Heading off to a whisky show? Read this first!

With expo shows like Whisky Live now up and running in many countries, whisky lovers all over the world now have the opportunity to attend amazing tasting events where there is much to sample and experience in a short session.

(Note this article has been amended for European/US readers. If you’re reading in Australia, click here for the original, more localised version).

I recently reflected on how many different articles I’d written over the years (mostly for Scotch Malt Whisky Society publications) that shared a theme or objective that could loosely be summarised as “How to get the most out of your dram”.  But something that hadn’t been addressed in any detail is how best to plan your attack when attending an expo tasting event.  Playing it right, or otherwise, can mean the difference between having an outstanding sensory and culinary experience, or having a dull, confusing session.

As someone who regularly attends these events as both a regular punter and as an exhibitor behind a table, I’m only too aware that attendees need to plan their session or employ wise strategy if they are to get the best out of what is on offer.  Play it wrong, and you truly rob yourself of a rewarding, positive opportunity.

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Heading off to a whisky show? Read this first! (Aussie version)

For too many years, Australians were starved of the opportunity to attend whisky expo events.  We’d all hear and read about the amazing Whisky Live events overseas, or even the epic Dramfest in New Zealand, but it’s only relatively recently in Australia that these events are becoming regular attractions in the most of the capital cities.

(For those who like a bit of history, the first true expo event in Australia was in Canberra in 2003 as part of the Australian Malt Whisky Convention.  That was a biennial event that was then repeated in Sydney in 2005 and Melbourne in 2007.   Whisky Live arrived on the scene in Sydney in 2009, where it was joined a year or two later by The Whisky Fair, followed by The Whisky Show in 2012.  Other local organisations have joined the party, such as the QMWS hosting their expo in Brisbane since 2011.  This year, The Whisky Show spread its wings to Melbourne, and of course, Whisky Live has now been a nationwide roadshow in Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney and Brisbane for the last few years.  And, whilst their scale is much, much smaller and limited to their own label, let’s not forget the “Steps to Heaven” or “Extravaganza” tastings put on by The Scotch Malt Whisky Society around the country since 2009).

The point is, most Aussie whisky enthusiasts can now attend an expo-style event.  I recently reflected on how many different articles I’d written over the years (mostly for SMWS publications) that shared a theme or objective that could loosely be summarised as “How to get the most out of your dram”.  But something that hadn’t been addressed in any detail is how best to plan your attack when attending an expo tasting event.  Playing it right, or otherwise, can mean the difference between having an outstanding sensory and culinary experience, or having a dull, confusing session.

As someone who regularly attends these events as both a regular punter and as an exhibitor behind a table, I’m only too aware that attendees need to plan their session or employ wise strategy if they are to get the best out of what is on offer.  Play it wrong, and you truly rob yourself of a rewarding, positive opportunity.

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Balvenie Tun 1509

The Balvenie Craft Bar & the launch of The Balvenie Tun 1509 in Australia

The Balvenie continues to go from strength to strength as owners, William Grant & Sons, continue to showcase their wares.     As someone who’s both watched and even participated in the growth of their brands in Australia over the last 15 years or so (in a former life, I presented a couple of Glenfiddich & Balvenie tasting events for the local distributor at the time), it’s been fascinating to see the brands take on even more depth and gain traction in the local market, now that WG&S have their own Australian operation.

One of the points of differentiation for The Balvenie has been – quite rightly – the focus on its quality and craftsmanship.  In terms of its actual size and annual output, The Balvenie is one of Scotland’s larger distilleries, but that – in no way whatsoever – implies a degree of mass production methodology.  Rather, The Balvenie maintains some wonderful traditions in its production and focuses on quality over quantity.  One classic example of this is the maintenance of the distillery’s malting floor and the fact that they continue to malt a portion of their own barley on site.   (I say “portion”, because it’s around 10% of their total requirements these days, but it’s still a nod to traditional production and – let’s face it – with the exception of the on again / off again malting at Benriach, The Balvenie remains the last distillery on the mainland, north of the Highland line, to do their own maltings).  It’s also worth noting that the taking of the middle cut during the spirit run continues to be done by hand by the simple water test, rather than by strength, or by time, or by when a flow meter or computer tells them to!

