Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Campbeltown Malts Festival - Please don't read...

In 2014 my friend Steffen Bräuner told me he was going to Scotland and attending the 1st annual Campbeltown Malts Festival. The what? I asked... Considering I was going to be around for a few weeks, we decided to travel and go together.

When I started telling a few other people I was going to Campbeltown they giggled or at least smiled through the corners of their mouth and warned me the place and its people were 'different'. I started to worry and wonder what exactly I had agreed and gotten myself into?! Steffen and I arrived on a Wednesday afternoon and within a few hours of being there I started sending photos and texting Graham. 

My hometown - Campbellton NB (Population 7,300)
Funny enough I was born in the town of Campbellton NB and the UK version was strangely reminiscent of my own hometown. Campbeltown UK is also small (population 4,800) but big in pride. It may be a tiny town on the Kintyre peninsula but it is a huge community and yes they are different so if you come from a large city where you are one of the faceless millions, I could see how small town Scotland could seem weird and possibly make some people feel... awkward. But for me, I felt completely at home. I guess that makes me 'different' as well which is why this year when Graham and I returned to Scotland I made sure we attended the 2nd annual Campbeltown Malts Festival. 

It's hard to believe when you arrive there that at the height of the whisky boom & mid 19th century Alfred Barnard had visited 21 distilleries and Campbeltown was the richest town per capita (1,969 living souls) in Britain. To this day the whiskies still have a reputation for their very distinctive styles. Back at the height they were highly sought after and quite popular on an international level; however, greed caused a catastrophic decline in quality which resulted in a massive consumer backlash. 

Apparently, word gets around quickly when distilleries start churning out the equivalent of what people started to describe as the smell and taste of stinking fish. By the end of 1934 only two distilleries remained: Springbank and Glen Scotia. Production for both was sporadic over the next fifty years as the whisky business saw its fair share of ups and sharp downs but in the end both still stand not only in the physical sense but also in spirits (see what I did there ;)

At one point the SWA took away this region's geographical designation. This did not sit well with the current chairperson of Springbank, Hedley G. Wright, so he bought and had the Glengyle distillery rebuilt. In 2004, three whisky distilleries were in production and the designation was reinstated. That is your history lesson, well the Lassie crib notes version anyway.

Back to 2015, shall we: I was indeed super excited to have Graham by my side and be back in Campbeltown for the Malt Festival. This little three day festival achieves five things for me:

1. Fantastic value for money. The cost of accommodations, tickets, food and gas are beyond very affordable.

2. The breadth of whiskies that you get to try at masterclasses or warehouse tours are some of the best I have had the opportunity to try in my lifetime, thus far.

3. You don't have to drive anywhere! Most of the amenities such as restaurants, B&B's, hotels, distilleries and shops are all within walking distance.

4. Three full distillery tours where, as a whisky geek, you can ask all the questions you want, take as many photos as you like AND see many parts of the operations that are often off limits in any of the larger conglomerate owned distilleries. 

5. Three words: Cadenhead's - Mark Watt. 

No bull... just Mark ;)
One of THE BEST masterclasses you could ever attend and if you are lucky enough to get a ticket to the Cadenhead's Warehouse tour, you may think you have died and gone to whisky heaven. Absolute mind blowing once in a lifetime whiskies that leave you gobsmacked! One of the few times I've been in a tasting where almost an entire room goes quiet (well except for the Danes, they are never quiet ;) 

I purchased the Rosebank 25 year old for Graham last year and Mark was sure to write on the bottle: Drink me! Drink it, we did. It was one of Graham's favorite drams to share in 2014.

So what do those five things really amount to? They equal one of the best little festivals in the UK when it comes to the full whisky distillery & festival experience. 

There is something else I didn't mention and that is the fact that Springbank has one of the most in-depth whisky schools in the UK. So popular with hard core enthusiasts that it's almost fully booked for the next 2 years. You can read about it here: 

I will often talk about the gems I find during my travels but I was really hesitant to write about this. You see... Feis Ile started out as a sleepy little whisky/music festival and has grown into a bit of a monster in the sense that the island becomes a nuthouse for 8 days: The banking machines run out of cash, it's almost impossible to get a seat at a restaurant, the lineups for anything are long AND... some of the distillery releases are expensive and bring out some pretty "greedy" characters. 

I love the fact that the Campbeltown Festival is young, special and that only a few hundred people know about it. There is no bullshit, no marketing distortion and the people that live there and attend truly make the experience worthwhile. The whisky simply becomes the backdrop and the icing on the proverbial cake. 

I want to thank Gavin McLachlan, Robert "Pop" Scally, Mairi Paterson, Ranald Watson, Grant Macpherson, Iain McAlister, Mark Watt and ALL the unnamed, behind the scenes people, who made my stay in this lovely little town most memorable for two years in a row. I will be back, guaranteed...


PS, it's all Gavin's fault that I now drink Gin. Old Raj was my first pleasant and tasty experience. 

PPS...  Now that you've read this post, tell no one! Thank you... ;)

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Guest blog - Richard Culver reviews Ardbeg Perpetuum

While I refrain and somewhat 'relax' from my recent trip to Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans I thought maybe in the meantime you might like to read another review of the Ardbeg Perpetuum. 

