One of the anchors of Vancouver’s whisky season, the Hopscotch festival is now in its 16th year and is bigger than ever. Despite the painful handicap of a broken toe, sustained with impeccable timing the day before the main event, I had a great time. Hopscotch isn’t your typical whisky festival though – here’s a review and roundup to give you a taste.
Hopscotch is a pretty clever name, as the event encompasses both beer and whisky, and to add to that other spirits have been making inroads too – there’s plenty of tequila, rum and other stuff. One of the defining characteristics of the grand tasting in previous years has been the limited space both for exhibitors and attendees. This time, the festival moved from the cramped confines of the Rocky Mountaineer station to the PNE exhibition center, which provides around four times the floorspace. This was a big success in my opinion – exhibitors seemed to be more comfortable and were able to use the space more generously with some nice displays, though there was what seemed to be a big waste of space at the Sapporo area at the back of the hall. The aisles still got very crowded later in the evening, but the organizers are clearly aware of this for next time.
The event is extremely well-organized and a great time, but it’s all in support of the whisky! So what did I try this year? Well, due to my injury I didn’t actually have as much time as I’d liked as I couldn’t stay on my feet too long, and so as usual I came away lamenting a few missed opportunities. But I did manage to get some great pours in:
- Glenglassaugh Revival: At only three and a half years old, this is one of the youngest whiskies you’ll try. And I loved it! Fresh, malty, floral and spicy, I can’t wait to see how this changes as it matures longer.
- Nikka from the Barrel: A really fantastic blend from Nikka, who had a great presence at the show. Lots of bite to this one!
- Alberta Premium Dark Horse: Hands-down the best value whisky at the show. Only $30 here in BC, this is a Canadian rye whisky with around 8% corn whisky and a touch of sherry(!). You get the creamy softness of the rye with dark fruits and toffee on top, really good stuff and for the price an absolute steal.
- Kilchoman Machir Bay: I really liked this new release from Kilchoman. Not sure it tops my current favourite of theirs (the 2006 vintage) but this sherry-finished Islay is complex and juicy. I need to try more!
- BenRiach Curiositas: Not a hard-to-find whisky but one I hadn’t tried before. I’m a BIG BenRiach fan, I’m honestly struggling to think of a bottling of theirs I even slightly dislike and some are among my all-time favourites. Happily the Curiositas lives up to the high standards I expect from the distillery, beautifully sweet and woody with an underlying smokiness at just the right strength.
So what did I miss? Well, I only found out afterwards that Urban Distilleries were there with their boutique single malt, bottled with an oak stave! Dammit, would have loved to try that. Also, the dram of the festival seems to have been the 27-year-old Littlemill at the Von Albrecht & Associates stand, which I passed up on due to the huge crush of people around their table for much of the night!
To wrap up, it’s common in my industry (software) to conduct a post-mortem of a project once it’s done. The idea is to try and identify what went right, as well as what went wrong so that the next project runs more smoothly. So with that in mind, here’s my Hopscotch post-mortem:
What went wrong?
- Ticketing: This has been pretty dodgy in previous years but this was the worst year yet. The ticketing site was clearly unable to cope with the initial rush of people once the floodgates opened, and sales were more or less halted for several hours right after they went on sale. I wonder if the organizers need to find a new way to allocate and sell tickets to the really hot events, especially the whisky dinners; there are very limited spaces which sell out within minutes of going on sale, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they’re the main reason the site invariably keels over. Most of the masterclasses and the grand tastings don’t sell out for weeks. Another suggestion to avoid the initial rush: don’t sell cheaper “early bird” tickets to the main tasting hall. It pisses off everyone who doesn’t get in at the cheaper price, especially those who feel that was the fault of the poor site capacity, and removing them would remove the requirement to buy right as they go on sale.
- Crowding: Could and should be addressed for next year, but it sounds like this is going to be taken care of. Remove that pointless Sapporo Kinect thing to get half an acre back!
- Food: honestly pretty bad. Very limited selection of expensive and mediocre snacks mostly. Jerky, really? For an event that runs 6-10pm and has me drinking a lot of alcohol, I need a decent meal.
What went right?
- The new location at the PNE: the only thing I’d prefer would be a more central downtown location such as the new conference center; I imagine that’s pretty expensive though so the PNE is a good compromise. The extra space was badly needed!
- Transit: many different options including free public transit tickets and shuttles to take people downtown, to North Van or a nearby skytrain station. We found a cab quickly too. Really great job here by the organizers.
- Selection: some great stuff even for whisky snobs like me! It can definitely be improved though. I’d especially like to see more direct distillery involvement, which benefits the Victoria Whisky Festival so much.
- The crowd: Hopscotch attendees are friendly and laid back, in general. It gets a little rowdier later in the evening, as you’d expect with that much alcohol around, but you see lots of people having a great time and nobody seems to be out looking for trouble. I’d like to thank everyone who attends with that spirit; you make the event work as well as it does.
- Engagement: Loved the twitter wall at the grand tasting, and the Hopscotch twitter account in general was very engaged, responding to people, retweeting etc. There was pretty good communication during the ticketing problems too. Keep it up guys and gals!
Coming up next: the masterclasses I attended, including a very early session with the one and only George Grant…