It came as quite a surprise when I received an official invitation for the Victoria Whisky Festival a few months ago. I had always wanted to go there but the distance is just too far to make it a worthwhile trip for a simple whisky blogger because of the travelling costs involved. Of course I accepted the offer.
The festival is being organised by a group of Canadian whisky enthusiasts including Lawrence Graham and this year saw its eighth incarnation. The venue is the Hotel Grand Pacific which is located right at the inner harbour of Victoria B.C. It is said to be the biggest whisky event in Canada, and it spreads over four days from Thursday to Sunday.
What makes the Victoria Whisky Festival special is that it is a non-profit effort, even if it may not look like it on first sight because it is organised in a very professional manner. All proceeds go to a selection of charities, and there are a lot of volunteers involved, most notably for the generous ‘free ride home’ service. The ‘no drink and drive’ policy is enforced very striclty, and as the organizers all are former policemen or army members they know how to handle problematic cases.
I decided to arrive already on Monday which would allow me to get fully rid of any jet lag before the begin of the festival. Tuesday was spent leisurely by having a look at downtown Victoria, the provincial capital of British Columbia. This time of year, the focus is more on ‘provinical’ than on ‘capital’, the city looked a bit sleepy to me. But in the warmer periods of the year, tourism is a major factor in Victoria.
On Wednesday Lawrence invited me over to his house to sample some of his drinking stock (tasting notes to follow soon). This was followed by meeting up with Davin de Kergommeaux for the first time, as sadly he was not able to attend the celebratory Malt Maniacs anniversary trip to Scotland in June. Billy Abbott of The Whisky Exchange and Mark Davidson of Cadenhead’s aka Jolly Toper arrived later that day from the UK, but despite being jet-lagged agreed to have diner with us, Chinese and delicious.
Off to Shelter Point Distillery we went Thursday morning, a tour organized for the guests of the festival (report to follow). In the evening the first official event took place: The Canadian Whisky Awards dinner hosted by Davin de Kergommeaux. Some fine buffet food was served, and then Davin announced the winners assisted by three members of the tasting panel. Individual medals and awards can be looked up at Davin’s Candian Whisky website, but overall winner this year was Forty Creek who won six medals in total and also received the Canadian Whisky of the Year 2012 Award for their Port Wood Reserve.
Another inofficial event followed Friday afternoon at the Strath Liquor Store. SMWS Ambassador Georgie Bell was around to introduce visitors to the Society; the Strath becoming the SMWS central for British Columbia. She brought an excellent 4 and an equally excellent 53 which were very much appreciated by the visitors.
The proper festival then took off in the evening with a round of six Grand Tastings running parallelly. I had picked the Gordon & MacPhail tasting which was nosted by no-one less than managing director Michael Urquhart himself.
Talking both about the drams and the history of G&M, Michael Urquhart did a great job presenting the company. As is almost usual for Gordon & MacPhail tastings the lineup included a true cracker dram, the 60 year old Glen Grant Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, a truly remarkable dram but not everybody’s favourite.
Saturday is always the Big Day of the festival. Four masterclasses in the day are followed by the Consumer Tasting in the evening, the core of Victoria Whisky Festival. But in the morning a special treat was waiting for the VIP guests of the festival, a sailplane tour around Victoria.
Victoria harbour boasts a small seaplane ‘airport’ offering connections to neighbouring towns as well as scenic tours. We were flown in low alttude around Victoria’s shoreline and the surrounding small islands. Despite the mediocre weather with low-hanging clouds, the flight offered some fantastic views on some of the expensive real estate in that area.
But now let’s move on to the whisky. My picks for the masterclasses were:
Nikka with Lawrence Graham – A introduction to the Nikka range including the hard to find Super Nikka blend, the Yoichi 15, Black and White as well as the famous From Thee Barrel blend.
Pulteney with Jim Murray – More on that one in a followup article.
