Sunday, January 27, 2013

Review of Victoria Whisky Festival 2013

I had hoped that 2013 would start off with a bang. Hmmmm, no. It started with a loud whimper and that came from me. I came down with the worst cold/flu I have caught since the kids were little and brought home every possible pestilence from school. "This" stopped me for almost two weeks. As the date of our flight got closer I began to worry that I would be in a horrible state for the Victoria Whisky Festival. Let me back up the story just a bit. For those that know me extremely well, they would tell you that as a person I am borderline obsessive when it comes to some of the things I do well. Planning, is one of them. I have short and long term goals that span from what I am eating for supper next week all the way to what boat I will own in 10 years from now when I'm almost retired. Then there's the bucket list which is constantly checked for any opportunities that may arise between here and the end... My calendar is mostly full and when friends want to do something with me, they know well enough to call me far in advance. Ok, so back to Victoria Whisky Festival. In the summer of 2012 I started planning my whisky calendar for 2013. I wanted to do as much as I could within my budget. I have done the east coast for years so I knew it was time to branch out. Head west whisky woman, head west. There are some pretty good whisky events all across Canada and so the research began. I made a few contacts, asked many questions and after speaking to quite a few key people in the industry I chose the following:

1. Victoria Whisky Festival, Victoria British Columbia - January

2. Celebrate Whisky, Halifax, Nova Scotia - March
3. Spirit of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario - May
4. Forty Creek Distillery Whisky Release Weekend, Grimsby, Ontario - September
5. New Brunswick Spirits Festival, Fredericton, New Brunswick - November

Although plenty others caught my eye, these 5 are what worked best for my budget and time off from my day job. After we were done the Victoria Whisky Festival Graham and I had a good discussion of what we thought about it and that's when the idea came to me to "rate" each event as I went along. By the end of 2013, I'll have a winner so to speak and a final blog about all 5 experiences.  

Here are the parameters I have chosen to take into consideration: Cost (accommodations, events, classes, etc), Venue (locale, food, geographic location), Classes (Quality, type, time, etc), Main event (Availability of whiskies, venue, services, knowledge of the exhibitors, etc), Overall personal experience (People, Place, Whisky).

Scoring sheet:

A (90 - 100) Exceptional value

B (80 - 90)  Great value
C (70 - 80) Good value
D (60 - 70) Some value (FAIL) - No value

So let's begin:  The Victoria Whisky Festival has been in existence since 2006. It takes place on the beautiful west coast of British Columbia in Canada. It's a 4 day whisky festival that ran from January 1
7 - January 20.

Pro #1:  FOUR days of whisky fun!
Pro #2:  Tickets for out of towners available / released before local tickets.
Pro #3:  Proceeds to a local children's charity.
Pro #4:  Temperature never went below 0C.  


Accommodations:  Hotel had a special rate for the whisky event $130/night. Oddly enough the regular rate for a room was $129/night and if you were smart enough (like I was) to ask for their best deal, you got the $110 rate.  So, while others paid up to $600, I paid $506.  Savings of $94.00

Events:  Whisky Dinners ranged from $65 - $125 (Thursday, Friday, Sunday) Availability ranged from 25 to 50 tickets.  

Classes: Jim Murray's 2013 whisky bible winners $50, Grand Tastings were $45 and Master Classes were $28.

Consumer Tasting Event: (VIP ticket $155 - 175 available or Regular ticket $110 - 300 available)

** Packages available for bundling events/classes/main event - $156, $221 or $267 **

My total cost for my package - $360.00  That included The CWA & dinner, Grand Tasting on Friday, 4 Master classes on Saturday and the VIP ticket for Main Event.  

Total cost for Lodgings & Whisky festival = $866.00

For more details:


The Grand Pacific Hotel is situated in downtown Victoria on the harbour front.  Well rated on Trip Advisor as well as other sites, easy access from airport or ferry and range of services available like wireless, spa, business center, etc.

Pro #1: Walking distance to just about everything.  
Pro #2: Modern, spacious facility.
Pro #3: Rooms nicely sized with a balcony.

