Midlands Whisky Festival – 3/17

It’s three am. Dressed in a bright white blazer I am dancing, alone, on stage, at my local goth/biker bar, to 90s rock legends hole. I guess sometimes you just really need to celebrate!

The day started… well the day started two days before. We recieved an email from the organisers listing not only all of the dream drams (three different 40 year olds!) but also every whisky that would be presented on every stand (pretty much). It’s hard to explain just how much excitement and joy this simple act brought me! I am, at heart, a bit of a geek. I work in IT for a reason. So when presented with a full list to get stuck into I couldn’t wait to plan my day to the nth degree. I was already booked on two masterclasses, a selection of the Gordon and Macphail speyside collection and six different 40 year old Glenfarclases. This reduced my capacity for “normal” selections by twelve. If money was no object I probably would have gone on the Friday too, there was so much I wanted to try and my palate and liver could only take so much. In the end I wrote myself a fixed list of everything I wanted to have. I included some wiggle room for surprises on the day, grabbed my notebook, and headed to Stourbridge.

First on the list and first of the day was the Springbank local barley 11. A much hyped release we’d manage get a sample of last years edition at Birmingham whisky festival. It was superb that day, and along with a Kilchoman cask sample one of the best whiskies of the day. On this occasion, with this release, I must admit to being slightly disappointed. Perhaps I’d just elevated it too highly in my head in the intervening year, but whilst it was no question a great dram it soon fell from memory. Second up I decided to hit the Ardbeg 21. Ardbeg don’t release age statements much anymore (aside from the core 10 release) and when they do they tend to sell out immediately and go for a large markup at online auctions. I knew this would be one of my few chances to try this, and suspected it would go quickly (it did) so despite ideally wanting to leave it until later I decided to go for it as my second hit. The nose is incredible, the palate is good, the price is ridiculous. Off next to botiquey to try the bunna 33. In my head I thought I’d dial down the peat levels before returning to non peat, in hindsight it was probably a mistake. It’s subtle. Very very subtle. It felt almost fragile. Not the best option for a festival, I think that i needed to sit back with this in a leather wingback with a roaring fire infront of me. Time was already marching on, I’d spent too long chatting to the LVMH ardbeg chap about Champagne, and I needed to get upstairs for the first masterclass. On the way I’d pencilled in a Tomatin, but instead ended up with a Tomintoul 14. A mistake, and sadly not a good one, it was perfectly fine but also perfectly forgettable.

Rob had messaged me in the week telling me there was a chance to join the Glenfarclas masterclass, but at a significant price. Being finacially inept and prone to bouts of hedonism I attempted to weight it up rationally but in the end I just knew I had to go. In my defence a bar in London has a single measure of Glenfarclas 40 for £90, and we were going to have six of them for 50% less than that! The masterclass was presented by George Grant, sales director, family member, whisky legend. I’d never met George before, but he is an excellent story teller and presenter. There was no pretence of corporate public relations at all, he was happy to share many non repeatable stories and really gave it a feel of sitting down with some friends and some whisky for a chat and a good time. Of course the whisky was excellent. I’ve been lucky enough to try the Glenfarclas 40 (standard release) before a few times and it’s never really wowed me. Today didn’t change my opinion on that front, both the old release and the current release of the 40 whilst of course excellent whisky slotted into the “fine, but…” category so many things slip into. Some of the other 40 year olds on the other hand were truely sublime. The 1976 family cask Rob nailed the nose instantly, cherries. So many cherries. I wrote “cherryaid” not because of any artifical notes but just because of the intensity of the cherry on the nose. Amazing. For me though the 2015 Tiwanese 40 stole the show. The cherry element was there, but intertwined with honey, layered, complex, subtle, just out of this world amazing. If I win the lottery this will be on my buy list for sure.

Coming out of the masterclass there was a little bit of me thinking “what’s the point”, but I decided to soldier on anyway, always a trooper! Macallan have brought back age statements. At twice the price. The cheek of it is incredible. The sherry 12 is indeed a decent drop, but at 40% abv and £69 a bottle you’d be an idiot to buy one over say a Glendronach or a Glenfarclas. Arran sauternes cask wasn’t doing much for me, the arran 21st anniversary was much more like it, sadly long sold out now. Glendronach are everyone’s new favourite distillery. The 21 parliament is fine, but not a patch on the 18 Allardice. The cask strength 4 was much more at the races, but still I’d go with the 18. It was getting busy upstairs so I decided to take five, catch my breath, and await the start of the Gordon Macphail masterclass.

The presenter for the G&M class was the polar opposite of George Grant. He wanted to slowly, softly tell us the long and detailed history of the company, the name, everything from 1895 onwards. One hundred and twenty two years of history, and it seemed to take one hundred and twenty two hours for him to tell it. I felt like I was back in school in a lesson I didn’t want to be in, but also a bit tipsy, it was seriously hard work. On another day I’m sure the presentation would have been fine, but three hours into a festival with five amazing glasses of whisky in front of us, it was a serious chore. I didn’t take detailed notes, I was getting a bit beyond that. Suffice to say as a historical curiosity the whiskies were amazing, I doubt I’ll ever try something as old as this again. With the exception of the Strathisla though, given blind, I’m not sure they’d turn my head. Very pleased to have tried them, but once whisky reaches a certain age it’s mostly going to be a curiosity and a wave your willy contest rather than any potential for serious greatness. I hope to be proven wrong someday.

At this point I was pretty much gone. Thankfully all I had left on my list were a few peated expressions I’d mostly tried before to check in on. Glendronach peated in excellent, and I look forward to buying a bottle of that soon. Loch gorm still not quite showing what I feel it will at some stage. The two bunna NAS, moine and ceobanach, I prefered the moine on the day, but can’t say I really remember either. With half an hour to go, I said to Rob B something I’ve never said before at a festival “I’m done”. And I think I was, I’d tried everything I wanted to try, didn’t fancy drinking for the sake of it, and was ready to retire. So retire we did… to the elements stand to catch up with Mari. I had a lovely chat with Craig Mills, hard to find whisky shop manager, and a few samples of the Lg6 that I didn’t really need to have. We briefly managed to say hello to Vicky and Dan from Birmingham whisky club but soon headed off to the pub for the rugby. It was a cagey, slow game, and somehow I decided I needed a few pints of cider to steady me. I didn’t. I put Rob W on a bus (I’ve tried to keep up with Mike before so knew what he was going through!), headed back to the pub, and this is where the curtains of my memory close. Apparently I went to Sedgley on two buses. I got an uber to Wolverhampton to meet a friend who’d been at a wedding. I danced on stage. I walked home catching pokemon. It was an excellent, amazing festival. If I’d travelled to London for it I would be in no way disappointed given the excellent lineup, venue and value (given what was on offer). The masterclasses and dream drams the cherries on an amazing array of whisky to try, long live the midlands whisky festival, I think this was the best one yet.

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