Manchester Whisky Festival.

The Whisky Lounge is a group of self-proclaimed whisky evangelists whose mission it is to spread the word of whisky to the the masses. And what better way to do this than to invite some top whisky distillers and whisky makers to a whisky festival slap bang in the centre of Manchester and then open the doors to the general public to sample their wares.

The festival was held at the Palace Hotel, literally across the road from the Oxford Road Train Station and held across two rooms over a day time and an afternoon session. Due to other engagements we could only attend the later session – which was also the most popular. The session started at 3pm and an hour later the registration queue was snaking out of the bar and into the hotel lobby.

After getting the programme, some water and the all important tasting glass we went and said hello to our friends Julian and Katy at Wright Wine Company who were providing the shop for the festival. Every dram that you tasted that day could be bought from them. They seemed to having a very busy time of it and so we left them and decided to get down to the serious work of sampling some drams.

Having had a tip off that the downstairs room was marginally quieter we headed down and found the Tullibardine stand. Tullibardine is one of Scotland’s more recent distilleries, situated in Blackford (home to Highland Spring Water) off the A9 and not far from Gleneagles. They were showcasing a number of their cask finishes (although the recent rum cask finish didn’t seem to be on the stand). The Banyuls cask finish – Banyuls is a French fortified wine, very similar to Port but usually a little lower in alcohol and tends to be sweet – we last tried at the distillery and it didn’t rock our world at the time, and still didn’t today. Sorry. However, the Aged Oak did. A young whisky around 6-7 years was all full-on spice and gentle barley. Fresh but balanced and very youthful – a perfect aperitif and dangerously drinkable.

Compass Box were next door. They don’t distil whisky but select choice Scottish casks which they then carefully blend together to create their range of whiskies. Possibly some of the most innovate bottles in the Scotch category with big, bold statement-like whiskies. The new (fourth) version of Flaming Heart was available to try. Previous runs had used Caol Ila as the main Islay thrust but this one had replaced it with Laphroaig. It was all bbq-chips and bbq-crisps on the nose with a clearly defined, pin-point accurate spice presence in the mouth, then came the tell-tale peaty Laphroaig characteristics but with a touch of greater sweetness coming from the quality casks. A winner by all accounts. Also on (limited) show was a bottle Compass Box had made exclusively for Selfridges called the Entertainer. A blend with a very high proportion of malt and with a whack of peat – essentially harking back to the original style of whisky, a time before single malts as a marketing exercise and when whisky meant robust blends. The nose is all dusty wood burnt embers, rich and round and a lovely interplay between spice and distant peat smoke. The delivery is superb with the spice waltzing in and the oils stepping in behind. There’s a tangy, spiky pear fruit and the finish is long and wonderfully balanced. Unmistakably Compass Box but also toned down and a little more refined – like an MTV Unplugged set. There’s only 1000 bottles of this but it’s worth tracking down.

Earlier on in the day we had booked on to one of the Masterclasses that were running during the festival. This one was hosted by Eddie, the founder of WhiskyLounge, and he presented a 3D tasting session. The idea was of matching four rather special whiskies alongside some food, as well as showing some pictures and photos of Scotland to invoke a more cerebral and emotional response to the drinks.

First up was the John Lane Powers Pot Still. Single Pot Still Whiskey is inherently Irish, it is a style that only the Irish make and is, as such, their home grown spirit. Slightly confusingly named, it is tripled distilled in Pot Stills, but the key point is that it is made from both malted AND unmalted barley. Historically this came about due to the lower taxation on unmalted barley. Only Middleton distillery (Jameson’s) near Cork make it, (although Cooley have but it’s currently too young to be called whisky). It was served up with some creme brule that Eddie’s wife, Amanda, had made the evening before.

Next up was a sample of Glenfarclas 40 year old. A rare treat and given as Eddie’s birthday was coming up soon. Served alongside Amanda’s delicious chocolate tart. Kicking around just below the £300 mark for a bottle meant a bit of savouring was called for. A fantastic experience with the nose revealing the obvious Sherry influence, alongside  a little thread of walnuts and dates. There was candied sugars which became almost rum like – like a rum and raisin chocolate bar – and an everso slight hint of clean mint. The palate showed delicate spice, waves of dark chocolate and sherry with a touch of bitterness to hold it all together. The mouth was coated with oils and the spice poked through at the end showing an amazing balance between all the elements. The chocolate tart seemed to bring out and emphasise autumnal orange notes. I got a very faint hint of sulphur but thought it integrated itself into the experience as opposed to mar it. All in all a big winner.

Third on the bill was a 25 year old cask sample from Glenmorangie. One of the elements that made up Dr Bill Lumsden’s Signet creation. Also matured in a Sherry cask but not taking on anywhere near the colour of the Glenfarclas. The nose was all butterscotch, light and creamy. The palate had bags of tingly spice and layered barley with a light and powerful finish, leading to bitterness. Served with classic shortbread it amplified the sweetness at the expense of the bitter notes and made it more rounded. At 56.7% it took a while to get going and really benefited from some time in the glass. Going back to it later on, it opened up somewhat more to reveal more Starburst sweet like fruit, with a bigger chunk of orange notes and a slight hint of pleasing smoke. You could kind of see how this element fitted into the Signet bottle but on it’s own one that got better over time. I would have liked to seen it after half an hour in the glass but it was well drunk by then.

