Whether it be job interview feedback, parents’ evenings at school or honest conversations with friends, there’s a process which is known as ‘the shit sandwich’. Last Saturday’s (25.11.17) Whisky Lounge Birmingham festival left a shitty taste in my mouth (which had nothing to do with the whisky…), so it’s only appropriate that this process is applied in this review; because there were some positives to take from the evening session, which I can use to make the shit layer a little more palatable. So, let’s kick off with some of the amazing whisky I got to try:
Top 5 whiskies at the show:
- Paul John Kanya
This recent Paul John expression was an ‘under the counter’ dram, and being a big fan of Paul John and their ambassador Shilton Almeida, this was one of my first stops, upon entry to the festival. Massive tropical notes on the nose – mango, pineapple, quite incredible how they’ve managed to distill a whisky that can smell this way. The palate doesn’t disappoint, either: a 50+% wallop of um-bongo and spice. A real ‘wow’ whisky, and definitely one to revisit outside of festival conditions, with a good half an our to unpick the multitude of tropical layers.
2. Murray McDavid Springbank 1993 Koval finish
I spotted this one on the Murray McDavid stand straight away and had to try it. I love Springbank and other whiskies that I’ve tried form Murray McDavid’s Mission Gold series have always been great, so this was a no-brainer. A few people I’d spoken to on the night didn’t rate it, but for me, this was the standout dram of the night. I find Koval bourbon to have a spiciness to it, and this complemented the Springbank characteristics perfectly. Big peppery notes, sweet caramel, shortbread biscuits and apples. Lovely juice.
3. Kilchoman Red Wine Cask
I’d been waiting to try this since its release a few months ago, and, like most things Kilchoman do, it didn’t disappoint. It wasn’t quite at the level of their Madeira cask finish, which is my personal favourite, but is was still a class act, and the best peated whisky at the show. Sweet, BBQ prawns on the nose, and bitter dark chocolate and slight coffee notes on the palate.
4. and 5. Elements of Islay Lp8 and Bw7
The final two drams of my top 5 come from the same independent bottler – Elements of Islay. The first of these was an ‘under the counter’ dram, a 19 year old Laphroaig which has spent 13 years in a bourbon cask, before a 6 year finish (if you can call 6 years a finish??) in a Madeira cask. I really enjoyed the 2016 Laphroaig Cairdeas Madeira finish, and this was like a concentrated version – hotter, fruitier and with more balls.
The second dram, much to Mariella’s amusement, was something of an enigma for me – a Bowmore that I actually enjoyed. She then proceeded to tell me that it wasn’t like a usual Bowmore expression and my confidence in my palate was restored. This expression was matured in 4 different sherry butts and the sweet, mango and caramel palate had a slight coastal, salinity to it. If all Bowmore had this much going on, I’d be a big fan.
The Sandwich Filling:
Ok, so there were some great whiskies, what’s your beef, Rob?
Well, let me explain. I’ve had great experiences with the Whisky Lounge in the past; been to some great tastings and last year’s Birmingham festival was a good day out. However, there was an atmosphere at this year’s festival that I have never experienced at a festival before. I was in Bristol a few months ago and I heard stories of tickets for the Whisky Lounge festival there selling on certain websites, in 2-for-1 deals *(this has since been denied by the Whisky Lounge). According to some people I spoke to, this lead to the festival attracting people who were there to get pissed and drink as much whisky as possible. Now, I’m no whisky snob, and I appreciate that the whisky industry needs to thrive for distilleries to stay open and innovation to take place, etc. I’ve heard ambassadors in the past say that we need the younger generation to embrace whisky and different markets need to be catered for, in order for the whisky industry to keep moving forward, and I have no issue with new people coming to the table and getting into whisky; I was one of those people a few years ago when I went to my first festival, as part of a stag party! However, that festival had a certain ‘etiquette’ to it, and at no point did I ever feel like it was a platform to get hammered and drink discounted alcohol.