Jonathan’s Eclectic – Jonathan Bray of Purple Valley Imports presented an interesting range of non-Scotch whiskies: Sullivan’s Cove (Ausralia), Amrut Fusion (India), English Whisky Chapter 9 (England, duh), Writer’s Tears (Ireland), Masterson’s Straight Rye (Canada) and the utterly amazing High West Double Rye (Utah)
Bowmore with Iain McCallum – A very entertaing and educational masterclass with Bowmore’s Master of Malts who served the 12 yo, 18 yo, 15 yo Darkest, 15 yo Laimrig, Tempest Batch 3 and the 1992 Bordeaux Cask
Tasting notes and scores for the masterclass drams I had not tasted before will be published in due course.
The final Consumer Tasting occupied the two ballrooms of the hotel. Many well-known brands were included, often presented by high-profile representatives. Like at the TWE Show in London I decided just to put down some quick notes and scores because an event like this is not the proper place for serious and thorough tasting.
Newly tasted drams in the order of tasting:
- Highland Park Thor: Dry, spicy, crips, little fruit – 84/100
- Wild Turkey 81: Lots of cumin, vanilla, smooth, a bit watery, weird finish – 77/100
- Alberta Premium Dark Horse: Rich, almost chewy, dark caramel, rye spices – 81/100
- Canadian Rockies 21: Rich and creamy, immensely sippable – 85/100
- Buffalo Trace regular: Trademark smooth bourbon, only slighly spicy – 81/100
- Johnnie Walker Platinum Label: Well-balanced nose, palate sweet and slightly bitter – 80/100
- SMWS 29.118 “Surprise” (Laphroaig): Chewing gum, skightly herbal, dry, pepper – 84/100
- Edradour Port Cask: Strawberry soap – 70/100
- Longrow 14 yo Burgundy: Strong wine influence, metallic, not really pleasant – 77/100
- Canadian Club Sherry Cask: Creamy, red berries, only minimal spice – 80/100
- Glenlossie 19 yo 1992/2012 C#981 Duncan Taylor: Honey, tropical fruit, creamy, voluptuos – 88/100
- Old Pogue bourbon: Very smooth and pleasant, noting stands out – 84/100
- Knob Creek 9 yo: Rye spice, burnt sugar, complex – 82/100
- Benromach Peat Smoke: Dry mainland peat, newmake notes – 75/100
Very unfortunately I missed the concluding Distillery Dinner beause I needed to return home one day early. Reports have it that some outstanding drams were served at this event.
I must say I thoroughly enjoyed the festival, and the praises I have heard before turned out to be correct. But I have to add that I did not have to pay for any of the events, and the full package I exeperienced plus dinner will put quite a strain on your wallet as every event has to be paid for seperately (there are also a few ticket bundles on offer that give you a small discount).
But be assured though that all events are worth their price. Grand tastings cost $45 ($99 for the Cutty Sark dinner), masterclasses are $28 and the consumer tasting costs $110 regular and $155 with an additional hour of ‘VIP’ access. The choice of tastings or masterclasses is truly phenomenal, 42 in total can be booked and the presenters often are high-profile whisky people.
Organization runs smoothly and efficiently, even at the beginning of the regular consumer tasting when things can get a bit crowded. Bottled still water is available in abundance and each table has a water jug and a spittoon for your perusal. Hotel staff are constantly busy refilling jugs and emptying spittoons.
An extra room housed the food buffet with a nice selection of easy-to-eat treats. Seating space was plentiful – in principle. The hotel lobby had enough room, but understandably it was not allowed to take your dram there, so those who might have wished to enjoy a dram comfortably in a chair had to conquer one of the few places available in the ‘drinking area’.
I have already dropped a few names of notable people I have met. This list would not be complete without the imcomparable Whiskylassie Johanne McInnis and Graham McKenney from New Brunswick who constitute The Perfect Whisk Match and Mark Gillespie of Whiskycast, yet another Malt Maniac I could meet for the first time in person. Tim “The Whistle” Puett provided entertainment at the after-show meting at Clive’s where I also had the pleasure of meeting John Glaser of Compass Box, John Hall of Forty Creek and Andrew Fergusson of Kensington Wine Market.
It was a great experience indeed and I hope I will be able to return.