Con #1:  Took a few days to find where we could get a decent cup of coffee, because it wasn't the hotel restaurant or little coffee shop in the basement.

Locale:  The hotel is well maintained, the service and staff exemplary, and very important to me:  the beds were super comfortable.


Food:  There was a restaurant/bar onsite, a bit pricey I thought.  It was great for one or two meals but after day two we were looking for a bit of variety and more affordable choices.  It's hard on the budget if you are paying $30 for breakfast.  Everything else was within a 20 minute walk.  Found many great pubs, coffee shops and a fantastic Japanese Restaurant that was most affordable and DELISH. 

Location:  It was a great. Seconds from tourist attractions, museums, the Empress Hotel, 100's of great little shops, pubs and restaurants. Walk out of hotel, cross the street, fly out of Victoria on a float plane.  Doesn't get any better than that!  If you wanted to see the rest of the island, a quick car rental for a few days would have easily done the trick.

Quality/type: A Grand tasting should be something quite special, led by a high profile whisky persona (maker, owner, someone who is regarded in the industry as an expert). Some of the whiskies should be rare, old, very new or simply not available at the main showcase. A Master Class should be led by someone with an elevated profile (brand ambassador, industry leader, certified Malt Maniac, published author, someone recognized by his peers as extremely knowledgeable). Whiskies could be their core range with an added bonus of something a bit different or new that whisky'ites have not tried yet.  

Using those definitions I would have to say that the the Grand Tasting I attended - Gordon & MacPhail with Michael Urquhart (Joint Managing Director) was exceptional.  Mr. Urquhart balanced a knowledgeable presentation with light humor.  We had our noses in the whisky within 10 minutes and the whiskies were lovely.  Four I had never had before including the Glen Grant 60, Queen's Diamond Jubilee ($12,555 US/bottle).  

The only downfall:  Time.  The class started at 7:00 and although he did his best to move along, there were many questions and of course 6 whiskies to enjoy.  I found myself rushing through some of them and not able to really enjoy the whisky.  This was particularly true of the the last one, the 60 year old.  I watched in horror as some participants shot it back like a jello shooter.  I wanted to savor it, really take my time with it.  I think we had about 5 minutes left.  Chances are I'll never taste that whisky again and that amount of time simply wasn't enough.  

I understand the show's organizers have to tear down and set up for the next event, I do.  However...  it was really disappointing not to have much time to talk or truly enjoy the whiskies.

My Master classes were hit and miss.  They ran on Saturday.  One hour classes, spaced with about 45 minutes in between.  I chose Tomatin with Stephen Bremner, BenRiach/Glendronach with J. Wheelock, Morrison Bowmore with Iain McCallum and Compass Box with John Glaser.

Tomatin - Exceptional.  Highlight, something new not yet on the market and their 30 year old. Stephen was very knowledgeable and when he didn't know the answer to my question, took down my info and contacted me within a week of being home with the answer.  IMPRESSIVE for me!

Benriach/Glendronach - Good Value.  There was only one whisky I hadn't tried, the Glendronach 25.  His style of presenting was good, he carried the pace along quickly and I could say that for someone who was new to the Benriach/Glendronach range he would have been considered very informative.  Issue for me, was I'm not new.  So nothing really stood out as new or additional information.

Morrison/Bowmore - Great value. The most entertaining of the classes I attended.  Iain had us in stitches for the full hour and still managed to get us to drink our whiskies on time.  Informative and knew his products.  Two whiskies I hadn't tried.  One was a HUGE miss.  I had to spit it out.  My glass stayed full.  Of all the presenters he was the best for me.  Later on, he stopped us at the Consumer event and chatted with us for almost 30 minutes.  Truly a great asset to that brand.

Compass Box - Good value.  Unfortunately, Mr. Glaser had to leave Victoria on Saturday and therefore he had a last minute step in to replace him.  Thankfully for the festival, Andrew Ferguson from Kensington Wine Market graciously helped out.  Although I was terribly disappointed that I wasn't going to listen to John Glaser, Andrew did a decent job especially for last minute decision.  He presented the core range, talked a bit and again we had noses in glasses within 10 minutes with open discussions.  I had tried all six.  Was a bit let down that Hedonism or something "special" wasn't there.  However, many people who were there was quite excited as they had not tried any.  So for a newbie, it was a great experience, I'm sure. 

