Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010
November is a busy month in the whisky spheres. In fact, one of my colleagues referred to the beating his liver takes at this point in the season, and how the important stuff would have to wait until November was finished. Priorities, folks…priorities.
Arguably the biggest local event is the Willow Park Whisky Festival. Ten years in and going stronger than ever is a fine indication that the folks at Willow Park really know how to put together an event. Better yet…they know how to throw a party. The 2010 festival was all of that and more. Eight hundred of Calgary’s finest (and a few honorary Albertans from across the pond) were gathered for an evening of laughter, enlightenment and stunning drams. The
Before we get to the whiskies I should mention that the Calgary Police Pipers Band and the Highland Dancers were in fine form. These folks drew a crowd in their own right. Highly talented, engaging and entertaining. The lasses looked lovely and the band played their hearts out. A nifty little addition.
The festivities were spread liberally across three floors. You’d think that would be plenty of space, but it was still shoulder to shoulder through much of it. This is no complaint, simply an attestation as to the prestige this event is developing. The layout was clean and logical. Food stations were sprinkled liberally through the venue, earning rave reviews in their own right. Though my attentions (for whatever reason) were focused elsewhere, the mumblings of how exceptional the food was were unavaoidable.
The crowds were jovial and curious. It’s exciting to see that people are no longer content to sit back with the most well-marketed dram in hand. The new generation of malters are keen to learn and dollar conscious. This is only going to benefit all of us, as the industry will be forced to rethink its strategies when consumer dollars begin to trickle to the smaller craft distillers instead of the global giants. Ahem…debate for another day.
The festival was a veritable ‘who’s who?’ in the whisky world. It was actually difficult to think of distilleries (active distilleries, you anorak nitpickers) that weren’t represented to some degree. Though, as to be expected, there were a few lost souls attending simply to sink beneath the waves of inebriation (drinking drams like shots for instance), for the most part attendees were eager to sample drams from off the beaten path. Let’s face it…that is exactly the aim of all involved. What better way to try something that may be just on the cusp of your price range? Knowing it is exceptional may be just the nudge you need.
The Bruichladdich / Murray McDavid table was hopping early, and remained busy through the course of the night. One of the draws here, aside from the fine malts on offer, was the chance to say ‘hi’ to Andrew Gray, of Bruichladdich. I waited by the table a couple times to meet one of the few folk from Bruichladdich I haven’t yet met, but minutes are at a premium in events like this. I had to move on. I think perhaps Bruichladdich was as busy as it was due in no small patr to the incredible support they receive from Willow Park. The groaning shelves of Bruichladdich expressions upstairs, and constant turnover of new product, have ensured that shoppers at WP have been exposed to quite a range of Bruichladdich’s oft limited and always intriguing fare.
One of my favorite spirit shops supporting one of my favorite distilleries. I love it.
I should note here, keep an eye on Willow Park in the coming months for a brilliant Bruichladdich surprise. When you’re in the shop, tap Dave on the shoulder and tell him you want in on the Bruichladdich treat coming.
John Glaser was in attendance for the Calgary debut of Compass Box’s Flaming Heart. Heafty dram, this. Though I heard a couple of dissenting views, the reception to this seemed to be overwhelmingly positive. The heavy peat notes in this one are courtesy of Ardmore, and there is simply no mistaking the Ardmore profile once you get a nose in the glass. In this reviewer’s humble opinion Mr. Glaser has knocked another one out of the park.
I believe the coming months have John returning to host another tasting event for the Compass Box faithful here in the big city. If you haven’t attended one of John’s presentations…I highly recommend keeping a flexible schedule.
The dram of the night for yours truly was unquestionably from the 1985 Glendronach cask that David Michiels selected and had bottled exclusively for Willow Park. The sweetest, boldest and most beautifully balanced sherry you are likely to run into this year. Exceptional and well worth the price of admission. As is par for the course in whiskies of this nature…buy two. These are extremely limited.
Ronnie Cox, manning the Glenrothes table, was friendly and warm. A little sweet talking could have perhaps netted you a wee nip from the ’79 he had secreted beneath the table, but I don’t imagine you’d be disappointed with a dram of the 1991 either.
Through the course of the evening, I had countless brilliant conversations with reps and ambassadors from near and far. Their enthusiasm was contagious and the excitement they showed for certain products was indicative that this is much more than a career for most. It is a passion.
Arguably the best chat I had this eve was with Purple Valley Import’s Jonathan Bray. As I mentioned in a review of one of Jonathan’s earlier Willow Park events (http://www.allthingswhisky.com/?s=rattray), Jonathan is an easy-going and engaging guy. We compared thoughts on a few of his Rattray line and discussed…well…all things whisky.
There are some tentaive arrangements made to do a little more with Jonathan in the near future. Expect to see more on the Rattray expressions in coming months.
I should briefly mention as well…
Another Willow Park exclusive available in the store is A.D. Rattray’s bottling of a 22 year old Caol Ila (http://www.allthingswhisky.com/?page_id=58). An absolutely stunning Caol Ila that is in ever-shrinking quantity. If you have the opportunity…do grab one.
As blasphemous as this may sound to those who know me, I didn’t even touch the Ardbeg wares tonight. A classy little set-up in the corner drew crowds by the bucketload, but though I was there to report back, I was also there to try some new goodies. Why burn out the tastebuds on expressions I already own. There can’t possibly have been more than a tiny handful of whiskies on offer tonight that could have outshone the Uigeadail or Corryvreckan though. Sorry…fanboy for life apparently.
Even though the pours were getting mighty short by the end of the night (I saw a few that were no more than 1/5 of an ounce), I imagine there were many a hurting head come Thursday morning. Ahhh well…I think that’s okay once a year. Don’t you?
And how ’bout shadows cast over the event? Well…I’ll reiterate what Maltmonster said elsewhere earlier… It’s time for Willow Park to move away from the large, squat rocks glasses and towards something tulip shaped. Glencairn, preferably. Worst case…how ’bout a wine glass? And possibly a way to rinse glasses between whiskies? It’s quite difficult to nose whisky from a tumbler. And even more so, when that tumbler had Port Charlotte in it at one point.
Hey…these are honestly the only criticisms I could possibly level here. This was a first class event put on by a first class team at Willow Park. David and the gang at WP did a bang up job, and have only whetted my appetite for February’s festival. Check back regularly for updates as we get ’em.
A few of the highlights / lowlights:
Favorite of the night: Glendronach 1985 (exclusive to Willow Park)
Best ambassador/rep run-in: Great chat with Jonathan Bray
Biggest Surprise: Big Peat.
Diassapointment: Bowmore 18
A few other gems: Amrut Cask Strength Peated, Old Pulteney 17, Port Charlotte PC7, Compass Box Flaming Heart