Sydney is spoiled for choice with a number of whisky expo-style shows running through town each year and May 15-16 saw The Whisky Show return to the Stamford Plaza hotel at Mascot to strut its stuff.
The Whisky Show offered three sessions; one on the Friday evening, and then 12noon-4.00pm and 5.00pm-9.00pm on the Saturday. Of course, the Saturday sessions coincided with World Whisky Day, so it was a fine opportunity to celebrate the occasion.
The standard price for attendance to a session was $75, but the organisers (World of Whisky, a specialist whisky store in Sydney’s Double Bay) were particularly generous, offering heavily discounted tickets to numerous whisky clubs and organisations, as well as a discounted ticket campaign through Living Social. Regardless of what ticket you purchased and how much you paid to get in the door, I put it to you that you got good value for money – the range of whiskies and the opportunities and quality of what was on offer was worth far more than the ticket price. One might almost suggest there was actually too much on offer, and I know numerous people who bought tickets to multiple sessions so that they could do the room justice.
I say “room”, because that’s precisely what The Whisky Show is. Since moving to the larger premises of the Stamford Plaza last year, the large function room upstairs nicely accommodates all the exhibitors in the one space. (Well, with one exception – the Glenmorangie/Ardbeg stand was outside the room at the front entry, but I daresay they wouldn’t have been disappointed with the exclusive space!)
One of the big criticisms often levelled at such whisky expos is the lack of food or the difficulty in getting to it before greedy people near the kitchen door eat more than their fair share when the trays come out! The Whisky Show dealt with this issue very handsomely this year by handing everyone a food bag on arrival. This contained a pretty tasty sandwich, a bag of chips, a muffin, crackers and cheese. And you also got a bottle of water, which you could top up all day via the well-placed water stations around the room. This was a nice touch and well played.
Another criticism levelled at such shows is the responsible service of alcohol (as in the lack of it). Again, The Whisky Show dealt well with this this year, as it was noticed that all servers at the stands were pouring very small serves, often between just 5-10ml, although you occasionally might get lucky with a 15ml pour. I was chatting about the size of the pours with one of the exhibitors (N.B. I was complimenting her on the small serves, rather than complaining about them!), and she advised that they’d been given very strict instructions by the organisers. Having seen so many unfortunate incidents and mishaps at previous expo shows over the years, this was – again – a nice touch and well played.
It had been a year or two since I’d last had the opportunity to work the room as a punter (I’m normally stuck behind a stand as an exhibitor), and I found it strangely liberating being able to stand in the middle of the room and choose which stand or whisky to tackle. And it was often a hard decision, because the number of different exhibitors or brands on display this year was very impressive. The big names were there: Glenmorangie/Ardbeg; William Grant & Sons (Balvenie, Glenfiddich); Pernod Ricard (Glenlivet, Aberlour); Suntory (Auchentoshan, Bowmore & Hakushu) and so on. The Americans were there (e.g. Wild Turkey’s Russells Reserve; Jack Daniels, Woodford Reserve); the Irish were there (Glendalough); the Taiwanese were there (Kavalan); the Aussies were there (Nant & Starward); India showed its hand (Amrut); and then there was a plethora of lesser or better known Scottish distilleries (too many to list, but included the likes of Glenrothes, Glen Grant, Bunnahabhain, Laphroaig, Tobermory, Glendronach, Tomatin, Bruichladdich, Arran, Benriach, Benromach, etc). Of course, I’ve only mentioned the distillery once, but many had multiple different expressions available to try, and so you could try a large range of variations from within the same distillery, let alone different distilleries under the one portfolio).
The Scotch Malt Whisky Society was a noted absentee this year but a little birdie told me they’re giving all of the expo shows a miss this year. However, the independent bottler mantle was carried ably by Provenance and Old Particular this year. I also heard a few people comment about the absence of the other Tasmanian distilleries, although knowing how much demand is outstripping supply for those guys right now, I can understand if they felt that exhibiting at a show was a tad pointless.
That such a large number of brands and exhibitors supported the event is not just a credit to the organisers, but also to the category and the drinks companies as a whole. What many attendees may not have appreciated was that this particular weekend also clashed with Whisky Live in Adelaide, and so many drinks companies had to either choose to exhibit at one show only (at the expense of the other), or split their resources and attend both. For the good of the industry; for the experience to the punters; and for the sanity and marketing budgets of all of the exhibitors, it might be advantageous to all if the organisers of all four expo shows (The Whisky Show, Whisky Live, Whisky Fair, and the MWSoA) communicated with each other at the start of the year to ensure there are no date clashes in future. World of Whisky has been quick to announces its dates for The Whisky Show next year – 20th & 21st May – so I hope this gets noticed by the other guys.
