Having won VIP tickets through the lovely people at Compass Box, Tony and I ventured down to Whisky Live London on Saturday. For Tony, this provided something of a dilemma: does he go to the Emirates or does he spend an afternoon drinking whisky and making new contacts in the industry. Naturally, he did both, given that Whisky Live was handily placed in Moorgate, a few tube stops away from Arsenal and a very cold 10 minutes walk from Liverpool St.
The venue this year was the Honourable Artillery Company, a fabulous if rather bizarre Barrack-like arrangement on the outskirts of the Square Mile, complete with its own 6-acre sports field. The HAC is the oldest regiment in the army and has been on this site since 1641. When we arrived at 11.30 (official start time 12 midday) it was clear that the officious security guard was going to execute this particular operation with the usual military precision and he wasn’t going to let a bunch of tubby alcoholics anywhere near his beloved building until exactly midday.
The Honourable Artillery Company
Once inside we were rather surprised at just how small the venue was – at least in terms of the area given over to Whisky Live – and the absence of some of the big boys (no Ardbeg, Glenmorangie, Laphroaig or Macallan). First up, we decided to show our faces at the Compass Box stand to thank them for the tickets. The reason we received them was because I had won their Facebook competition to name their new whisky, so I was understandably keen to find out more about it. Except there was to be no new whisky. Knackers! So, if any of those present heard a loud deflating sound about 12.15, you’ll know what it was. To compensate for this little dent to my ego, we were given a small dram of the excellent Compass Box blend the ‘Double Single’.
Something else that struck us was the rather poor organisation and communication between the organisers and staff. In the ‘packs’ given to us there was a VIP golden ticket. Fantastic! Does it entitle us to a trip to Willy Wonka’s new distillery? Do we get to watch the fat German kid sucked up a pipe and then turned into fudge? No-one seemed to know. Eventually, we found out that our VIP passes allowed us access to a special lounge and this mysterious golden ticket entitled us to special tastings throughout the day. In fact no sooner had we left the Compass Box stand than we were whisked off to the first of these tastings with Diageo’s Colin Dunn. On the table were bottles of Talisker and Cragganmore, but not the regular stuff. Oh no. In fact the first of these was the Talisker 57 degrees North which we had had before and liked (although we had tasted it blind and declared it probably an Islay). What we didn’t know was it comprises whiskies between 8 and 14 years old. We had also rather liked the idea of a Talisker-based cocktail dreamed up in Borough Market on Jimi Hendrix’s birthday. Made up of 55% Talisker, 45% Vermouth and finished off with some fresh sage, it was called ‘excuse me while I kiss the Skye’. Classic! The second whisky, though, was a real treat, the new Cragganmore 21 year old limited edition, with lots of fruit and dry oak. What a stunner. Apparently, this is as old as Cragganmores get before succumbing to the ravages of oak.
Tony just getting started
We headed off to our free lunch and a small, if tasty, bowl of stew, then back downstairs to try more whiskies and press the flesh with industry and punters alike, handing out our flyers wherever possible. Next to Compass Box was the Rip Van Winkle stand, always a favourite of ours at Dom’s tastings. Tony tried and liked the van Winkle rye 13 year old with a view to doing a dedicated rye pack. I tried their 15 year old and 20 year old bourbons, both of which were oaky and intense, the 20 year old particularly so. You have to be serious about drinking van Winkle bourbon a) because of its sheer intensity and b) because it ain’t cheap. You’re looking at over £100 for the 20 year old.
After the intensity of Pappy V.W., it was time to go for something a little lighter, so I tried the new Finnish whisky Teerenpeli 8 year old, which showed considerable promise – light fruit and oak and none of the schnappsiness that you get with some Euro-whiskies. It’s not as good as Mackmyra in my opinion but still a potential candidate for our Whiskies of the World pack at some point in the future and definitely worth a try.
Then it was over the Whisky Magazine stand to try some of their own bottling of an Imperial 10 year old. This pushed all the right buttons for me, a little bit of peat and lots of oak. Come to think of it, I bought a bottle (£42), and it may well be part of a future WTC pack of ‘gone but not forgottens’. Imperial is currently mothballed and is unlikely ever to be revived as a working distillery. How, when whisky cannot produce enough to satisfy the market for the stuff, can a distillery like Imperial that produced huge quantities of the stuff, not be re-opened? Meanwhile, Bagnall was talking to man on the Connosr stand who, it turns out, is a fellow gooner. Connosr have been great to us and we hope to build an increasingly strong relationship with them. Having established that there is someone with as little taste in football as him, he sauntered happily off to the Scotch Malt Whisky Society stand where he demolished a rather tasty Mortlach and Caol Ila.
