I have a picture on my phone. It’s of me in an unknown location, wearing an unknown person’s glasses, looking miserable for an unknown reason. This can only mean one thing… Birmingham whisky festival 2017!
In my other life I’m a massive wine fan. So when I spotted that there’d be a 26 year old bowmore aged in a latour cask I knew I had to try it. I didn’t take notes but I remember that it was really fruity on the nose, quite subtle on the pallet at first then… BAM! All of the peat in the world punches you in the mouth on the finish. It was incredible, and quite a way to kick things off. I’d warmed my pallet up with a loch lomand 18 (meh) and a Murray McDavid mystery malt (Glenfarclas) which was ok, but the prices they’re asking are astonishing, £93 for an 11 year old, the official release Glenfarclas 25 is £119, or you could take two bottles of the amazing 105 and have £5 left over. Crazy prices.
Next it was off into the latest addition to the festival, a massive bake off tent in the courtyard. Sadly no cake, but there were chocolates and cheese, which I should have but didn’t try. At the back was was Mariella Romano with an exciting selection of Port Askaig. The internet is adamant that port askaig is all caol ila (https://www.whiskysite.nl/en/scotch-whisky/single-malt-whisky/islay/port-askaig/ – “everything is bottled under the Port Askaig label is in fact Caol Ila whiskey.”) Mari was however adamant that they use three different islay distilleries but she wasn’t telling which. We also nearly came to fisticuffs over The Ileach being young lagavulin or not, but that’s a different story. The 19 was great, the cask strength not so much. Lg6 from the elements of Islay series was good, but again, £60 for 50cl? No thanks. Word had got round that we were in the tent, it was empty when we got in there and now it was rammed. I fought my way to get a kavalan, a distillery that gets good reviews but has never clicked with me, and I still remain unconvinced. Rob W convinced me to try the nikka pure malt. This was ok, but the Taketsuru is still the pick for me for just a few quid more. You also get to say the name Taketsuru which feels almost as good in the mouth as the whisky. Taketsuru. Amazing.
Next up we hit the main room. Colin Dunn, the friendliest man in whisky was there presenting a bunch of Taliskers. I went for the distillers edition, which I remember being brilliant before, and whilst it was good I think that maybe it was better in my head previously, or maybe just a different better batch. Botiquey never fail to impress, mainly with the beards of their representatives, Dave Worthington’s being a worthy match to James Goggin’s. I tried the blend (very good, different blend to the macallan one from the nickolls and perks tasting last week), and the longmorn, which was fine but didn’t really wow me. At this point the general ticket holders had been admitted the the room and tables were feeling crowded.
There’s always a fine balance at a festival. On the one hand you don’t want it to feel quiet and dead. On the other hand if its rammed you can feel under pressure to get out of the way as quickly as possible, and it puts the reps under pressure too. Personally I love to chat to whoever is presenting the whisky on the day but I’m also hyper socially aware (British) in that if I’m causing a queue I want to escape as soon as possible. I think that Birmingham on Saturday leant towards too many rather than too few in the rooms at one point. It wasn’t crazy, you weren’t fighting to get a dram or queuing at all times, but I did feel slightly rushed and didn’t really get to talk to people much beyond twelve, which was a shame.
One place I did get to chat was the Bourbon table. In opposition to the Robs I’m really enjoying bourbon, and my warm up to the festival the night before had been a bourbon tasting where I’d really enjoyed the Elijah Craig 12. I tried the single barrel Evan Williams 2004, which disappointed. The Evan Williams bonded, at 50% abv had much more of the kick that I felt was lacking from the single barrel. I re-sampled the Elijah 12, just to confirm it was as good as I remembered (it was, and I’ll be getting a bottle), then, remembering that I was now on 15 drams and really needed to cash in my dream dram token I decided to take a punt on the Elijah 18. In my head at that point I was in a bit of a dilemma, as I seemed to remember the 18 being around £60 and therefore not really qualifying as a “dream” but I decided to go for it anyway, and I was pleased I had, it was everything the 12 was but more complex, subtle and refined. I went on master of malt to grab a bottle today. Turns out that it’s £120 a bottle when you can find it (currently sold out everywhere), and recently it’s started hitting double that at auction. Balls. But at least it was a good call as a dream dram!
I re-found Rob B who was on the bloggers choice stand. It’s always brilliant to have a wildcard stand where we can have a selection of things that people love and not have just a range from one producer. Sadly this year (and forgive me if my memory serves incorrectly) it seems that the guys were mainly showing just two ranges, Bruichladdie and The Lakes distillery. I tried the laddie 10 (it previously lost its age statement but has now regained it and this is the first batch back to 10) and the port charlotte 10, both of which were decent but I seem to remember them being better in previous batches. Rob B let me try his second dream dram, the octomore OBA, seriously good stuff. Octomore is apparently the most peated whisky in the world. However, it doesn’t taste it, at all. It’s taken me years to get this in my head, but I can now enjoy it for what it is, without being disappointed about the lack of slap round the chops peat explosion I was always expecting (its never that).
At this point I needed a lie down. Instead we opted for a rest in the VIP room (a seriously good addition this year, having some time out of the action is always welcome), followed by cigars on the courtyard. A lovely breather, a warning from Amy not to set the place ablaze (us? never!) and then it was into my masterclass, whisky cocktails with Rob Wood from smultronstalle.
I’d visited smultronstalle before Christmas, and Rob had amazed me with not only his amazing hidden bar, his amazing cocktails, but the depth and breadth of his alcohol knowledge. I’m a booze geek, and I’ve met some seriously big brained people but very few with the breadth of knowledge of Rob. He seems just as comfortable discussing Japanese gins, English brandy or, of course, single malts. Before I went in I did have to give myself a little pep talk…
It worked a bit. Kinda. Maybe.
I didn’t really know what to expect from the tasting. Rob basically ended up making us a six course cocktail menu, each with at least a full measure of whisky in them (in the main room you’re given around 10-15 cl, these were 25cl), at speed (it was scheduled to be an hour, thankfully it was nearer an hour and a half). Maybe not the best choice after multiple hours of whisky drinking. They were of course excellent, and Rob is a great host. My favourite was probably the creamless cranachan, and I look forward to having a crack at making one at home. I’ve little doubt it will disappoint in comparison.
Coming out of Rob’s tasting I was done. With a capital D. However, being the consummate whisky professional that I’m not, I took detailed and informative notes of the final few drams I somehow decided I needed.
I really hope I didn’t embarrass myself at that point (any more than usual!). It of course is all a bit hazy at this point, we went to the pub (I wanted to drink diet coke but I don’t think I did). Rob B became some kind of pool shark (reminded me of my favourite Fresh Prince clip), I staggered back to Wolverhampton with Rob W where my wife had the last laugh as she took me to the pub to meet friends when all I wanted was to go to bed. Mean. For days I’d believed I was in the woodman. Turns out we were in the anchor all along, I only discovered this via reading Rob’s notes. Ooops.
Best of times:
Bowmore 26 Latour cask
Elijah Craig 18
Rob Wood’s creamless cranachan
Port Askaig 19
Worst of times:
Introduced a friend using the wrong name (don’t ask!)
Those cocktails killed me off at the end (not that I was ship shape before them!)