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.
A couple of years ago, I think it was, at my first time attending the Victoria Whisky Festival’s Grand Tasting night, I noticed a small table as I passed through the crushing mass of merry whisky enthusiasts. Behind it there were a couple of friendly people passing out samples of a rye and encouraging people to pick up a brochure. I said hi, tried a small sample of the whisky, grabbed a leaflet, and wandered off to lose myself in the crowd and Scotland’s finest.
Shelter Point’s location on Vancouver Island, BC.
It was only later that I took a look at what I’d picked up, and was surprised to see that not only was this a distillery rather local to Vancouver, but that the rye was only an initial foray into the whisky market and they’d be developing their own single malt! I knew I’d love to visit one day but while it’s not far as the crow flies, the trip over to Vancouver Island from the mainland can be costly and takes several hours, and life tends to get in the way of having a good time far too often.
Roll forward a couple of years, then, to the present day, and my whisky obsession has only deepened. I’m now writing this blog and chatting about whisky on Twitter, and it was there I rediscovered Shelter Point through their discussions online with other local enthusiasts. A bit of a last-minute plea to squeeze us in on a tour last weekend fell on sympathetic ears, and finally we were on our way.
I never intended (and still don’t) for this blog to be specific to one particular place. It doesn’t matter where you’re located as a whisky enthusiast; the best writing about whisky is done all over the world – Scotland, England, Israel, the USA, Canada – and is relevant anywhere it’s read. That said, I hope you’ll indulge me this one local-interest piece!
Vancouver is a great place to be a whisky lover. I can see some people choking on their Laphroaigs at that statement. How can that be true with our high liquor taxes, strict import laws and limited selection? Well OK, we do have those challenges here, I wish we didn’t but they exist and we have to deal with them. However the whisky culture here is vibrant, well-developed and still growing, and because of that we’re rewarded with some great opportunities and events.
I awoke from a somewhat better sleep than usual. The jet lag that had tortured my rest since I arrived was finally resolving itself the day before I flew back to Canada, naturally. I wasn’t complaining, though. After another incredible full Scottish breakfast I was heading for Glenlivet, one of the most recognizable names in the business. It’s so influential that in times past other distilleries used to brand their own whisky with the Glenlivet name in an attempt to get a free ride on their brand recognition. Legal action mostly put a stop to this in the 19th century, but to this day on the barrels of some other distilleries you will still see Glenlivet appended to their own name.
The drive to the distillery from Aberlour only takes around 20 minutes, and in common with almost any route in this part of the world is pleasantly scenic. You pass Glenfarclas and at least one legitimate castle on the quick trip along the A95, before turning off onto the narrow B-road leading to the distillery itself.
If you haven’t spent any time in Canada, you might not be familiar with the Caesar cocktail. It’s ubiquitous here and, much to my initial surprise, delicious. I was surprised as I didn’t normally like drinks made with clam juice. That was an assumption, by the way, as I hadn’t really gone out of my way to try clam juice up until that point for fairly obvious reasons.
The central ingredients of a good Caesar are vodka, Clamato, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco and a little celery salt on the glass rim. It’s usually garnished with a celery stalk, but the more adventurous add a green bean, cucumber or even bacon.
I make pretty good Caesars. Not that it’s hard or anything, but I’m generous with the Worcestershire sauce (pronounced “wuster”, North Americans! Not “Worsester-shire” as I’ve heard more than one person say) and more importantly the Tabasco. I’m a bit obsessed with high spice levels. As I write this I have jerk chicken in the oven, the marinade for which was made with eleven fresh habaneros. I seek out heat wherever I go. I haven’t found an Indian restaurant here in Canada that can make a curry hot enough for my liking, not even close really (this does not apply to Indian restaurants in England, some of which can make dishes that would render a careless diner unconscious at fifty paces).
So how to take my Caesars to the next level? I think you know the answer to that by now. More heat!
International travel, often exciting in itself, has an extra kick for me since I got seriously into whisky. A resident of one continent with family on another, I usually fly a few times a year and it’s a great opportunity to avail myself of some duty-free bottles.
The duty-free whisky marketplace is an interesting one. Many brands sell “travel exclusives”, products you can (allegedly) only find in those fancy, well-lit, perfume-strewn shrines to consumerism littering our airports. Work your way past the gold-foil-wrapped chocolates, the Italian handbags and the pushy aftershave salesmen and you’ll often find a huge variety of tax-free single malts, blends and bourbons, a reasonable portion of which can’t be found outside of international departure lounges.