Finally another cask sample, this time an 11 year old, unmistakably from Ardbeg. On the nose was a powerful but light citrus smoke that combined with a softer bbq-smoked fish aroma. On the palate the a toasty sweet note came through first with the spices following on later. A weird twist of bitter then layered with the sweet notes again with some slight oils. The finish kept giving a layering of sweetness, smoke, bitter and spice. Overall it twisted and turned like a fish on a line which was apt as smoked salmon was served alongside it which brought out the oak and sweetness in the whisky.

Throughout the presentation Eddie played some slideshow photos of places, family and friends. His wife, Amanda, is Irish and relevant pictures accompanied the John Powers tasting. Good company and sharing was the theme played alongside the Glenfarclas and pictures of the Highlands and Islay tried to encapsulate the environment and the land in which these drams had been made for the last two. There is something to be said about drinking these whiskies in the places they were made, especially on Islay, which kind of holds some mysticism and romance to the experience. And although photos on a flat-screen TV in a function room of a posh hotel in the middle of Manchester are no substitute for the squall blowing off the Oa, midges biting you to death and avoiding dead sheep on the Low road, there was a tremendous amount of effort to convey these aspects. All in all a very nice master-class, with some exceptional drams and some great company.

Next stand after Eddie’s class was from Berry Brothers. The London wine and spirit shop of repute who bottle their own whisky. Now I know that the stuff they knock out isn’t always cheap, but it’s always a safe bet that it’s going to be good. Fortunately they have a list of all the stuff they have on show (there’s quite a few bottles to get through and the crowd is fairly big due to a massive interest in their ginger liqueur – for some reason).

First (s)up is the Girvan. And it’s good, an instant favourite. Beautiful, delicate grain. Rich, soft spice, a clean, light fade, almost ice cream-like on the nose too. I like this muchly and one that we’ll be buying to explore further.

Then next up is the Inchgower. One of the main components in Bell’s and the industry’s lowest cut point (geek fact). I’ve got a soft spot for Inchgower. It’s Speyside by the sea and it doesn’t always taste like it noses or taste anything like a Speyside on occasions. I’ve had a Connosieur’s Choice bottle that once drank like eating Oysters – brine all the way. And I loved it. If only I could find another bottle!! I also love the official F&F bottles that give one thing on the nose and another on the palate. So when it was described as “idiosyncratic” in their own notes, well….

On the nose it was like airplane seats, air freshner, creamy pine and sweet and sour. The palate began with spice then swerved into bitterness then a medicinal element that comprised of sticking plasters. Slightly green but developed. On the short to medium finish the bitterness continued  accompanied by a suggestion 0f gooseberries and a huge dose of nuts. Salt and brine bubbled up at the end giving it a coastal feel. Now that is a direct copy of my tasting notes on the day. This malt is like the shouty man in the pub. You may not like it but you certainly can’t forget it. Personally I like things that are hard work and this is a taste-bud challenger. If only the price tag wasn’t just shy of the ton mark I’d be having some of this on order.

After that I dive in to the Auchroisk from 1991. A fairly tasty Speyside that I’ve never really grown to cherish. There’s something about it, I like it, it tastes good but I can’t seem to get on with the full-bodied, mealiness about it. It has all the right things going for it. And this bottle shows fruit and herbs on the nose; oils, bitter fruit and woody spices on the palate with a sweet and sour two step to finish. Indeed sweet and sour pork would love this, the whisky cutting through the fat of the batter. For me, Auchroisk feels like an uncomfortable child, gangly, one that should be loved, but it’s potential unfulfilled.

Finally off their stand, before I thought that they thought I might go through all their ware, was the Caol Ila 1983 (53.9%). On the nose deep smoke, with a fishy oiliness that you kind of expect from this distillery on the delivery. Sweet and smoky and salty. It’s at this point that the perfect food match hits me. Snails in garlic and this dram would rock. The finish fades out blissfully, like an Ibiza sunset, without fanfare or resignation and with the salt becoming more prominent as it does so. But this and snails in garlic butter. Oh lordy.

As a direct comparison I got to try the Whisky Lounge’s own Caol Ila bottle. Joe was holding the stand and I got to say hello to John who runs the York Whisky Shop. The Whisky Lounge bottle was from the year previous, 1982, and had the edge on the balance. Less salt, more marine, sweeter, chewy and candy with bitter and salt on the finish. Probably a little easier as a stand alone whisky.

