Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Celebrate Whisky Festival Halifax - 2 years later...

Was talking to a friend the other day and he stated: "I had the Dark Horse again last night, I think it's finally growing on me." Considering the first 2 or 3 times he tried it he was really convinced he didn't like it, I gave him huge props for sticking with it and having the open mind to go back to it a few times. These sort of little conversations always remind me of the type of people who review things once  and because they don't like it, it's banished as horrible for the rest of their lives to never be revisited again. Sad...

Me, well I have the total opposite mind set (as if that should suprise any of you?!) So time to revisit for the Lassie!!! Two years ago I reviewed an east coast whisky show that takes place in Halifax Nova Scotia. I gave it a C+ as far as the parameters I used: Cost (accommodations, events, classes, etc.), Venue (locale, food, geographic location), Classes (quality, type, time) Main Event (availability of whiskies, venue, services, knowledge of the exhibitors), Overall personal experience (people, place, whisky). Scoring explanation: A (90-100, exceptional value), B (80-90, great value), C (70-80 Good value), D (60-70) Some value, F (FAIL - little to no value). If you would like to compare the first review to this one you can find it here: Celebrate Whisky 2013

Celebrate Whisky started in 2012 so this is the 4th show they have put on in the Halifax area. Unlike many of the whisky shows I've ever attended this one is actually organized by the Nova Scotia Liquor Commission for profit. This year's event took place on Friday March 27th.

Two years ago I raved about this great little booklet. This year I came to the show without my satchel and found having a glass, my cellphone and the booklet cumbersome. It was down right stupid on my part because I also had no pant pockets. Lessons learned! Like previous years, the booklet had a layout of the event, where products would be & price. They also did the silent auction again and had the on-site ordering desk for purchasing at the show but, as with previous years, the products could be ordered but not picked up until 3 full weeks later. Massive disadvantage for people who do not live in the Halifax area.

COST: Accommodations: No hotel was associated with the event for 2015 but there was one very nearby. Rates were $139/night however I did some online research and booked for $109. Savings of $20.

Events: Nothing changed from two years ago: No master classes offered. Whisky panel discussion (5 brand ambassadors) $140 but included your general admission ticket. Main showcase ticket $100. Both sold out within hours of the tickets being made available.

Total cost for lodging & whisky festival for me = $209.00


VENUE: Casino Nova Scotia is situated right on the harbour front of downtown Halifax. Easily accessible with a range of services available: Casino, restaurants, parking but no free wifi.

Location: It is on the water seconds and within walking distance to everything Halifax has to offer. This is a new venue for the show and it was well chosen, in my opinion.


CLASSES: Sigh, nothing new. Whisky Panel event which ran from 5:00-7:00pm that night. It featured: Mike Nicolson - Diageo, Frank Biskupek - Scotch Brand Ambassador, Dan Volway - Beam Suntory, Ruaraidh MacIntyre - Glenmorangie/Ardbeg and Bob Scott - Glenora Distillery. As mentioned tickets were $140. I did not attend, but spoke to 3 people who did. All reported back with the same review: A bit dull, disjointed & a few thought the only worthwhile speaker was Mr. MacIntyre & his products on offer. They all mostly felt the last whisky was a bit rushed and two stated, it would be the last year they attend the panel unless next year's schedule is completely different. "Been there, done that"

I am really disappointed that two years later, there is still nothing added to this show? No classes, no luncheon, dinners or grand master classes - NADA. Classes give people the opportunity for a more intimate hour with the people of the industry as well as the whiskies. This works and exists at EVERY other show I have ever been to so why isn't Celebrate Whisky doing the same??


MAIN EVENT: I purchased my ticket online the morning they went on sale. It sold out within 2 hours and from what I heard the waiting list was quite extensive. The evening of the show I arrived about 15 minutes early to a lineup (no surprise) but the irritating part was 'we' seemed to be in the way of the people trying to get in/out of the casino on a Friday night. It was a bit chaotic and seem to anger a few people, me not so much. When I finally arrived in the area of the showcase, I thought to myself... oh this is going to get packed and really loud and hot but that was not the case. At no point in the evening was I shouting, the flow of traffic and temperature were quite comfortable and the layout was quite easy to follow. Food in the middle, tables all around, water towers clearly marked and clockwise pattern for numbered tables. Just one little downfall - you could not see the table numbers. They should have been placed much higher for all to see.

The food was lovely with a variety of choices but I have to say based on previous years not quite as good as what the Lord Nelson put on as a spread.