Main Event:

We purchased VIP tickets which allowed us access to the rooms for an hour before the regular ticket holders arrived.  I liked that very much as we were able to go straight to some of the tables/people we wanted and talk at a level that didn't involve screaming.  Once the regular ticket holders arrived, that was a bit more difficult and in some cases quite I have to say, some people left me scratching my head.  We were at the Kilchoman table having a fantastic dram, speaking with Anthony Wills when a "knob" walked over to the table, stood beside us and tapped his Glencairn glass on the bottle that Mr. Wills was holding in his hand.  I was mortified!?  I know, not every person who walks into a Whisky Festival is a follower, geek or enthusiast, but that was just plain rude and obnoxious.  

Another strange "enigma" for me was the bottles hidden from the public.  They were kept under the table or behind a curtain.  I never asked, but I assumed they were meant for people who have a deeper appreciation for the whiskies?  I witnessed people stating they didn't want what was on the table, they wanted the "special" stuff.  I never asked for the hidden bottles however often enough they were offered and they were beautiful. It seems offensive to me to walk up to a table and say, just give me your best or oldest stuff.  Again, that's just my opinion.  I often found myself feeling bad for the people working the event.  

There were two rooms to wander about, plenty of space, over 200 exhibitors and one room filled with food that just kept coming and coming...   Plenty of water stations and spittoons.  The whiskies varied from regional, north american and internationally.  Independent bottlings, small craft distilleries to the big guns.  There wasn't one presenter who wasn't knowledgeable, courteous and friendly.  Truly a great show.  The best whisky surprise for me was the Glenlossie 1992, 19 year old from Duncan Taylor.  The 2nd place one was SMWS 63.27 - Jar Jar Binks in trouble again (Glentauchers 5 year old) and 3rd was the Kilchoman Single Cask Release Sherry Matured. I also had the pleasure of meeting the team from Highwood Distillers in Alberta, makers of Centennial 10 as well as one I really enjoyed and brought home:  Century 15/25.

Overall Personal Experience:  This festival had something for everyone.  It was in a great hotel, the volunteers for the show were always helpful and very friendly.  The after parties were plentiful and it didn't matter who you were, if you were in the lobby when the yell went out, you were welcomed along.  One of the highlights for me was the caliber of people I got to meet, hang out and enjoy whisky with.  I'm not necessarily talking about the "big whigs", I'm talking about the locals.  The people I knew on twitter prior to going out there.  They were truly the best. They weren't just friendly, they were genuine.  Now some of the other very notable people I got to meet:  Mark Gillespie, John Glaser, John Hall, Tim Puett, Lawrence Graham, Oliver Klimek, Billy Abbott and Davin de Kergommeaux ( 5 of those are Malt Maniacs :) And I can't name all the others, but I did in tweets along the way.  Truly a fantastic whisky community on the west coast. 

The only true disappointment was how one particular "VIP" acted like a spoiled rock star.  I watched as he shunned some people, made fun of others and conducted himself in a way that was not very professional (he really needed sexual harassment training).  I didn't attend any of his events and if he's at any of the other festivals, I still won't.  


So, it was the first one of the year.  It automatically sets the bar, and quite high for that matter.  There were many of great moments and few bad.  Just the way a well organized and good quality event should be.   My only recommendations to the organizers (if any are reading):  One hour is simply not enough time to truly enjoy a class.  I'd rather see 3 time slots where we would have 90 minutes vs 4 with only 60.  

OR:  For those of us who are there for the presenters and not necessarily the whiskies, give us the choice to attend a 90 minute class with them.  I'd pay a few extra dollars for a good quality class with Sam Simmons, Dr. Jim Swan or Rachel Barrie ANY DAY!


If you are west of Toronto, consider going for 2014.  If you are east, budget accordingly.  I can't wait to see what is next!  Hope you do too.

It's fabulous being the whisky lassie, the trail is starting to thaw...


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