Joe had a quick five minutes before he had to run his own masterclass. So a quick catch up was in order and a viewing of the upstairs room that I’d so far neglected due to the heavy crowds. After attending WhiskyLive in London earlier on in the year, I learnt, a little ahead of time, about Springbank‘s new Red range – the name they were going to use to bottle some of their wine cask finished whisky. I’ve had wine cask finishes before from Springbank but not always felt they actually worked with the malt. I tried a cask sample of (what I wrote down at the time as a 9 year but it looks like the official release is a 14 year old) Longrow Burgundy finish at 56.1% at the Whisky Exchange show last year and felt it didn’t sit together quite right. Longrow Red is their newest wine cask finish, aged for 7 years in refill Bourbon and then another 4 years in an Australian Cabernet Sauvignon hogshead. Only 9000 bottles I’m told. And this one, on first tasting, seems to work a dream. Longrow being the peatiest of the Springbank family, it has a subtle and sweet (almost coy) showing of the peat – which is clean, open log fires than the medicinal Islay style. The smoke is a lot more subtle and tempered than expected. The best trick is that it takes a while for the wine influence to arrive. It keeps you hanging around for a while and then it comes bowling in right at the very end. It develops, with sweet and sour cherry, almost kirsch, flavours. Impressed, this seems to actually all hang together. It drinks like a story reads. A beginning, a middle and a wine driven end. I’m looking forward to trying this again to see it I think the same second time round. But so far, one of the drams of the year.

After that, it was a quick sweep of a few drams that had passed me by. I gave the Auchentoshan Valinch a go. Matured in first fill bourbon for 6 years and bottle at cask 57.5%. A lot of smooth, creamy spice. Followed by some more spice. My favourite riff on the Auchentoshan so far, the youth and high alcohol suiting the flavours of this triple distilled Lowlander. Like the punk kid in a public school; all attitude and brashness amongst the clean and orderly.

It’s a great fact to reel out that the Indian population drink twice as much whisky than all of Scotland produce. However, the majority of it would fall foul of European legislation as it is made from molasses (the by-product of sugar) and hence is technically rum and not whisky. Amrut, is made from malted barley and distilled in a pot still and so can be legally called whisky in Europe. Not only that, but they make some amazing and creative drinks too. The big hitters are the Fusion and the Peated but the Amrut Sherry Intermediate was one I hadn’t sampled. It was, like most of their output, gorgeous stuff. Displaying a lovely balance both on the nose and the palate and continued to the finish too. Spice with lashings of chocolate-chip cookies. Perhaps lacking the verve of their other, more famous, bottles but showing a different and more considered approach that can get easily lost amongst the festival noise.

Balblair was next. One of north highlands most overlooked distillery. And like Glenrothes, a whisky company that likes to use distillation dates, rather than ages for their whisky. We’ve been drinking the, now slightly unavailable 2001, but they were showing the 1989 and 2002 back to back. The 1989 was chunkier and fuller, but still light and delicate. Clean and fresh with hints of ginger, apple and greengage. The 2012 was sweeter and more youthful. The apple notes still present but crunchier. Again gossamer light but woven around a thread of fruit and spice. Fresh, lively and invigorating. Two great drams; the same but different. All about the occasion. Perhaps the complexity of the 1989 edging it for me. Although on another day….

The end of the festival was nearing and I could see the Buffalo Trace stand were packing up around this time; after running dry of most of their wares. The Rockhill Farms, that we wanted to have a go on, was firmly gone but we sneaked a quick slug of Hancock – which was ultra smooth and tasted a like a candy shop looks. There wasn’t a prominent spice component that led me to believe that there was a healthy chunk of wheat over rye in the mashbill. But I’ll have to go check some details on that to be sure.

The final sweep included the Bruichladdich Islay 2006. Fresh and beautifully integrated. We had a quick chat to the lovely people at the Scottish Whisky Cask Society over a 28 year old Tomore.  The exact details of the chat escape us now but the whisky was nice. That we know, as it is the one word appraisal we found in our notes, followed by a few exclamation marks.

In the lobby we were commended for our note taking abilities at such a late juncture and then recommended to sample the Macduff 2000 off the Berry Brothers stand, which had seemed to be a particular highlight with a few people at the show.  With last pour ringing in our ears we managed to fight our way to the stand to find out that it has all gone. So obviously a festival hit. But we’d already made a note to sample the Caroni Trinidad Rum at the end of the show. Rum at a whisky show? Yeah we love rum!

Caroni is now a lost distillery in Trinindad, with only the giant columns stills of Angostura remaining. Caroni produced amazing, pungent rums. Nothing like the sweet and vanilla style mostly associated with rum.  Caroni, is dirty. It’s all about deep leather and sweet plums combined with an ever present layering of spice, smoke, leather and sweetness. One to savour and phathom it’s depths. And a great way to finish off the show.

Overall a great success and another amazing accolade for the team at Whisky Lounge whose tasting evenings and events grow from strength to strength. It was great to see various Whisky Lounge team members jumping onto different stands to showcase their products. It shows the skills and depth of knowledge that the team bring to these events. Personal highlights were Eddie’s class with the Glenfarclas 40 year old. The Longrow Red was especially interesting and pretty much everything from Berry Brothers and Rudd was consistently great. Roll on next year.

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About whiskysheffield

Society for Whisky drinkers and malt enthusiasts in Sheffield.
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