Selection of whiskies was more than adequate (200 different ones) with a great balance available for all levels of whisky enthusiasts: Beginner, Intermediate and Geek. Top 10 highlights for me: 

10. Kavalan Soloist FINO
9. Balblair 1983
8. Michter's Single Barrel Rye
7. Highland Park Freya
6. Teeling 21 year old Silver Reserve Single Malt
5. Tomatin 25 year old 
4. Amrut Intermediate Sherry
3. Bain's Cape Mountain 
2. Jim Beam Distiller's Masterpiece

1. Duncan Taylor Bunnahabhain 34 Year Old

Quick notes: I wrote: "Nose: wow... Wisps of smoke and dark chocolate, spent coffee grains, scorched hazelnuts. Dark chocolate covered cherries. Palate: Gorgeous mouth feel, silky, rich and fruity with hints of anise seed or fresh gingerroot. Finish: A bit woody with a nice smoky exhale. Long, lingering and satisfying finish. DELISH!" NSLC was bringing in 8 bottles exclusively available for order through the show. Cost $750.00. I know this whisky will make my top 5 best whiskies of 2015. It was simply exquisite and if I had the means, I would buy a bottle of this in a heartbeat! 

The top 5 were whiskies I spent at least 10-15 minutes nosing and tasting, and even better usually with friends and I often wonder if that adds to the experience of true enjoyment when it comes choosing the top whiskies tried? 

Best table for the night: Tomatin. They did not limit themselves to simply serving their core range (again I will stress the importance of having whiskies at the table for all levels of enthusiasts). They had: 12 French Oak (Exclusive to Canada), 14 Portwood, 18, 25, Cù Bòcan & Cù Bòcan 1989. 

One of the more busy tables was Innovative Beverages providing a vast array of different products: Glencadam 21, Smokey Joe, Penderyn's, Mackillops Choice Tamdhu 1989, Arran's Devil Punch Bowl III & Bere Barley. Also available to sample was Wemyss Malts: Spice King, Hive and Peat Chimney which were exclusive to the show. Canadian whisky was well represented with Stillwaters Distillery introducing their whiskies for the 1st time to the residents of NS and no show would be complete without the presence of Forty Creek whiskies, however it was the first time in many years John Hall wasn't there and honestly for me, that felt bittersweet.  :(


Overall Personal Experience: Knowing full well that this particular show is still really young compared to some of the others I attend, I applaud the change in venue and the organizers did a great job with whisky selection; however, I feel the show is still too 'little'. This year's venue was truly better for the show itself but there wasn't really one place for all to congregate after the show because many people were staying at various hotels in the city. So after the show was over, people seem to scatter and go there own way. Graham and I ended up going for a bite with a few friends. It was low key, the food was good and the company was great but we were back to our hotel and in bed quite early considering how late we have stayed out for some after show shenanigans. It was awesome seeing some of the Halifax peeps - Phlis, Craig, Saravana and Greg and it was also lovely to make a few new friends: Tim, Paul, Mike & Graham. Missed out seeing Robert, Jeff or Bruce sadly. It was a great night to walk about, talk to people and share many great discussions and drams.   


Recommendations (they seem to fall on deaf ears unfortunately): NSLC needs to do something differently when it comes to the ability to purchase at the show. Yes, there is an order desk but you can only pick up the whiskies 3 weeks later. 

If an on-site store is not possible, in this day and age and with the use of technology there really must be a better way to do this? Is there not a way to have one store close at hand, say Port of Wines carry the inventory for the show and as the purchases are being made at the event fax them over to the store in question so that orders could be picked up the next day? 

And classes or at least a luncheon or supper before the show? Why is this not being done? 

There are many opportunities for the NSLC to make this show better. I do hope they listen for feedback and I encourage anyone who has attended this year or in previous years to let them know what they can do to make the show better. But then again, maybe you or others may think the show is fine just the way it is. If that's the case please leave your comments here as well as I'd be curious to see what other people thought. 


Well, the score hasn't changed since the last time I reviewed it which for me is a bit unfortunate. I was really hoping the show would get better with time. I admit I did like the new venue as there was ample space to move about and the selection of whiskies was great but and it's a huge one: No ability to buy what I really liked because of the 3 week delay AND please do something different for next year's show. The whisky panel has overstayed its welcome and needs to go or needs to be improved upon. 

I will gave this show another 2 or maybe 3 years before I review it again, after all... It's really important to revisit things just in case "they" are different or get better, or didn't I mention that already? ;)


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