A simply splendid beard
With the imminent release of our Irish pack, it seemed a good time to meet up with Cooley who also had a stand. Three of their whiskies (Greenore 8, Connemara Turf Mor and Tyrconnell unaged) are included in the pack. They seemed very chuffed to have their whiskies included, although it is difficult to think of a quality Irish pack where Cooley wouldn’t be represented in some way. Unsurprisingly, the Turf Mor had been emptied by yesterday’s punters but we did try a Tyrconnell Madeira finish (excellent).
From Ireland to Campbeltown and on to the Springbank/Longrow/Hazelburn/Kilkerran stand. One of our potential new tasting packs is one made up entirely of Campbeltown whiskies, i.e. the above four plus Glen Scotia. We tried the new Kilkerran which we liked and which had a creamy but typically Campbeltown saltiness to it. We didn’t, however, like the new Hazelburn Sauternes finish. Bagnall is very sensitive to sulphur and he instantly flagged up a bit hit of the stuff and adding water just made it worse. Frankly – and this is a purely personal point of view – I just don’t think Sauterne works as a finish, with the exception of Glenmorangie’s lovely Nectar d’or. A pity because I really wanted to like Hazelburn. Maybe it was the wrong way to introduce myself to it. Heigh-Ho! Live and learn.
We No Like.
Next door was the BenRiach and Glendronach stand with what looked to be two new BenRiach offerings, the 15 year old new peated port finish (Solstice) and the new triple distilled 12 year old (Horizons). I didn’t get to try either, which is a shame, but a Polish journo was highly impressed with the Solstice. BenRiach’s finishes are top notch quality and their peated finishes are, for me, the benchmark for the industry. As for the Horizons, this is new ground for BenRiach. The whisky shop (who had their own stand) have already got these two expressions in stock.
With kick off fast approaching, Tony was looking for a final dram to numb his senses before what turned out to be a disappointing 0-0 draw against Sunderland, so we headed for Glenlivet and tried their 21 year old and 18 year olds, both of which utterly belied their age. It’s not as if we hadn’t tried them before but we’re both big fans of Glenlivet and it’s always good to occasionally revisit whiskies you think you know. Verdict? More please. Then, as Tony was really thinking about going, we spotted the Nikka stand. Well, we couldn’t not, could we? We tried the Yoichi 15, which was stunning. We both remarked that it didn’t taste like a Japanese whisky in that it lacked the slight fungal quality which marks out the Japanese as distinct from the rest. Didn’t spoil our enjoyment one bit, mind. So Tony finally left, hoping to God the trains were all running.
I headed back up to the VIP room is time to catch Glen Moray’s Ian Allan discussing the 1995 Glen Moray portwood finish, which I described via text to Dom as “voluptuous and soft. Like Monica Bellucci in a sensuous mood”. His reply was to enquire whether I had drunk too much (probably). Or maybe it’s just that he hasn’t seen her in an evening dress.
Glen Moray is now owned by La Martiniquaise who are evidently dab hands at getting their hands on top quality port and Madeira barrels. They’re experimenting with all sorts of wood finishes and are even looking into doing peated whisky. Having been the slightly poorer relation of Ardbeg and Glenmorangie for so long, they are determined to no longer be the weakling having sand kicked in their face. On this evidence, they’ve been to the gym and taken taekwondo lessons. Whilst talking to Ian, I got chatting to Jim Martin from the Malted Muse who had written a piece about the WTC.
Back downstairs again and Whyte & Mackay’s Richard Patterson was well into his presentation, flicking whisky at the audience and no doubt imparting pearls of wisdom from his many years in the industry. Frankly, I couldn’t hear much of what was going on but the crowd were obviously enthralled. One thing about having had a few whiskies is that you suddenly feel no fear about introducing yourself to those people you recognise from various books. Ingvar Ronde, editor of the excellent Malt Whisky Yearbook, was loitering around the Compass Box stand and so I introduced myself to him, given that we had a mutual acquaintance in Dominic. Lovely bloke. Better still, he had heard of the WTC, which cheered me up no end. We must try and get into the 2012 yearbook if at all possible.
We lost 30 minutes. Send for the guards!!!
And that was about it. Strange how 5 hours can whizz by in a flash. One rather sour note to end on, the official finish time was 5pm but no more drinks were being served after 4.30 which irritated quite a few people, not least me who had purchased more vouchers. I should have reported it to the security guard. He would have been in his element.