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An Evening with Glengoyne

The first time I tasted Glengoyne single malt was on the 14th of May, 2003.   How do I remember that?  Well, for starters, that’s just me…I tend to remember these things.  Secondly, it’s because it was one of the best drams I’ve ever had.  11 and a half years later, and – quite literally – thousands of whiskies later, that bottling of Glengoyne still features high up on the shelves of my memory bank.   Mind you, it was no ordinary Glengoyne – it was a 1971 vintage OB release; a single cask, bottled as a 27yo,  Cask #4855.   T’was one of the all-time greats, and from a period in the late 1990’s when Glengoyne put out a series of single cask bottlings that blew most of the competition away.  But the point is, first impressions go a long way, and I’ve remained good friends with Glengoyne ever since.

I recently attended a Glengoyne vertical tasting, courtesy of the new Dan Murphy’s store in Double Bay, Sydney, which – it must be said – features an impressive whisky section.  (I say section, although department might be a more apt description).  The event was held at The Woolloomooloo Bay Hotel, and was hosted by Daniel Millhouse of Dan Murphy’s and the ever affable and enthusiastic Philip Mack.  Philip is not an official Glengoyne brand ambassador, but certainly should be, based on the night’s presentation.

It had been some time since I’d tackled the Glengoyne portfolio in a single sitting (the last time was at the distillery back in 2011).  It’s often said that a whisky always tastes best at its source, but even with the bias and romance of tasting the whiskies at the actual distillery that day, on tonight’s evidence, it is apparent that Glengoyne has lifted the quality bar higher in the last few years.

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Label 5 – Gold Heritage

As someone who is firmly entrenched (and ensconced) in the world of malt, I don’t concern myself too readily or seriously with blended whisky.

But don’t misread that last sentence.  By the same token, I make a fairly concerted effort to ensure I don’t fall into the trap of being a malt snob, or dismissing blends without giving them due regard.   There are some tremendous blended whiskies out there, and it would be both arrogant and folly to write off an entire category of whisky, simply because one’s tastebuds have developed beyond the likes of Vat 69 or 100 Pipers.

So, when the good folks at La Martiniquaise in France offered to send me a bottle of their newly released Label 5 “Gold Heritage”, I felt obliged to give it a fair hearing….

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Glenmorangie Taghta

Glenmorangie “The Taghta”

The latest (and very special) release from Glenmorangie had its first Australian outing on 17th October when it was showcased as the Welcome Dram at the Spring Tasting of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in Sydney.


As attendees entered the room for the tasting evening, they were handed a dram of this deliciously-amber looking whisky, but were not told what it was.


A short while later during the official welcome and introduction for the night, a quick straw poll was taken with the question, “Who liked this whisky?”   Every hand in the room went up, and it was then that its identity and story was told.


Glenmorangie Taghta (pronounced too-tah) is being billed as a crowd-sourced whisky.   It’s not all too dissimilar to what Glenlivet did with their Guardian’s release late last year.  The difference on this occasion is that the crowd (the so-called “Cask Masters”) came from 30 different countries and participated in every part of the process: The bottle design, the labelling, the photography, and – most importantly of all – the selection of the whisky.

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Whisky cocktails – are we doing the flavour a favour?

Have you ever tried a whisky cocktail?  I’m referring to something a bit more exotic than a Rusty Nail or a Manhattan.  The former – simply equal parts of whisky and Drambuie together – and the latter, a concoction of rye whiskey, vermouth, and bitters, are both time-honoured classics, but it would be wrong to compare them with the more complex, complicated, and dare I say, fashionable whisky cocktails doing the rounds in today’s bars.