In addition to the whiskies, there were a few other exhibitors present to enhance the experience. Denver & Liely, designers of the new whisky glass that is attracting a lot of attention were showcasing their product, and Gentleman’s Cabinet, who play in the world of whisky & cigars, were there to show their wares also.
So what about the whiskies themselves? Well, armed with a pen, a notepad, a Glencairn glass, a bottle of water, a phone camera, a showbag, and an infuriating need to suddenly grow two extra pairs of hands to actually carry and handle all aforementioned items, I set off on a personal quest to explore a range of whiskies I was less familiar with. There were plenty of spectacular drams in the room that I did not avail myself of, because what would be the point of tasting something that I was already intimately acquainted with? Rather, I deliberately targeted whiskies that I’d previously overlooked or not had a chance to explore in depth. By making judicious use of a spittoon, rinsing my glass, and drinking loads of water between drams, I actually kept myself stone cold sober (in truth, I didn’t swallow a drop all day), which meant my faculties were at full strength for the afternoon and I thus wrote comprehensive tasting notes, comments, and scored over 30 different whiskies! I won’t bore readers with the list of drams tasted or my notes & scores, but here is the Top 5 of what impressed me the most:
Old Particular Glen Garioch 18yo, 48.4%
Kavalan Solist – Fino, 57%
Glen Grant Five Decades, 46%
Kavalan Podium, 46%
And if you’re the type that likes to read about the other end of the scale, here are the bottom three drams that I appreciated the least:
Kavalan Solist – Sherry Cask
Was there a downside to the show? Well, the Saturday afternoon session was very crowded, and there was occasionally a long wait to get to the front of the stands for a dram. A bit of etiquette training may be necessary for some attendees, as plenty would get their dram poured and then stand motionless and not move back for others to step in and try. Would a larger room have helped? No, probably not – at the end of the day, there are only so many exhibitors and the poor folks behind the stands can only serve so many people at once. I’m aware some people thought the location at Mascot was an inconvenience, but the truth is that the venue was serviced by public transport & a shuttle bus (no mean feat in Sydney), and – besides which – some events and whiskies are worth travelling for. (Punters also need to consider the fine balance between convenience of venue & cost to attend – sure, you could hold this in the middle of the CBD, but then the attendance price that organisers would need to charge to meet costs would likely result in price resistance and poor take-up of tickets, so it’s a very difficult line to play). The fact that the two Saturday sessions were absolutely jam-packed suggests the organisers got the balance of location versus ticket price spot-on.
In addition to the tasting room itself, The Whisky Show also ran three Masterclasses. These were for Arran, the Benriach Distillery Company, and Kavalan. I’ve often debated the merits of such excursions and distractions at expo shows, because you’re asking a lot for punters to extract themselves from the main attraction and to then sit in a small separate room for an hour (or more) to taste five or six whiskies from one particular portfolio. Not surprisingly, attendances at such classes are often disappointingly small, although they have the advantage of being intimate. Courtesy of the organisers, yours truly was invited to attend the Benriach Company Masterclass, which was hosted by the very affable Douglas Cook. Douglas is one of those folks who seems to always have a warm and engaging smile on his face as he orates, and his masterclass (which went for an hour and twenty minutes) was a broad, sweeping view of the company’s three distilleries, i.e. Benriach, Glendronach, and Glenglassaugh. Drams on offer were the Benriach 10yo & the peated 17yo; the Glendronach 12yo & 18yo; finishing with the Glenglassaugh Revival and – a real treat and highlight – the Glenglassaugh 30yo. I don’t know if it was widely known that the 30yo would be on the table, but I reckon a few more people would have signed up for the masterclass if they’d known such a gem was on the cards!
Now into its fourth year, The Whisky Show is a pretty well-oiled machine, and punters could exit the room and head straight to the shop, where pretty much everything that had been available for sampling was available to purchase by the bottle. I noticed that pricing was keen, and the shop was doing good business each time I glanced across.
So, what are my final thoughts and conclusions on the event? First of all, I think anyone who attended would and should be grateful for the opportunity. The range of whiskies to try was enormous; the chance to chat with and learn from brand ambassadors or distillery personnel is always a treat; and there was also the undeniable warmth and vibe from simply co-mingling with the general whisky community. Such opportunities are rare, and I’m grateful to all concerned who worked on the day. Having spent too many expos stuck behind a stand and serving whiskies to the masses, I’m only too aware that it’s not always the most enjoyable way to spend your weekend. (You can read some thoughts on that here)
Well done to the organisers; well done to the exhibitors; and well done to the crowd.
For the record, I originally sent in a booking form with my payment details to pay for attendance; the organisers subsequently contacted me and were generous and kind enough to provide me with complimentary admission. I apologise for the lack of photos in the long text piece above – my attempts to capture bottle shots on the day with an iPhone were poor and not worthy of publication. Banner photo shown at top of article is courtesy of the organisers.