Present in Spirit if not Body

During a Pandemic the whisky world innovates!

From the 2nd to 9th of October I attended this novel show based on the Hopin virtual event software, which worked seamlessly. We will never replace chatting casually to friends old and new over a dram but this provided a highly effective substitute! The Whisky Exchange, the UK’s leading spirit retailer, set up this fantastic event. Over 1700 delegates from 52 countries participated.The event featured 450 sessions many with accompanying tasting packs .  I believe over 100 well selected packs from The Perfect Measure. The leading brands had virtual booths with active participation by video or web chat with the brand ambassadors and with other delegates as you would at the physical equivalent.

Despite the high attendance, the  number and variety of sessions and booths made it possible to be one of three or four attendees chatting together. Some had larger numbers of attendees but delegates at these tended generally to be reluctant to engage, but the handling of text questions was well attended to and informative.

Let me give you a brief tour round my week at the show which I streamed through my TV from my laptop which gave perfect vision and sound, and importantly kept my hands free for sipping along.

I could visit main stage sessions and the supplier’s booths of my choosing. I chatted to friends old and new, and as Sukhinder Singh MD of The Whisky Exchange said in the Guide ‘all without wearing a face mask!’

I quickly moved over to a video featuring Claire Tesh, Brand Ambassador for Angus Dundee from Glencadam distillery, one of the most distinctive whiskies which I enjoy. A future review I am drafting will feature the brands of the North East of Scotland so I wanted to tune in to an interesting and fun session as Claire successfully chased the wi-fi signal in Brechin.  Fettercairn distillery was next, only a few miles west, without leaving my chair. I did a quick check of my own past reviews of the 29, 40, 50 year old and the 12 year old PX cask as I did not have this tasting pack. I chatted by text with Andrew Lennie the UK Brand specialist and followed his interesting exploration of their new core range.

Everyone was soon getting into the swing of the show. I said a virtual ‘Hi’ to many tasting friends and caught up with those I had not seen for a while.

Afternoon-tea sessions with the bearded and be-hatted (is that a word) Dr. Whisky and Dave Worthington of The Boutique-y Whisky Company  entertained as always!

The evening session featured dancing, singing and ping pong. No one was holding back, celebrating in a lively ‘covid -safe’ party atmosphere and nobody could see my seated ‘dad-dancing’. This was helped by the number of rums being tasted and the wonderful distillers and fans that the rum culture has.

On Saturday I listened to Billy Abbott interview Mickey Head. Mickey is retiring from his role as Master distiller at Ardbeg. It was fascinating to hear Mickey talking about the core range and his role in creating it – the 10, Uigedail , An Oa and the new Wee Beastie 5 year old. I asked a number of questions of Mickey who is so knowledgeable.

I enquired whether the advent of NAS gave him a welcome flexibility in the whisky he blended, which he confirmed because of the excellent flavour of young Ardbeg. Billy Abbot added that Ardbeg is lovely to drink straight from the still!

I clicked about from the main stage to the sessions for the rest of the day. I tuned into Diageo specialists talking about the malts behind the Johnny Walker Blend, a fascinating talk. I then dropped into Glen Moray to talk with Iain Allan Visitor Centre Manager and Kirstie McCallum their effervescent Master Distiller. I even went on screen for a while. I quickly retreated! We talked about peat and sampled their peated sherry cask distillery exclusive which I had a dram left in my bottle to sip along with their masterclass. A classic that only a few got to sample. The good news is Kirstie hopes to do more with peat and sherry in the future. Kirstie is a sherry expert so look out for these in future. As a new make spirit, Glen Moray is robust and works strongly with finishes and sherry casks.

This virtual event gave enthusiasts greater access and exposure to the industries leading experts , distillers, scientist and specialists from all over the world. An experience a physical event just could not equal. By participating from work and home those available to the delegates including Brendon McCarron of Glenmorangie and Ian Palmer of Inch Dairnie experts who demonstrate their depth of knowledge and experience.  Diageo’s Menstrie team were well represented along with their leading Brand ambassadors Colin Dunn and TJ Littlejohn.

Richard Seale of Four Square joined from Barbados. Alan Park of the SWA shared his knowledge of whisky legislation and the exceptional Magali Picard of Demptos in France shared her research expertise on cask maturation. Surhinder Singh conducted a tour of his personal whisky collection an extraordinary array of whisky over the past 40 years. Sukhinder impressed with his vast knowledge and expertise .

I dropped in to the Berry Brother’s booth. I have a wine Cellar Plan with Berry Brothers but had not fully appreciated their long-standing relationship with the whisky industry. The session featured stories from two characters of the industry Ronnie Cox and Doug McIver. Hilarious, interesting and educational in equal measure. Ronnie sipped liberally from a selection of their very expensive offerings poured from a 2 fluid oz measure, to ensure ‘ a decent sized dram’ all delivered beautifully while keeping his black Labrador in check. I want to be Ronnie Cox when I grow up!

It is worth checking out the history of Berry Brothers and Rudd just for your alcohol education.

My first sample pack was an Islay range selected and guided by Surhinder Singh who has a vast knowledge of all the drams and Islay in general, where he is opening a new distillery. The pack included five expressions I had not previously tasted highlighting the breadth of Islay flavours.

I won’t describe every session I visited over the 8 days but I missed very few by using the replay booth to catch up. It was interesting to see general trends emerging with sessions on diversity, sustainability and lots on terroir and developments in improving flavour through new ideas with barley and malting, yeast and new types of cask. We are fortunate to have access to so many entertaining world class experts. Every session delivered by the leading whisky author Dave Broom was a real treat.

It was reassuring to notice that in terms of expertise of presenters and participants there was an even gender balance. The days of old men in smoky rooms drinking their scotch are long gone being replaced with a refreshing, knowledgeable, international fun-loving new generation, prepared to enjoy their whisky, rum and other quality spirits neat, cask strength, mixed or however they fancy it without any hint of sexism or discrimination of any type. I love this community so much. Questions from delegates also demonstrated this gender balance. Our industry is in the safest of hands.

I believe that Virtual Whisky shows will feature large in the future along with physical participation and that we will see both continue to expand as the one promotes the other.  

On the subject of inclusivity, few people in the whisky world know that I am disabled. I attended this event in full without any disadvantage at all. I went from Main Stage to Session to Booth unhindered and enjoyed dozens of drams on the way.

I delved deeply into many of my favourite whiskies including Mortlach, Fettercairn, Ardbeg, GlenCadam, Glen Moray and a few others along with visits to Four Square Rum.

The audience participating was from every part of the world. Distillers could fit sessions in between their daily tasks, attending from their offices.

Surhinder Singh of The Whisky Exchange, Dawn Davies and her team, session hosts Dave Broom and Billy Abbott are to be congratulated on a highly successful event.

I learnt about specialist topics such as worm tubs, sulphur, casks, barley, innovation and legislation and about fortified wines and sherry especially, thank you Dawn! I even bought a dry sherry at my local bar . My family took a photograph! I really enjoyed it and will be trying more fortified wines. If you have developed a good spirit palate you will appreciate the depth and body of these excellent products. Old sherries are a fraction of the price of their whisky equivalent. I will order a bottle in case Aunty visits for Christmas!

If the Whisky Exchange Team repeat the event again next year, I will be there. What might I do differently? Buy more tasting packs. Take more notes. Miss nothing the entire week.