When I posted mine, I asked for others to send me their opinions. Which they did...

I received a lovely email from a friend of mine who has done guests blog posts before: Richard Culver from Hamilton Ontario. Here is his story (cue the dramatic music from Law & Order)

Begin post: I think Ardbeg got it wrong or maybe it was the people at Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy but either way you and I are going to suffer.

Like many other Ardbeg committee members I received an email a couple of months ago telling me:

Dear Committee Member

We've come a long way in the last 200 years. So this Ardbeg Day, as well as looking back into the past, we donned our jet packs and glimpsed the future of Ardbeg. And we have to say, it looks fantastic.

15,000 of you made this one not only the best, but the biggest Ardbeg Day ever, at 135 events around the world.

Japan had a time travel tunnel, the US had Shortie Circuit racing, while in Germany five cities competed against each other with games involving drones and robotic barrel racing, amongst other things.

Here on Islay, we welcomed friends old and new for futuristic food, music, and of course, drams ofArdbeg Perpetuum. Take a look at the pictures
 from around the globe and share your own at facebook.com/Ardbeg and twitter @ardbeg_com using #ArdbegDay. 

So how can we possibly top Ardbeg Day 2015? You'll just have to wait until next year to find out...

Mickey Heads, Committee Chairman

So -> 15,000 of us. 135 events around the world. What a great success that is.

Ardbeg had the pleasure of some fantastic advanced hype because one of the bloggers, that they sent a free bottle to, realized that it was worth more to him (her?) to just put the bottle up for auction. Perhaps if you have a huge sense of entitlement and feel you are underpaid and underappreciated you do those sorts of things. After all, it’s so easy to just copy and paste the distillery issued tasting notes and add some verbose script. Credibility obviously is not that person’s strong suit but, it was to the benefit of Ardbeg. Bidding went crazy. Demand for Perpetuum was at an all-time high even before it was released. What manufacturer of product doesn’t want that?
By all accounts, I should have really enjoyed Ardbeg Perpetuum. I didn’t. There, I said it and it's not because I don’t like Ardbeg. I do, a lot. I currently have open bottles of the 10, Uigeadail, Corryvreckan and Ardbog in my cabinet. All are enjoyed regularly and the first three are always replaced when empty.

It wasn’t because of the venue where I got to try Perpetuum that I didn’t enjoy it. I went with friends to The Caledonian Pub in Toronto for Ardbeg Day. It is my absolute favourite pub in Toronto. They have great food and a great selection of malts. Donna and Dave make everyone feel at home there. I go there routinely. It’s one of eight Arbeg Embassies in Canada. Studies show familiar place and people are positive factors for ensuring that you enjoy you beverage.

It wasn’t because of the Brand Ambassador. Ruaraidh is a bright shining star among ambassadors. He is able to provide that perfect blend of education, entertainment and enthusiasm to create a warm inviting atmosphere in any environment. His passion for Ardbeg is invigorating.  His dad and grand-dad have worked at Ardbeg, it's in his blood.

It wasn’t because Ardbeg had the Harr producing smoke  fog  Scottish Mist or the sample of Supernova that had been to space. These items added to the excitement.  Although someone suggested that for the cost of the Supernova display they could have supplied every committee member in Toronto with a bottle of Perpetuum. I don’t know the costs of the traveling Supernova display but it did gather quite a bit of interest among attendees and the local media.

Nope... None of those were the reasons that I wasn’t impressed by the Perpetuum. After you get past the marketing campaign of any spirit it is “what is in the glass” that counts. For me the Perpetuum did not display that Big Bold Perfect Mix of Peat and Sweet.

I was invited back to The Caledonian two weeks later for a tasting of some cask samples with Hamish Torrie from Scotland. Hamish brought along cask strength samples which showed me that Ardbeg is capable of producing that Perfect Mix of Peat & Sweet we love. But Perpetuum isn’t “all that” to me. And judging by a number of bloggers reviews it isn’t “all that” to them either. Maybe the blogger that put his advance bottle up for auction instead of honestly reviewing it knew it wasn’t “all that” to him as well. Who knows?

What really concerns me about Perpetuum is the recent blog post by Thomas at WhiskySaga. He reviewed the two Perpetuums  http://www.whiskysaga.com/ardbeg-perpetuum-vs-ardbeg-perpetuum/  I had to read it twice.

Normally we see 6000 to 7000 bottles in a special release. In this case there are 12,000 bottles of the Ardbeg Perpetuum 200th Anniversary Distillery Release and 72,000 (yes that’s right, seventy two thousand) bottles of  Ardbeg Perpetuum 200th Anniversary Special Release. Whiskybase confirms those numbers. If I did the numbers correctly that is 4 (four) percent of their annual production. I couldn’t find any comparable sized distillery that put 4 percent of their annual production into a special release. As a comparator GlenFiddich’s Snow Phoenix was a run of 60,000 bottles. But it was only 0.4 percent of their annual production. I doubt that Snow Phoenix made a dent in Glenfiddich’s aging stocks. I wish that I could say the same for Ardbeg. I can’t help but worry that by putting that much of your stock into a special release, we will miss out on what could have been some future goodness. 

And like I said, then you and I as well as all the others suffer.

Richard (@rmculver on twitter)