I can’t vouch for what I heard about Bristol, because I wasn’t there, but what I can say is that that same atmosphere was present in Birmingham on November 25th. It started when we were lined up on the stairs, waiting to get into the festival. As tickets were being checked, a young lady cam to the top of the stairs to announce the festival was open and that we should ‘get in there and go wild!’ Given the fact that it was 5pm and outside, there were thousands of people, enjoying one of the biggest Christmas markets in Europe, many of whom had been drinking for large part of the day, and were either already in, or planning to come in to the festival later, I found that this introduction was irresponsible. Once inside, things calmed down a bit and the place filled up nicely. I was aware of many people in there being new to whisky and, as I’ve previously mentioned, I have no problem with this, but it was clear that the Whisky Lounge had done little to educate these new festival goers in what to expect from a whisky festival and how to get the most out of it. Or, they simply didn’t care and they were here to drink as much whisky as possible, something that poses a different problem.
The atmosphere certainly began to change around 7pm, when people who had taken up the 2 hour taster ticket option began to arrive. Again, I fail to see the purpose of this ticket being offered in an evening session, on a Saturday evening, other than encouraging people to come in a drink as much as possible, in 2 hours, for £15. I’m not saying that everyone who bought one of these tickets would have this mentality, but I was amazed that nobody had taken into consideration the different variables in play in Birmingham city centre that night. It was no surprise, then, that shortly after, a fight between two attendees broke out. It was a good ten seconds before any Whisky Lounge staff were on hand to defuse the situation, and by staff I mean the young guy who was selling pork baps. I hadn’t noticed until now that there was a very small security presence, and it showed. At this stage of the evening, a lot of brand ambassadors seemed shook up by the incident, none more than the young lady on the Kilchoman stand, where the fight had broken out. Nevertheless, it was some ten to fifteen minutes after the event, and only after an intervention by myself and Colin Dunn, that anyone from the Whisky Lounge came over to see if she was OK. Colin left shortly afterwards, and he was not happy. I don’t really blame him. I feel like this was an incident waiting to happen, that had been, in a large part, created by the Whisky Lounge, and then not really resolved in the correct way by the Whisky Lounge.
The following morning, I tried to put the whole night into context and I came to the conclusion that I don’t really see a place for the Whisky Lounge Festival in Birmingham. We already have the Whisky Birmingham festival in March, which is great. It takes place at a better venue and is run much better, and actively works to discourage the kind of behaviour that took place at the Whisky Lounge festival. There is also the Midlands Whisky Festival, which takes twice a year, with the second event now taking place in September, in Birmingham. Again, there is a clear focus on quality experiences and masterclasses, and, having attended this festival for five or six years now, I have never seen any fighting or experienced the same kind of atmosphere that was present at the Whisky Lounge festival. I guess they’re aware of their competition, and probably realise that they need to offer a different experience if they are to break into the Midlands whisky scene, where there are already two, established competitors. However, debasing yourself to an organised piss up, in my opinion, is not the way to go about it. The Whisky Lounge offer some great things. Their blending workshops are great fun, and they had one set up on the evening of the festival – but it was manned by a guy who spent most of the time on his phone and was advertised as an afterthought to ‘get in and go wild!’ It’s a shame that this experience, for me, outweighs the great drams on offer. It’ll be two Birmingham festivals for me, next year. And as a fan of whisky, that’s a shame.
The bottom crust:
One final thought – I’ve been told before now, by more than one person, that Birmingham doesn’t have a whisky scene. I guess, in a weird way, this happening proves to me that we do. We have a vibrant whisky scene, that is full of great events, festivals and passionate people, who go out of their way to make sure that whisky is accessible and enjoyable to all who are interested in it. Clearly, there are lots of people who are interested in finding out more and there is huge potential for the scene to continue to expand, in the right way. I’m looking forward to seeing how this continues to develop, next year!