Monday, 3 March 2014

Out and about: The Newcastle Whisky Festival

On Saturday, I headed across the border to attend the sixth annual Newcastle Whisky Festival, hosted by The Whisky Lounge - my first festival and an unforgettable day. My old mate and fellow whisky enthusiast Yan lives in the city, so it would have been rude not to go, and after a three-hour train journey I arrived - slightly tired - in Newcastle at 10.20am, ready for a day of full-on dramspankery. At 12 noon, we queued patiently outside the city’s Civic Centre in a snaking crowd consisting mainly of gentlemen of a certain age - although some young uns of both sexes began to arrive as the afternoon unfolded.
    I had planned the trip carefully, with a lovely new pen and notebook stuffed into my back pocket for tasting notes but unfortunately - with so many whiskies and so little time, the five hours flew by in a whisky-induced haze - that I wrote down little aside from the drams I tried and a few hastily scribbled notes which began to resemble Cyrillic script by the end of the day. The first stop was at the Paul John stand - an Indian whisky which promised much. A dram of the Paul John Peated (55.5%) was followed by the Paul John Classic (55.2%) and we agreed that while both had a great nose and a fairly complex palate, the finish on both of them was on the short side. Still, not a bad start to the day.
    Next, we headed to the Rock Town stand, which featured a staggering array of whisky and other curiosities. While Yan got stuck into a 75-year-old cognac (£200 a bottle), I sipped a glass of Rock Town Arkansas Rye (46%). I like rye but unfortunately, I wasn't hugely impressed, and I found an excessive amount of rubber on the nose and I wasn't a fan of the sour taste either. To cleanse my palate, I took a punt on the Rock Town Apple Pie (20%). It was sweet and tasted exactly as you might expect from a product called Apple Pie - a massive cinnamon hit followed by sweet apple and buttery pastry. Not exactly complex but swishing it around my gob served its purpose, getting rid of the rubbery rye and replacing it with a mouthful of sweet cinnamon instead. Listerine, take note.
    The next stop on the whisky trail took us on a long-haul flight across the world to New Zealand - well, across the room at least - where The New Zealand Whisky Company were showing off their produce. I first tried their DoubleWood 15 (40%) which had been finished in red wine casks. Brand ambassador, Erik mentioned Merlot casks and as my wine knowledge is basic to say the least - you can still buy Black Tower, right? - that was good enough for me. But no matter, I didn't like it. The whisky had a very unusual taste, while the finish was heavy on drying tannins which really didn't agree with me. That said, their Milford Single Malt 15 year old (43%) fared much better, with some nice character on show including some lovely fruit and syrup notes.
     A couple of glugs of water followed by a wee 10 minute rest and we were off again, this time to Scotland for the first time, and a sample of Royal Lochnagar Distiller's Edition (40%). I do like the regular bottling of Royal Lochnagar - very easy drinking and available at a decent price, malt fans - so I was keen to try this expression, but again I was left underwhelmed - largely due to the fact the Distiller's Edition uses wine casks in its maturation. I think it's fair to say that whiskies aged in wine casks just aren't for me so I'll be steering clear in the future.
    Following a couple of uninspiring drams and in need of something familiar to rebalance the old taste buds, we made a beeline to the Glen Garioch stand. I plumped for a reassuring dram of the Glen Garioch Founder's Reserve (48%) which was excellent and full of the same nutty character that makes the 12 such a good whisky.
    From Scotland, we then headed back to India, this time via the Amrut stand. I had heard a great deal about this distillery and was eager to try a couple of their whiskies. I first tried the Amrut Fusion (50%) which blew me away. A delicious dram with depth and complexity. Next came the Amrut Intermediate Sherry Matured (57.1%) which, like the Fusion, was just lovely. Again, very complex with a lot going on and I slid away from the stand with a huge smile on my face. I tried going back for more later in the afternoon, but everything had gone, so I'm clearly not the only one who enjoyed their products.
    It was then time for a breather - and more water - before we headed away from the increasingly inebriated crowd to a private room and The Islay Expedition - a tasting session which cost £15 on top of the festival ticket price - exceptional value if you ask me.
    Accompanied by a video and several atmospheric shots of Islay, The Whisky Lounge founder Eddie Ludlow guided us across the island via six cracking Islay malts in an informative, entertaining and humorous session. Eddie's love of all things Islay shone through and proved to be the highlight of the day.
    We sampled Kilchoman's 2nd release (50%), Caol Ila Port Askaig 19 year old (50.4%), a SMWS bottling of a 19 year old Caol Ila from a refilled sherry butt (60.3%), a Master of Malt single cask Ardbeg from a sherry hogshead (56.3%), the Lagavulin Feis Ile 18 (51%) and the Ardbeg Ardbog (52.1%).
    I really enjoyed five of the drams - my favourite being the Lagavulin - but the Ardbog proved to be something of a disappointment. The rubbery smell on the nose was an instant turn-off and I left the session quite glad I didn't buy a bottle when I had the chance last year. In other news, wafts of rubber were starting to become something of a nuisance in Newcastle.
    Following a breather, we battled our way through the heaving masses and checked out Martin Armstrong's Whisky Broker stand. Crammed with a fine selection of independent bottlings we shared three drams between us: a 20 year old Aultmore (54.4%), a 24 year old Macallan (54.4%) and a 25 year old Invergordon (51%). All were single casks and all were quite brilliant. For me, the Aultmore was the stand out dram of the whole day - sweet and delicious - and I'll be looking to buy a bottle later in the month (if there are any left). The sweet note continued with a drop of The Glenrothes 2001 (40%) - another dram which I really enjoyed, before we headed back to Islay for a feisty and delicious Kilchoman 2007 (46%). By this point in proceedings, we were nearing the end, and as if we hadn't consumed enough whisky already, we decided to dash around the hall in a blind panic to try and taste a few more. I tried The Compass Box's Oak Cross (43%) which I thought was excellent, The Tweeddale 14 (46%) - more brilliance from Alasdair Day - and I just had time for a quick nip of the Laphroaig Quarter Cask (48%) before the curtain came down on a brilliant afternoon.
    Sadly, we didn't have the chance to get round every stand - I couldn't get near the Bladnoch table, for example, because people just stood there refusing to move. At events such as this, you should get a whisky, learn a bit about it, then move to one side and let others in while you enjoy your dram. Sadly, some people seemed to be rooted to the spot which was a bit disappointing.
    Cast out into the daylight was a shock to the system and after some thoughtful beard stroking and intense debate, it was decided it would be a good idea to go to the pub to muse over our splendid afternoon (this seemed like a good idea at the time, but didn't seem so clever on Sunday morning). A couple of fizzy beers followed - Peroni, I think - and a dram of Nikka From the Barrel. My recollection of the conversation in the pub is hazy, but I’m pretty sure it involved planning a camping trip to Islay next year. Let's see how that one goes...
    It was then time to head off into the night - well, late afternoon at least - and grab some much-needed food, lots of water, a couple of paracetamol and an early night.
    The train journey back home on Sunday was arduous - full of squawking people, petulant, wailing children, and endless loud, high tempo ring tones - but I made it home in one piece with a hogshead full of memories, a scribbled mess of almost incomprehensible notes, and a bottle of Amrut Fusion.
    What a fantastic weekend. Hopefully I'll have recovered in time for the Edinburgh Whisky Stramash in May.

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