Whisk(e)y cocktails currently carry the buzz in the industry at present, and it’s been the case now for at least the last four to five years.   Cocktails are seen as the introduction or stepping stone into whisky drinking.  “Don’t like whisky?  Here, have a sip of this colourful Highland Fling!”  The marketing guys have been working furiously in recent years to shed the industry’s image of whisky being an older man’s drink, and so the bar and cocktail scene is where they’re targeting their message to attract a younger and more gender-balanced demographic to the category.


I concede there is a logic to it.  We are in the latter (ending?) phase of the cult of the celebrity chef, and not everyone is hanging off every word and activity that the Gordon Ramsays and Marco Pierre Whites of the world get up to.  In their place – at least in certain circles – we are seeing the rise of the celebrity cocktail expert.  Or, to use the preferred parlance:  The Mixologist.


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Colin Scott

An afternoon with Colin Scott (Master Blender for Chivas Bros)

It’s not every day you get the chance to meet with and listen to a Master Blender, so when the good folks at Pernod Ricard Australia hosted an afternoon with Colin Scott recently, I was happy to accept their kind invitation.


I’ve actually spent a bit of time with some other Master Blenders: Richard Patterson of Whyte & Mackay; Tom Smith of Johnnie Walker; Robert Hicks of Teachers/Laphroaig/ Ardmore/Glendronach; Iain McCallum of Morrison Bowmore; Brian Kinsman of William Grant & Sons; and then other whisky creators like Jim McEwan (Bowmore/Bruichladdich) and Bill Lumsden (Glenmorangie/Ardbeg).   I’ve also had a few decent attempts at blending myself, having undertaken some formal blending sessions both in Scotland and here in Australia.  (And whilst my “attempts” have been decent, my results have been very indecent!)


What I’ve learned from these people and experiences is that (a) blending is incredibly difficult, and (b) the people who do it commit to a lifetime of learning and application. Colin Scott is no different.


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Glenfiddich versus Glenlivet – who will win the heavyweight title bout?

If someone asked “What does a Speyside whisky taste like?” you could do worse than pour them a dram of either Glenfiddich 12yo or The Glenlivet 12yo.


Both exhibit that classic Speyside style of being grassy, floral, sweet and malty, with that little extra “zing” for good measure. With Glenfiddich, the zing comes in the form of pear drops, whilst Glenlivet, for me, has a wee hint of citrus tang.  Both drams are  textbook examples of Speyside whisky.


Depending on your age, and certainly if you were introduced to malt whisky a decade or two ago, then there’s a very good chance that one of these two whiskies was probably your first ever single malt.


The two brands are giants of the industry and mutually respected (and respectful) competitors on the playing field. Glenlivet is the single malt flagship of Pernod Ricard (via Chivas Bros), whilst Glenfiddich remains one of the last bastions of independent, family ownership, being the bedrock of William Grant & Sons.   Both brands command significant market share. The Glenlivet has been the biggest selling single malt in the USA for years, whereas Glenfiddich can boast the global title of being the biggest selling single malt in the world.

As these two heavyweights front up to do battle, let’s compare their credentials: Continue reading

Jim McEwan

SMWS Jim McEwan & Bruichladdich Masterclass

On 1st October, The Scotch Malt Whisky Society (Australia) held a very special SMWS / Bruichladdich / Jim McEwan masterclass.


It’s hard to write an objective, even a subjective review of a tasting event when you were one of the co-hosts and facilitators of the event.  However, this was a fantastic evening, with so much whisky love in the air, and so one can’t help but give some account of the evening.  So forgive me if it comes across as a little biased…..


Jim McEwan, industry legend, is currently on a promotional tour across Australia to share the Bruichladdich story with whisky drinkers.  Trade and open-to-the-public tastings have been organised in most of the capital cities, and the Australian distributor, South Trade, has got Jim on an incredibly busy schedule, with up to three or four events each day for the next two weeks.  And Jim wouldn’t have it any other way.


