2011 Victoria Whisky Festival

Lots of glasses at the Compass Box Tasting & Blending Course

I first found out about the Victoria Whisky Festival, as is the usual way of things, right after the ticket sales had concluded. I was at a Hopscotch event (the Vancouver whisky festival) when the host mentioned that “the biggest event in Canada is of course in Victoria, but it’s sold out now”. Simultaneously excited and horrified, I emailed the contact address on the website and waited in hope.

I did eventually get in touch with someone, of course, otherwise this would be a short and pointless piece (and thereby differing not at all from my usual output). After a month I got a blessed email from Lawrence, the organizer, telling me that there had been a small number of cancellations, and would I like a couple of tickets? I had to pay a bit more than I’d have liked as the tickets were all packages, but that meant I had an excuse to try more whisky so it wasn’t all bad.

This year the festival was held from January 21st – 23rd. I got the opportunity to try a lot of new and exciting products and attend some great seminars. Here’s how it went. By and large I won’t get into tasting notes of the many whiskies I tried, partly because there were just so many and also because I don’t really believe in the usefulness of a lot of the notes you read – taste is so subjective. I’m no professional and will leave that to people like Jim Murray and the various distillery ambassadors who actually know what they’re talking about!

Compass Box's John Fraser

The Grand Compass Box Tasting and Blending Course

The first event on Friday night was one of the best. John Glaser of Compass Box took us through his company’s products, and then we had the chance to blend our own whisky using up to five ingredients (all cask-strength, and mostly single malts from name-brand distilleries). It was the first time I’d tried any Compass Box stuff, and found that I really liked the Spice Tree. John explained the difference between a “true” blended whisky and a vatted blend (blended uses some grain whisky), and while I didn’t choose to use any grain whisky most people seemed to do so. My blend seemed to turn out well from a sip, but on John’s advice I’m letting it sit for a couple of weeks before trying any more, to let the different flavours blend.

The Morrison-Bowmore Distillery Masterclass

Onto the Saturday; I was a bit worried about this event, as the start time was 11.15am! I found that as I got into it though, the earliness of the hour didn’t bother me. Jamie MacKenzie is really entertaining to listen to and the whiskies were really good. This was another distillery I wasn’t too familiar with and I was happy to find out that I really enjoyed all of their samples, especially the Glen Garioch (pronounced “Glen Geery”) 12 year and the Bowmore 15 year. I’ll probably pick up a bottle of both at some point. Later that night at the Consumer Tasting, Jamie had a couple of special bottles literally under the table for masterclass attendees to try; a Bowmore Tempest, and a quite rare Bowmore Maltmen’s Edition which you can only buy directly from the distillery. The Maltmen’s Edition is finished in sherry casks and was particularly good. The class and the bonus drams at the Consumer Tasting were well worth it!

The selection for the Morrision-Bowmore masterclass

Distilled whisky, as it appears before it's finished in casks

The Macallan Distillery Masterclass

J. Wheelock took us through Macallan’s lineup in this educational session. Now, amongst my friends I’ve been quite vocal in the past for my dislike of Macallan’s Fine Oak 10 year; I haven’t changed my mind on that at all. To me it’s bland, with little or no complexity. Whisky is so subjective though, so I’m sure many others have a different opinion. Anyway, the lineup gets much more interesting very quickly! The 18 year is my favourite by far but as it costs $250 for 750ml in BC I’ve never bought myself a bottle, so it was great to get reacquainted with it here. We also tried the 21 year old, the cask strength and like Bowmore, a special treat in the form of a duty-free-only bottle. I managed to leave my notes behind after the session, but I think it was a Whisky Maker’s Edition. I enjoyed it a lot. And J, I’m one of the people who LIKES to try stuff you can’t buy, so please keep bringing it along!

