I’ve never got on very well with January. It’s right after the holidays, and you know all the fun is over for another year and it’s time to go back to work. The weather’s usually crap, and will be for months yet. There are no F1 races until March! Luckily the Victoria Whisky Festival came along a few years ago and rescued the whole month. It’s an event I look forward to all year, and the only danger now is that I hype it up for myself to be something it can’t possibly live up to. And yet amazingly that never happens and it’s a total blast time after time.
This year was especially nice as the weather cooperated magnificently (as you can see from the shot above), making the walks around Victoria harbour much more pleasant than I remember in previous winters. Clement weather makes the ferry ride a lot more scenic too, which is good as that’s the only affordable way to get to the island (float planes are nice if your boss is paying).
The first masterclass this year was probably my most-anticipated event of the whole Festival – The Gordon & MacPhail Tasting, presented by Michael Urquhart. I was especially looking forward to it because of what happened last year; by surprising lucky class attendees with the chance to try the 70-year-old Glenlivet from the Generations line, G&M immediately and permanently went down in festival folklore and became one of the must-have tickets this time around. Spaces for festival events like this sell out in minutes once the sales begin, but we were prepared and managed to snag a couple. And we weren’t disappointed!
Starting with the Benromach 10-year, which I like quite a bit and is a very good foundation for the range, we moved onto a 16-year old Dailuaine from 1995, bottled under the Connoisseur’s Choice label. It’s illuminating to try this rarely-bottled single malt (the distillery’s output is almost entirely used as a component of Johnnie Walker blends); I found melon, pepper and white chocolate, with the pepper coming to the front with a bit of water. Next up was a 1991 Linkwood, a distillery I’ve enjoyed a lot in the past and this one was no exception. That’s despite the fact that this was finished for 30 months in Cote Rotie wine barrels – I often find that wine finishes don’t sit too well with me but I really liked this one.
A 1993 Glen Keith (malty, light and just a bit spicy) was followed by my favourite of the night, a 21-year-old Mortlach which was a fruity explosion on the palate; berries, blackberries, raspberries and vanilla ice cream, banana, oranges and some dark chocolate sprinkled over everything. Absolutely delicious, this one, and if you can find it it should be fairly affordable too.
That’s something you couldn’t say about the evening’s finale – the Glen Grant 60-year-old Diamond Jubilee bottling. What to say about this one? Well, first off a sincere thanks for the second year in a row to Michael and Gordon & MacPhail for the chance to try this dram, one that most people won’t get any closer to than looking at it through a perspex case with an alarm attached to it. So that said, let’s see how it is…
My first note that I put down on my placemat is going to be hard to reproduce exactly in plain text, because I wrote the word “crazy!” with each letter a different size and typeface. If this hadn’t been produced for as prestigious an event as the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee I’d describe it as “barking mad”, actually. Whereas all the other whiskies here were sweet or malty, on the nose this one was a savoury main course; a bacon cheeseburger, perhaps, with herbs in the mix. A definite cola tang, with some candle wax, and finally some green apple coming through.
My notes on the taste are very different to the nose; nutty, a touch of brine, a light chemical note that extended throughout, and some bitterness at the finish. That incredible nose though… this wasn’t my favourite whisky of the night, but for sure it was the most complex and interesting.
The next day began with, of all things, Ardbeg, hosted by the charismatic David Blackmore. Not my first choice of a breakfast dram, nevertheless it was my 11am eye-opener. I had a chance to try the Blasda for the first time, which I found to be much more enjoyable than its lackluster reputation would suggest. I’m not saying I would rush out and buy a bottle but I felt it shows a different side to the Ardbeg most people are familiar with and so justifies its place in the lineup, 40% and chill-filtering notwithstanding.
The next notable dram was the Galileo; I’d tried this once before at the BC Liquor premium spirit release, but it was good to take a bit more time over it and explore it more fully. I enjoyed it quite a bit, not as much as a good batch of Uigeadail, but again, it’s a little bit different and interesting for that. Strawberries and bacon fight with a brighter, cleaner (less complex?) taste than the main expressions.
The last and most interesting whisky was a special treat from Tim Puett of The Ardbeg Project. The Ardbeg Day bottling was created for, well, Ardbeg Day, and a small run was released in embassies around the world. It was great to try this quite rare and highly-regarded malt, and it didn’t disappoint. At 56.7% ABV it’s as bold as you’d expect with bonfire ashes, toffee and mint competing with heavy smoke and spice. Delicious, thanks Tim!
After our traditional pub lunch at the Bard and Banker in the middle of Victoria, my next class was Wemyss. I didn’t actually take too many notes here, but I liked the single-cask “Freshly Cut Grass” which was a Mortlach from a sherry puncheon, bottled at 46%. Weymss are new to BC, and to me, but with someone like Charlie MacLean behind them and soon their own distillery in the shape of Kingsbarns, I’m sure I’ll be hearing a lot more about them in the future.
You can read about my final class of the day, with Iain McCallum of Bowmore, in my previous article. It was my favourite class of the festival and an incredible display of whisky knowledge from one of the masters.
We’re weren’t done quite yet – after hours of whisky there was still the Grand Tasting, the centerpiece of the festival. There was a great selection as usual, though I found it a shame that so much of the really interesting stuff was hidden away under tables. It doesn’t feel very inclusive and the average punter misses out on some really distinctive whisky. It also means that a certain type just walks around asking for “what’s under the table please mate!”. I guess for small quantities it’s maybe a necessary evil but I’m not a fan.
Some of my highlights:
- The Canadian Rockies 21-year-old courtesy of Davin de Kergommeaux, which is normally exported to Taiwan and not sold in Canada despite being made here! It’s delicious though, and you can read a beautiful review of it at Davin’s site.
- Springbank had their new 21-year-old and the Longrow Rundlets and Kilderkins (both under the table, aargh!). The Longrow R&K is good but not as good to my mind as the original Springbank R&K from last year which I absolutely loved.
- Kelly, Rob and Georgie from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society had some of their fantastic single-cask bottlings in attendance, including G2.2, a gorgeous 35-year old grain whisky which just had so much character.
If it’s not obvious, the Victoria Whisky Festival is one of the best whisky gatherings in the world and probably the best in Canada (though there are many I haven’t visited yet). One of the biggest highlights for me personally this year was meeting some of the folk I chat to on Twitter, and it’ll be something I’ll look forward to every year from now on.
A big thanks to the organizers, the hotel and staff for the superbly-run event!