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“You take this very seriously, don’t you?” commented Dave Worthington as a sample of Boutique-y Whisky’s Glenlossie 25 year old found its way into the spittoon.

“I feel bad,” I apologised; “it’s such lovely whisky, but there are too many to get through – I don’t want to miss out!”

It’s midway through Saturday afternoon, and within the venerable bowels of the Honourable Artillery Company, London’s Whisky Live is in full swing.

Let’s linger on that apology – and confession – first of all. They’re words I find myself repeating relentlessly at whisk(e)y festivals, and I do genuinely worry sometimes that I’m causing offence, but yes – I use the spittoon. For everything. Occasionally there’ll be a stand that doesn’t have a spittoon, and when that happens I find myself yo-yo-ing back and forth to a stand that does. Which feels even worse: “excuse me, I’m not here to try your whisky right now, I just want to spit in your bucket.” (I don’t actually vocalise that, obviously. It’s just the unspoken implication.)

In any case, I didn’t think it was that unusual. Surely, I thought, that’s what everyone does, and that’s what the spittoons are there for. But as I was chatting away to Ibon, Loch Lomond’s brand ambassador, he remarked: “in two days you’re the first person I’ve seen do that.”

Great, now I feel even worse.

So here, officially set down, is my apology to all brand ambassadors and whisk(e)y makers to whom I have caused unintentional offence. Rest assured – I love your product. But I’m afraid I won’t stop using the spittoons. Because as much fun as whisky festivals are, Dave is right – I do take them seriously. I’m there to learn.

After all, how often do you have open access to such a broad spectrum of distilled barley juice? Of course there’s no way to get through it all; there wouldn’t be time, and it’d knacker your palate anyway. So – and feel free to laugh all you want at what a loser I am – my festivals usually start with a lap or two of just figuring out where everything is, and what I haven’t tried previously.

And after five hours of tasting, what did I learn?

Well, I said it after the Whisky Show in October, and I’ve already gushed it on twitter, but I’ll say it again: Boutique-y Whisky has, for me, become the stall to beat at these festivals. The breadth of their range is just stunning; malt, grain, blends, rye; Scotland, Ireland, US, Holland. And it doesn’t hurt that with the likes of Dave Worthington and James Goggin they’ve more or less got the A-team of brand ambassadors too. Unsurprisingly the near-opaque Springbank 21 on their table was emptying as fast as they could pour it, but my favourites were that Glenlossie 25 and an outrageously tropical 24 year old Irish. I’ve put a star next to their two blended whiskies as well, for what that’s worth. (Nothing, I expect.)

In fact the independents generally provided some of my top picks of the day, because Murray McDavid were on sparkling form too. Their table’s showpieces were the 26 year old Bowmore and a 48 year old Tomintoul, but the one that really stuck in my mind was their 10 year old Rìgh Seumas I 2004 blended malt. Possibly because I can actually afford it, but it genuinely offers seriously good whisky for the price. And you know I love a good blended malt…

Have to mention the 28 year old Blair Athol from Milroy’s whilst I’m at it. Not a distillery I always get along terribly well with – this could be the best whisky of theirs I’ve ever tried. Superb balance of cask, distillate and maturity. My pick of the festival? It’d be awfully close.

A highlight for me was finally trying the Port Askaig range next to the Elements of Islay. I’ve occasionally wondered quite why Speciality Drinks needed two separate ranges of peated whisky, and what the real points of difference were beyond Port Askaig stating age and Elements stating distillery. Why not lump them all together, I wondered. But chatting to Billy Abbott and tasting them side by side, my conclusion is that the Port Askaig goes in a more elegant direction, whilst Elements is best at conjuring up Islay’s more rumbustious and brutish side. They’re two very different styles, and there’s definitely space for both. That’s just my opinion of course, and you’re more than welcome to disagree. In any case, I prefer the ‘Peat’ expression from Elements to Port Askaig’s 100 proof, but my favourite of the table was Port Askaig’s 15 year old.

What else? I hope Leonardo DiCaprio picked up a bottle of Deanston’s 18 year old on his visit, because it’s a cracker. Bunnahabhain’s Moine Oloroso is brooding, burly and boisterous in an almost over-the-top but fantastically fun way – smoke and sherry battling it out, rather than one swamping the other. Nikka 12 is absolutely delicious…but perhaps not to the degree that it’s worth paying twice the price of From the Barrel. I still love Paul John and I need a bottle of their Peated Select Cask in my life. (That one actually might have edged the Blair Athol as my pick of what I tasted – it deserves all the awards it’s won.)

I mustn’t forget the Canadians. J.P. Wiser’s Dissertation – what a revelation! I have absolutely no idea whether you can get it in the UK; guttingly I suspect the answer is that you can’t. But if you come across a bottle and are a fan of rye-led American whiskies then don’t hesitate for a moment. Same goes for the deliciously complex Gooderham & Worts Four Grain. Canada: please may we have some of this? Pretty please?

Oh, and courtesy of the El Dorado table (especially the sumptuous 21 year old) I’m worried that I might be getting into rum.

A few other thoughts. It got a bit crammed. It’s a lovely space, but it does become a little cattle-marketesque, especially when a fresh wave of eager imbibers arrive midway through. Possibly this is just perspective on how lucky the Whisky Show is in its Old Billingsgate venue, but it’s worth considering as a customer. Basically, arrive early and do the popular stalls first. Or you’ll be waiting. A lot.

I’d like to see a few more tables for whiskies from around the world. F.E.W, Michter’s and Balcones were the only obvious US options, plus Japan’s Nikka, Ireland’s Teeling, South Africa’s Bain’s Cape Mountain, Sweden’s Mackmyra and Box, Taiwan’s Kavalan, and India’s Paul John and Amrut. (There may be others that slipped by me, for which I apologise.) Don’t get me wrong – that’s a very strong selection, and with a room full of delicious whiskies – more than enough to be getting on with – this seems a slightly silly criticism. But Whisky really is global now, and whilst I love Scotch whisky as much as (if not more than) the next man, festivals like this ought to be the best place to explore the full breadth of what’s on offer. As I say, this is only a slight criticism – and the ‘world’ options (not a fan of that term…) are definitely increasing. I’d just like to see that continue really. Probably I’m just fussy.

Cocktails and crackers are a fantastic shout. A gin and tonic was an absolutely perfect palate respite midway through, and crackers/water biscuits are definitely the best sponges.

Which more or less concludes my roundup. As ever with these festivals there were tables I missed that I’d have loved to get to, and tables I did get to that I haven’t mentioned here – so my apologies to those I’ve overlooked. Too many whiskies, too little time! I’m also sorry for the paucity of photos – for some reason I more or less completely forgot!

The bottom line is that I had an absolutely super afternoon, that Whisky Live was a triumph, that the whiskies presented were of a very high average standard indeed, and that if you missed it you should save the date for next year.

And that I’m sorry for using the spittoons. Sort of.

Cheers!

My five favourite whiskies of those I tasted (for what it’s worth; and remember ‘favourite’ doesn’t mean ‘best’):

That Boutique-y Whisky Company Glenlossie 25 years old

Milroy’s of Soho Blair Athol 28 years old

Paul John Peated Select Cask

J.P. Wiser’s Dissertation

Port Askaig 15 years old

 

 

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