I must admit, I’m not entirely sure why travel exclusive lines exist. Is it done to raise the desirability of a whisky by limiting availability? Or could it be acting as a test market for a new line to gauge marketability before releasing it to the world at large? Whatever the reason, I confess that I have viewed the market with a bit of skepticism – if this stuff is that good, why can’t I walk down to my local shop and pick up another bottle?
One of the (many) things I love about whisky is the great profusion of choice we have, at this particular special moment in time. As you already know if you’re a devotee, the whisky market is in a kind of a golden age; more and more people are falling under its spell, and so sales are climbing and the range of whiskies available has probably never been greater.
Standard distillery bottlings are where most people start with whisky; they’re widely available, often affordable and generally of consistent high quality. However some (not all, but many) make concessions to the mass-market; they’ll chill-filter a whisky to avoid some unsightly clouding, or add caramel to make the spirit a more appealing colour for the store shelf. The spirit may be watered down to a set alcohol strength. In addition, without exception these standard bottlings are blended from many different casks to maintain a consistent flavour profile. This is essential for a distillery’s main product lines which the consumer can pick up from month to month, and year to year, and be assured that his whisky will taste just like that last bottle they loved. However the romantic notion of tasting a spirit “straight from the warehouse” is lost, or at least obscured, by all of these processes.
Luckily for the consumer looking for a more “pure” experience, alternatives do exist. Independent bottlers have an entirely different marketing strategy to the distillers; rather than keeping a bottling consistent over time, they commonly make their market in quality and novelty. A typical independent will buy a cask from a distillery, after which they may refill the maturing spirit into their own wood or simply let time take its course with the original cask. But the best part of the process happens before they bottle it, and that is often – nothing! Nothing added to the whisky for colouring or to reduce the natural strength; no chill filtering; no blending. (I imagine the whisky is still put through a coarse filter to stop you finding little chunks of wood, charcoal and who knows what else in it; it’s just not CHILL-filtered).
Calgary is a good place to be if you’re a whisky fan in Canada. Both prices and selection are among the lowest in the country. And there was even more reason to visit this past week, as Kensington Wine Market held their annual Spring Single Malt Festival. KWM has a great place in the Scotch community; Andrew Ferguson is their passionate and knowledgeable “Scotch guy” and the amount and quality of the events they put on is seriously envy-inducing for an out-of-towner like myself!
KWM is not a large store, and the festival is not a small one with almost 120 different whiskies to try this year. So things get a little cosy as close to a hundred enthusiasts (plus exhibitors and staff) pack into the aisles between the wine bottles and make notes, chat to each other and try everything on offer.
The busy scene at KWM during the Single Malt Festival.
Famously Prince Charles’ favourite tipple, Laphroaig likes to describe themselves as “the most richly flavoured of all Scotch whiskies”. For once there might be something to an advertising claim, though you’ll note that their marketing department doesn’t mention the character of the flavour. It seems that as many people will warn you away from a Laphroaig dram as will urge you to try it, such is the divisive effect of the industrial-strength medicinal smokiness they deliver.
Put me in the second camp; I’m a fan. I’ll admit that I don’t typically lunge for the Laphroaig bottle at the beginning of the night, but later, towards the end, it’s often the perfect way to close things out. The magnificent 18-year-old is the most exotic of their expressions that I’ve been lucky enough to try so far, but it’s exceptional; the extra age takes off some of the rougher edges and adds more complexity to the punch-you-in-the-face maritime character of the 10-year-old.
When I first heard that there would be a bottling of a Laphroaig finished in Pedro Ximenez casks, my ears perked up. As a rule, I love an Islay whisky finished in sherry butts; it never did Lagavulin any harm and adds that amazing depth to Ardbeg’s epic Uigeadail. (A side note on Lagavulin – after doing a bit of research I couldn’t find anything that says definitively that the 16-year-old is a blend of bourbon and sherry casks, but it’s what my palate tells me and although it’s frequently and often hilariously wrong, I trust it this time). To me, the fruity, woody influence goes stunningly well with the peat and salt of a good Islay.
Not having anything planned for Saturday morning, I decided to head up to the small town of Elgin for a bit of sightseeing. With a population of around 108,000, Elgin is the largest population center in Speyside, situated up near the coast not far from the mouth of the Spey. It’s about 15 minutes drive from Aberlour along the pleasant A941 (or as my rental car’s GPS pronounced it, the “A, 9, 4… 1!!!“).
The center of Elgin has a bit of a dual personality. I liked the smaller back streets with their interesting little shops much more than the pedestrianized and homogenized High Street. There’s one shop that the whisky enthusiast has to visit though – the home of independent bottlers Gordon and Macphail sits proudly at the corner of South Street and Culbard Street, as it has done since 1895.