The Scotch Malt Whisky Society in Australia LOVES to team up with distributors, distilleries, and “the big brands” where and when possible, and the planning was set in motion early to ensure we could deliver a corker of a night.


90-odd people squeezed into the Royal Automobile Club in Sydney, and were handed a gin & tonic on arrival.  Not your typical way to start a whisky tasting, but with the gin being The Botanist, distilled at Bruichladdich, it set the tone of the evening nicely.  Yours truly took care of the welcomes and introduction, before handing the reins over to Jim.  And from that point, the earth stood still for a few hours.


One of the things I love about Jim (having met with him and seen him in action many times over the last 10 years) is that he tells not just the story of the whisky, but of the people and the community who make it.  And so our audience this evening got not just a glimpse of Jim and his curriculum vitae, but also the people behind the scenes who live and breathe Bruichladdich each day:  The farmers, the Visitor Centre staff, the mashmen, the brewers, the distillers, the warehousemen, the people in the bottling hall, and even the young lady who inserts the promo brochure into the bottle tins.


The man has an incredible sense of humour and entertains his audiences with every word.  So much so, that it was almost possible to overlook the amazing whiskies that were poured before us.  Until you nosed and tasted them.  All the whiskies on the table were fantastic:  No caramel, no chillfiltration, this was REAL whisky and each one of them pushed my buttons.  If I’d been handing out scores on the night, they would all have been high – there were no duds in this line up.


It wouldn’t be an SMWS event without an SMWS whisky, and so we squeezed one into the line up.  The whisky menu on the night was as follows:


  1. The Classic Laddie Scottish Barley
  2. Islay Barley 2006
  3. Black Art
  4. Port Charlotte Scottish Barley
  5. Port Charlotte 10yo
  6. SMWS 127.39 11yo PC single cask from a Refill Sherry Butt at 66.7% ABV
  7. Octomore 6.1

And it didn’t stop there. Jim said some very kind words about the Society and what we’ve done locally in Australia to promote both Bruichladdich and the single malt category in general. In recognition of this, he elected to unveil – for the first time anywhere – a new expression of Octomore.

And so, with much fanfare, an eighth whisky was brought out for the night.  Roughly 5.5 years old, and matured in virgin French oak, this was a sublime whisky moment both in its sentiment and on the palate, and – I won’t lie – it brought a tear to my eye.  Jim pressed home the point that we were the first people in the world to taste this, and we were humbled and honoured. And, all sentiment aside, I have to say it was an incredibly tasty, flavoursome, and beautifully balanced whisky.  Was it my top scoring dram of the night?









Thank you, Jim.



The evening concluded with Jim’s legendary traditional Highland toast, and those who were brave enough stood up on the chairs and placed one foot on the table for the delivery. I’d done this toast with Jim several times before, but on this particular evening, I couldn’t help but give it considerably more gusto!

Jim retreated to one side of the room and made himself available to sign bottles (everything that was up for tasting could be purchased there and then on the night) and to answer questions and pose for photographs.I’ve deliberately not gone into long-winded tasting notes for the whiskies. Other well-known and well-subscribed whisky bloggers were present on the night, and they’ll no doubt do the whiskies justice in their respective write-ups. (That’s a hint Matt, Jonathan, & Hendy). For me, the night was simply about spending time with a good friend, a whisky comrade, and to marvel at the passion, charisma, and skill he brings to the game.

Slainte, Jim.  

The Society is doing two other similar events with Jim on this visit in Brisbane & Melbourne respectively.

Thanks go to Gee, Eddie, & Tony at South Trade for teaming up with us and for collaborating to put on such a good show. Feedback from SMWS members on the night and in many, many emails we received the following morning testify as to just how good a night this was.

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