Sunday, April 5, 2015

Mystery Blogger - Review of Celebrate Whisky 2015, Halifax NS

Sometimes I wonder if I've become a bit 'blazéed' when it comes to attending whisky shows. The faces all start to look alike as do the venues and the products. I aim for the tables where I know there will be whisky I haven't tried yet. But, as many of you know, that can get harder with every passing year. So after going to the Celebrate Whisky event again this year in Halifax Nova Scotia, I thought maybe along with my own review it might be a good idea to get a few opinions from people that were there. What transpired was a bit magical. 

Many people were happy to give me their impressions and one friend in particular said: "Sure I'll write up a little blurb". They ended up surprising themselves as well as me with a full length review. I've known 'Mystery Blogger' for a few years now therefore I'm quite pleased that they wrote this. The only caveat is that they remain faceless/nameless. Done -> Let's do this!

Mystery Blogger reviews Celebrate Whisky 2015:

"After several years of using the Lord Nelson Hotel as a venue, NSLC relocated their annual Celebrate Whisky show to new surroundings at Casino Nova Scotia. In some ways this event came full circle as the former NSLC Ceilidh, a show that began much like the current one before veering into an all-spirits event and eventually being discontinued, was once held in the same room about 10 years ago. The rationale for moving this year seemed to be one of allowing them to sell more tickets to the event by holding it in a larger room. Unfortunately it did not seem to help much as the show sold out in 5 hours, leaving lots of unhappy prospective attendees out in the cold. Word on the show floor was that they are thinking about doing two shows next year to help meet the demand, perhaps an afternoon and evening split like the wine show has. One hopes this sends a message that there is a large untapped demand for access to whisky in Nova Scotia that isn't currently being met unless you travel out of province.

The NSLC also has a pre-show 'panel', which they have done in each of the last couple of years. This year if you purchased a ticket to the panel you also were admitted to the show, eliminating the oddity of previous years where panel tickets were sold separately and at a lower price than show tickets. What happened then was that panel ticket holders could also buy whisky that was available only at the show, causing some tensions when limited-quantity exclusive whisky was sold to customers who bought a cheaper ticket than did those who went to the show itself. This year that problem was solved by tying the two together.

The panel, while a pleasant enough event, has never really worked in my opinion. The ability to use it as a learning experience depends on who is presenting and how well they tell their story. 

Unlike master classes where someone from a distillery is talking about 4 or 5 of their own products, usually with much passion and a common theme, in this format you have 5 people from different companies talking about just one product each, and it can feel disjointed. There can be too many different styles and approaches, and if you have a clinker in the group, you lose interest in a hurry. The other thing missing this year was any attempt to pair food with the whiskies on offer, which was a real eye-opener in previous years. This was the one major step down with the change of venue, as the Lord Nelson food was absolutely incredible and prolific, whereas this year's food was certainly acceptable but not at the same level of either quantity or quality.

  • In terms of the whiskies, the oft-overlooked Longmorn 16 may have opened some eyes with its well-rounded, herbal and fruity character, although it made me miss the dearly departed 15 year old version that was such an incredible bargain for many years.
  • Highland Park Dark Origins was pleasant, offering some rounded HP character, and at $99 was likely decent value given the price of other HP expressions these days, despite it being a NAS whisky that was said to have a lot of 15 year-old liquid blended with some younger stuff. Unlike some other NAS whiskies, with this you could be fooled into thinking it wasn't NAS, though that trend continues to disturb me.
  • Talisker Storm, also featured on the panel, was the other side of the coin and for me it was not particularly interesting nor something I would buy for myself. Too bad, as Talisker 10 and the incredible Talisker 18 are among my favorites.
  • My love-hate relationship with Ardbeg continued with their Auriverdes, which I found  disappointing. Old Ardbeg 10's which I have been fortunate enough to try are excellent and bear little in common with the current 10 year-old, which I find rather rough and extreme. The Auriverdes reminded me of that, in spades, with lots and lots of water needed to tame the overwhelming smoke and phenols. The Corryveckan and Uigeadail have lots of the Ardbeg character too, but in what to me is a more balanced and approachable package.

    Sorry, Ardbeg, this one isn't for me. 

  • We were also able to try the Glen Breton 14, which wood-lovers may like more than I did, though it was certainly a step up from their mainstream Glen Breton 10.
  • Oddly, at the very end, we were served a sample of Mackinlay's Shackleton Journey, a rather pricey vatted concoction made by Whyte and MacKay's master blender Richard Paterson to recreate the whisky recovered from Ernest Shackleton's Antarctic expedition of the early 1900s. Very good, with lots going on, but a whisky I found hard to pin down in terms of style. This seemed a bit rushed in presentation and perhaps worthy of a bit more attention. Strangely, it came across almost as a bit of an afterthought in the context of the panel.  

As for the show itself, there were more whiskies on offer than ever before, with some interesting choices available, far too many to discuss here. With so many available there is no way to try them all so you needed to be very selective. 

For me one of the highlights was the ability to sample a whisky priced at a rather stiff $750, a Duncan Taylor Bunnahabhain 34. It was, as you would expect, quite lovely. It is difficult to appreciate the qualities of such a rarefied whisky in the typical show environment, unfortunately. 

Something like that deserves the right ambiance, the ability to sit and savour and think about what you are tasting, and surroundings worthy of the cost. All I can really tell you, given I was in a noisy, crowded room being hustled out of the way by the crowd, was that it was very good indeed. There were lots of other good choices too, and I left very satisfied by the product offerings.

Now, a couple of criticisms. First, the NSLC again failed to establish an on-site store for attendees wishing to purchase product. Instead as they have done in the past they had an order desk where you could order product which would then be available for pickup in a couple of weeks time. The process was slow and time-consuming, as it is every year, and not very satisfying. I understand the issue with setting up an on-site store - you have to actually haul the store fixtures and equipment to the show location, set it all up, then bring down and shelve the product, and at the end knock it all down and haul it back - but the current model is simply painful. Plus, it removes any chance of a customer making an impulse or last-minute purchase, because quite frankly, if you have already gone through that ordering line once earlier in the evening, you are unlikely to want to repeat the experience. I have to think that alone costs them a lot of sales and adds to leftover inventory. It's time for them to get serious about this show and provide a proper store.

Secondly, while I find the show a fun event each year, it never fails to bring home to me the lack of attention paid to the whisky category by the NSLC the other 364 days on the calendar. With all these products available to them, and the demand for show tickets so high, it disappoints me to see so much of the same old product on the shelves with very little change year over year. 

The NSLC seems primarily to focus its attention these days on wine, along with mainstream beer and spirits. I understand that they do need to make the bulk of their profit from those mainstream products, but as the provincial liquor board I feel they do us a disservice by not rotating more of these high-end whiskies over the course of the year the way they somehow seem to do quite easily with wine. Unlike the situation in New Brunswick, where there is a strong relationship between ANBL and the whisky community, here it seems largely dependent upon local agents being able to persuade NSLC to list their product. 

A little more attention by the NSLC to offering customers more of these high-end whiskies on a rotating basis would surely not be that hard, given that they do exactly that with wine, and would greatly improve the NSLC's rather tattered reputation within the whisky community. The show would certainly seem to indicate the demand is there if the NSLC wants to make the effort to meet it."

And with that, ends the mystery blogger's review...
My post will follow in a few days for comparison and I strongly encourage others who were there to leave comments on what you thought as well!

Cheers lovely #whiskyfabric


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