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).
It seems like a bit of a missed opportunity that the Victoria Whisky Festival doesn’t sell merchandise. If they did, I’m guessing the biggest seller would be a T-shirt saying “I survived the VWF”. If you sign up for a Friday grand tasting, a few Saturday masterclasses and then hit up the main event on the Saturday evening, the weekend can become your very own alcoholic ultra-marathon. This is saying nothing of the famous after-parties which can extend the days into the early hours if you find the right bar!
Normally I’d write about the events I attended in order, but I’ll break with my tradition this time (one year is a tradition, right?). For my first article I wanted to write about not only my favourite class of the festival, but probably my favourite class I’ve attended anywhere.
Being an emotional sort, in October 2011 I found myself overwhelmed with jealousy; jealousy aimed toward the good people of Alberta, of all things. Why would this happen? Well, the Canadian launch of the venerable Scotch Malt Whisky Society took place in Calgary that month, and due to Canada’s amazingly progressive and liberal alcohol laws (engage your sarcasm detectors please) the exclusive single-cask whiskies they deal in remained locked down to that fortunate province.
So what’s to get so excited about? The society was founded almost 30 years ago in 1983 as a new way to bring single-cask, cask-strength single malts (and the odd grain whisky) to its members. Bottled directly from the cask with no chill filtering and no colouring, the committee selects high-quality and often unusual examples of a distillery’s output. To avoid the preconceptions that arise from recognized brand names, they have a “secret” numbering scheme designed to allow the whiskies to be approached without the baggage you and I might have surrounding the distilleries. With time, you might be able to memorize the list, and if you’re anything like me you’ll quickly pick out favourite names and remember those, but I can attest to the fact that at least for a relative SMWS novice the approach works as intended. Each whisky is given a creative name and some whimsical tasting notes to convey the character and, to enhance the mystery, each is bottled in a very dark green glass bottle to disguise the colour and further discourage any pre-judgement. It’s all very cloak-and-dagger!
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.
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.
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.
Hey Vancouver folks, in case you weren’t aware, Glenfiddich are rolling their Cask of Dreams through our fair city on Thursday and Friday this week. That’s Thursday April 26th and Friday April 27th in case you’re reading this in a different week. If that is the case, you’ve missed it, by the way. That’s a shame, it was [[super fun/really dull]]! (note to self: fill this in after the event)
The “Cask of Dreams” is an American oak barrel (really a series of them) that you get to inscribe a wish on, and it might come true! It should be noted that if your wish is to buy a bottle of whisky finished in your optimistically-inscribed vessel later this year, then it has a somewhat higher chance of coming true than most of the others.
Here’s the schedule:
Thursday April 26th
10.00am-11.00am – Stanley Park & Lions Gate Bridge (610 Pipeline Road)
11.30am-12.00pm – Granville Island (Anderson St and W 2nd Ave)
12.30pm-3.00pm – Vancouver Convention Centre and Olympic Cauldron (1055 Canada Place)
4.00pm-7.00pm – The Irish Heather (RSVP required) (210 Carrall Street)
Friday April 27th
9.45am-10.45am – Grouse Mountain (6400 Nancy Green Way or 6000 Cypress Bowl Road)
11.15am-1.15pm – City Centre Canada Line Station & Yaletown (Georgia and Granville)
2.00pm-3.00pm – English Bay (1600 Beach Ave)
4.00pm-6.00pm – Alberni & Bute (768 Bute St)
In the unlikely event I have any stalkers out there, I’ll be at the Granville Island stop on Thursday! My crack undercover security team will be watching though so don’t try anything funny. I’m just saying.
So all that’s left is the aptly-named Grand Tasting, the centerpiece of the festival weekend held on the Saturday evening. Unlike the Vancouver whisky and beer show Hopscotch, you pay a larger upfront fee but all the drinks are free after that. It’s wise to pace yourself, take advantage of the free food and water, and do a lap of the halls first to decide what you can’t live without. Remember the normal golden rules of whisky tasting too – don’t ruin your palate by diving straight into a cask-strength Ardbeg early on in the night, for instance!
Another good tip is to listen closely in any masterclass you attend, as you might hear about some of the special under-the-table offerings. An alternative way to hear about them is to strike up conversations with any exhibitors you recognize around the hotel before the tasting. Failing that, lurk about your target distillery table until someone more clued-in than yourself gets his special dram, hold your glass out and hope for the best!
After the amazing suprise of the Gordon & Macphail masterclass, there was barely time to draw breath (and send gloating tweets to my whisky-loving friends) before heading off to the next one, the storied Campbeltown distillery Springbank.
Campbeltown, of course, used to be one of the whisky capitals of Scotland until the vast majority of its distilleries were gradually shuttered. Only three remain today – Glengyle, Glen Scotia, and Springbank.
I haven’t really explored Springbank’s range very much, so I was looking forward to this session. It turned out to be very educational, not only in the sense of their whisky but also in getting a feeling for how the company is run. Ranald Watson, the charismatic “professional alcoholic” and marketing exec for Springbank did a great job of putting us all in that remote and historic distilling town for an hour or so.
A nice lineup from Springbank, with some great new expressions
Saturday started out nice and early with the Gordon & MacPhail masterclass at 11.15am. Yeah, “AM” as in, in the morning. It feels pretty hardcore to me to be drinking at that time of day, but as they say “it’s 5pm somewhere” so why not! And as it turned out, it was WELL worth it.
The session was hosted by G&M’s Joint Managing Director Michael Urquhart who I was happy to find out is very engaging and funny. I was a little worried after the somewhat stilted performance in the Glenlivet 70-year-old introduction video but I forgive him for that, it’s a corporate video after all and they’re supposed to be dull! (Just teasing, Michael.)
An impressive array of whiskies. Keep an eye on #6...