The Amrut Distillery Masterclass

From their appearances at the Hopscotch festival, I knew that I liked what I’d tried of Amrut, and couldn’t wait to experience more. I wasn’t disappointed! Seven top-class whiskies were shown off by Jonathan Bray in a nicely laid-back and friendly presentation. I seriously liked everything we tried in this session, though I admit to feeling a bit of whisky fatigue by this point (a rarely-diagnosed condition). The standouts were the Fusion, the cask strength single malt and the cask strength peated malt, but all of it was great. Like a lot of people, I imagine, as I first got interested in whisky I was very much snobbishly dismissive of anything non-Scottish, but Amrut is one of the distilleries that showed me that great talent, process, passion and ingredients can be found anywhere that people put their mind to it. A great presentation and great, great whisky.

The Amrut collection at the masterclass

The 40 Creek Canadian Whisky Masterclass

Just a quick mention for the Forty Creek masterclass – I didn’t actually attend this as it clashed with Amrut, though Louise did. She said it was great; fantastic whisky and it was inspiring to hear of John Hall’s successes. This was brought home for me at the Consumer Tasting later when I tried the Barrel Select whisky – it’s amazing. I got the chance to chat with John about how it’s made and it was a real highlight of the festival. I liked it so much that when I got home I decided to buy a bottle, and was stunned to find out it’s only $25 here in BC! It’s a STEAL at that price. I encourage everyone to try it – it has a phenomenal smoothness, reminding me even in some ways of a good Irish Cream.

The Consumer Tasting

After attempting to line our stomachs with some dinner in the hotel restaurant, we headed for the main event.

I liked the setup here; it costs quite a bit more than the Hopscotch Grand Tasting, but it’s larger and there’s no need to pay individually for the samples like you have to in Vancouver. I guess in theory you could camp out all night by expensive whiskies and just drink those, but then you’d rob yourself of the amazing quality that you can find everywhere you turn.

The list of whiskies I tried over the available three hours is embarrassingly long:

The under-the-table Bowmore Maltmen's Edition, available only from the distiller

  • Johnnie Walker Gold (Blue is so passe)
  • Tullibardine Sherry finish
  • Highland Park 18 (a perennial favourite)
  • Ardbeg Uigedail (this is AMAZING. I love all Ardbeg’s stuff)
  • Bowmore Tempest
  • Bowmore Maltmen’s Edition
  • Nikka 12 (my first Japanese whisky. I liked it but found nothing in the flavour to make it essentially Japanese)
  • Nikka “from the barrel” (better than the 12, cask strength)
  • Springbank Hazelburn
  • Springbank 15
  • Sullivan’s Cove cask strength
  • Forty Creek Barrel Reserve (amazingly good. My find of the festival as I mention above)
  • Forty Creek Confederation Oak
  • Finlaggan
  • Gentleman Jack
  • Balvenie Signature

There were a LOT more that I didn’t get to try; the long, indulgent day had taken its toll and I was wiped out.

A few more notes on the Consumer Tasting…

The rooms were PACKED with people, more so than Hopscotch. A mixed blessing obviously; you want a large crowd but not too large. I imagine Hopscotch avoids this by holding the event over multiple nights and selling slightly fewer tickets for each individual night.

The food that was supplied was great; in fact had we known it was going to be so good we probably wouldn’t have bothered with dinner.

I kind of wish some of the masterclasses had taken place during the tasting, maybe with the hours extended from 6pm-10pm so as not to lose any time in the main room. They make for a nice break during Hopscotch; the Vancouver seminars are much more informal and low-key though.

And on that note, packing the lion’s share of the festival into one day makes it a little bit of an endurance test if you do more than a couple of classes. It’d be great if there were more to do on the Friday, but I understand most people use that day to arrive, and leave on the Sunday. Not an easy situation for the organizers, I’m sure. It’s a good problem to have though! The sheer number of classes shows how much support the festival has, and it’s easy to see why; it’s amazingly well-run and well-attended.

So overall a fantastic time. I know for the 2012 festival I’ll be sitting refreshing my web browser as I wait for the ticket information to go up! Thanks to Lawrence for being so good as to reply to my seemingly-hopeless email and giving me the chance to attend this world-class event. It was truly a memorable experience!

A very busy Consumer Tasting session

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