, earthier palate with notes of espresso, butterscotch and cream.
The second, meanwhile, was a classic release from Springbank and a favourite not just of myself and my father but of Ranald too. Made from a mix of ex-bourbon and ex-Oloroso sherry cask aged whiskies, the 18 year old Springbank had a fantastic balance between rich fruity notes (tropical fruits – specifically pineapples – and strawberries) and toffee and sea salt. I loved the nose on this one and spent ages going back to it. The palate had a good mouthfeel, with a slightly sour (fruit acidity) note, with a nice malty, hay note and a wee bit of bitter grass. It finished on flavour of cardboard and lavender.
After finishing up the Springbank masterclass, we continued the day – after a quick coffee break – with a Tomatin masterclass, run by Graham Eunson, the distillery manager. I was keen to get along to this class after having really enjoyed the Tomatin line-up at the TWE Show 2012 (see post here), and because I knew it would be new for my father.
I was expecting to try most of those again so I was more than surprised upon arrival to discover we were taking things far from the regular route and actually doing a deconstruction tasting of Tomatin Legacy and Tomatin Cu Bocan.
What I loved most about this session was Graham’s affable and cheeky nature. I found myself tweeting a lot during the event, because his quotes were unmissable. “There are not a lot of virgins in Scotland. Casks, that is.” – was but one of the day.
Now, as background, Tomatin is based just outside of Inverness. It currently has a capacity of 5 million litres per annum, but was once a major powerhouse of the Scotch whisky industry, able to pump out nearly 12 million litres.
Taken over in 1986 by a Japanese company, the distillery still produces much of its malt for the blending industry but has – in recent years – put greater focus on its single malt whisky range.
The tasting we attended looked at how various Tomatin single casks go on to make up two of its latest releases. We sampled a 5 year old virgin oak whisky and a 5 year old ex-bourbon oak whisky at cask strength, along with the Legacy (which is made up of whiskies from these two styles of casks), before trying three 8 year-old lightly peated cask-strength drams (one from a virgin oak cask, one from a ex-bourbon barrel and one from an ex-Oloroso sherry butt), all of which go into making the Cu Bocan.
Of all the drams individually, my favourite was the 5 year-old, ex-bourbon cask example, which had a fresh but sweet nose of candy bracelets, fresh coconut cake and white sugar, and a palate that was surprisingly well balanced for the age, with note of zippy vanilla and a finish of liquorice.
A crowd favourite was the lightly peated, ex-Olroso sherry butt example, and Graham admitted that it is such a pleaser generally that “we may launch it on its own as Cu Bocan lightly peated sherry in next few years.”
By this point, I was barely sipping the drams, wary of the fact that after the masterclasses we still had a three-hour consumer tasting to attend as well. Following up with a few good glugs of water, my father and I headed cheerfully onto our final masterclass of the day run by the lovely Annabel Meikle for the Scotch Malt Whisky Society.
I’ve spoken much about the SMWS on here before as I’m a big fan of what they do, but what was great about this masterclass was to not only try the drams but to see how well the Society is doing in Canada. Started up just over two years ago by Kelly and Rob Carpenter in Alberta, the Society has been doing tremendously well since launch. Both were at the masterclass (and, it turns out Rob and I even went to the same high school in British Columbia – SMALL world) and had provided some now sold-out drams for the eager crowd.
Annabel was incredibly affable and provided the most entertaining tasting I’ve been to in a while, throwing in her random tales of time working at the Society and for The Glenmorangie Company.
During her discussion, we tasted a fantastic selection of whiskies, with my favourite being the most surprising one of the day. Called Chestnut Puree & New Hiking Boots, this whisky (number 128.3 for you SMWS lovers) was only five years old and came from the Welsh distillery, Penderyn. The nose was wonderfully fruity and full, with notes of chocolate, cherries, blueberries, blackberries, coconut and cream, while the palate was bursting with fruit salad sweeties, blackcurrants and passion fruit. With water, it became slightly more waxy (honeycomb/beeswax) and had a slightly menthol kick. It was surprising and highly enjoyable all around.
And, for the first time, my father actually enjoyed a peaty whisky – no small feat for someone who tends to avoid it at all costs in his drams. The one that won him over? A single cask 20 year old Laphroaig, matured in a refill sherry butt and bottled at 59.1% – I suppose if you’re going to fall for a whisky style, you may as well go big.
After all the masterclass fun, it was time for the consumer tasting. And, it was at this point, that I decided to also stop taking notes and simply take in the festival atmosphere. Many amazing drams were tried and many great people were met, but with a focus on enjoying rather than analysing it all, I’m afraid much has been lost to the winds of time and drammage.
But, I can say this: the Victoria Whisky Festival was not only a treat to attend but a treat to speak at. As mentioned in Friday’s post, the organisers really put their all into making sure it goes off without a hitch and I feel confident that anyone attending would have noted this same fact.
A dram raised to all the volunteers who made it possible for this – and every other – year. Here’s to 2015!
Continuing Canadian Week on the site, check back on Wednesday for a review of Davin de Kergommeaux’s Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert.
For more information on the Victoria Whisky Festival, head to: www.victoriawhiskyfestival.com