Saturday, December 3, 2016

Guest blog - Raising My Spirits, Benoit Bailey

Benoit and I met virtually, as is often the case when it comes to #whiskyfabric, however we also had the opportunity to meet face to face. Not in Canada, as you might suspect but on Islay. We have become fast friends and try as much as we can to stay in touch. Last year after attending our New Brunswick Spirits Festival, I had posted several photos on social media. Our festival has a bit of a cult following, you see, and for us "locals" it's a well guarded secret we only divulge to the very lucky. Benoit saw my photos and sent me a quick DM stating: "Where on earth did those whiskies come from!?"...  and so it began. I invited Benoit to come and visit us in New Brunswick for the 2016 festival events. This is Benoit's adventure:

"Until now, I had never attended a multi-day whisky festival as there are none in my home town of Montreal. I knew I would need to take a week's vacation to travel to whichever festival I would choose. I've always thought that my first one would be on the other side of the country as this is the one everyone seems to talks about = The place to be. To take 7-10 days off because you need to fly to get to a festival when you only have a few precious weeks of vacation/year, is a difficult decision. But, in November 2015 a few people posted photos of a Dallas Dhu masterclass on twitter. They were in Fredericton New Brunswick which is approximately an 8 hours drive from my home. Wait, I thought to myself... A Dallas Dhu MC in the Maritimes? How and why did I miss that? The decision was instantly made. Next year, 2016, the 21st annual NB Spirits Festival, aka Raise your Spirits/Levons nos Verres, would be my very first multi-day whisky festival (Twenty-first, really? This means this is the oldest whisky festival in Canada. I did not know that).

Fast forward to late September 2016 and the festival schedule was made public. And...  yes, another closed distillery tasting on the last day, this time Imperial. After exchanging messages with #whiskyfabric members that attended in the past, my events and master classes were selected! Four out of 5 busy days ahead, as I decided not to attend the first day event, a rum dinner.

The choice of MC on the Thursday was overwhelming for a first time attendee. Three-time slots, each 90 minutes with a choice of nine MC with a 30 minutes break between. No typo here, 27 DIFFERENT (yes, no repetition) MC's to choose from. This year included cocktail classes with Matt Jones, Canadian whisky by Davin De Kergommeaux, two rum MC's, a blind tasting MC, and all your favourite brand names including battles between Talisker and Lagavulin, another between Oban and Caol Ila.

I attended Friday's Ultimate Master class, a sampling of twelve desert-island drams plus a thirteen as a bonus. This included a Brora 35 yo, Mortlach 25 yo, Macallan Reflexion and Benromach 1976. You get the picture! I had never done speed-dating but the UMC felt like its whisky version! I fell for the "young" vibrant Glenmorangie 25 yo at first nosing/taste despite the fact that I had my eyes set on the beautiful old classy Brora 35 yo! (At least, it was with a 25 year old guy and not a NAS that I did not know if it was under 18!!!). The UMC was not only ultimate by the selection of whiskies offered but also because of its value. I saw on twitter that the 13 bottles we had the pleasure of tasting had a value of $9,373 in New Brunswick. Considering we were sampling half ounce pours, we drank almost $200 worth of whisky for only $60. My Friday evening did not end there as the festival showcase was next. I really enjoyed the fact that outside the main ballroom a second small showcase took place of local foods such as cheeses as well as some excellent cold and hot smoked salmon. It was a perfect way to take a break from the noise and warmth of the festival showcase.

Then... there was Saturday. Two masterclasses impossible to duplicate anywhere else in the world: An Imperial vertical tasting and the Chairman's Dram. Imperial is not only a closed but demolished distillery. We were offered a selection of six drams that were very different from each other. The first was the only official release of Imperial, a 15 year old. Yes, you read correctly, we were served a dram of the only official bottling of this closed distillery tumultuous history. Despite being opened in 1897 Imperial was shut down more than it was open before being closed for good in 1998 and demolished in 2013: mothballed a first time just after its opening, a bad omen I guess, from 1899-1919 and then for thirty years from 1925 to 1955, and a third time from 1985 to 1991. Only one official bottling and I tasted it in Fredericton. Davin De Kergommeaux brilliantly animated this MC. If you see an Imperial Signatory from the Un-Chillfiltered Collection distilled on September 18, 1995 and bottled on November 11, 2015 casks 50229/50320 at 46% GET IT!. It stood out of the group and as pointed by Davin, the one likely showing the most of the Speyside distillery character in our tasting, it truly was a stunner.

This was followed by the Chairman's Dram MC, animated by the founder and Festival Chair and owner of the Fredericton's pub, the Lunar Rogue, Frank Scott. This year we tasted five drams from his own personal collection gathered from the mid-80's and a surprise, the oldest bottling of a Port Charlotte (15 years old) from Martine Nouet Private Cask, a treat and honour to taste this in her presence. The drams Frank Scott selected featured an 8 yo Littlemill, a 1979 Rosebank, a 17 yo Millburn distilled in 1971, a 12 yo Springbank old rum wood bottled in 2002 and a Gordon & MacPhail Port Ellen distilled in 1974. So four drams from a closed distillery, a fifth from an iconic distillery, and a sixth from a private cask. 

At this point for those who don't know Frank, do not worry, I assure you he is sane! I spoke to him so I can attest to that. He conducted this class as though we were all old friends sitting around his living room. Many discussions took place, photos were shared and it was quite the amazing experience. Attendees pleaded to keep this masterclass a secret as we all felt privileged and blessed. I hope there will be another Chairman's Dram next year and that I will be lucky enough to get a ticket to attend.

So, during the last two classes of the festival I tasted ten whiskies from five closed distilleries. Just mind blowing. I seriously doubt that you can do that at other festivals without having to take out a second mortgage on your house. Some would have travelled from the other side of the world if they had known and I stated on twitter: "We were drinking history".

This festival is not just about tasting whiskies. It also gives you the opportunity to do some learning, especially in terms of food and whisky pairing.  I attended great food-whisky pairing events with Martine Nouet including the Canadian launch of her new book, À Table (a cookbook with whisky pairing suggestions). I learned that the key to a successful food whisky pairing is finding a bridge between the food and the whisky. During Wednesday evening's Whisky Dinner, there was a very minted lamb stew. After tasting it, I could not believe it was possible to find a whisky that could be paired with it. The Royal Lochnagar Distiller’s Edition was chosen and it worked perfectly. Apparently the bridge was the mint. I bought a bottle so I will need to see if indeed there was mint in this whisky but nonetheless, the pairing was perfect. Thus, remember the key word, bridge.

Another fantastic thing about the Raise Your Spirits Festival is that they are the only one in Canada that has a store onsite during the showcase, and this year they also opened temporarily after each masterclass so that the consumer had the opportunity to buy anything they had just tried. The New Brunswick Liquor Store use to open a temporary store during the festival's showcase. This is a fantastic idea that is very convenient for the attendees and very profitable for the provincial liquor board (This year's sales topped $270,000).

And then there is the #WhiskyFabric. I met, in person, many of you for the first time and it felt like we knew each other forever. Sharing a dram and a conversation with each one of you was a privileged and moments I will cherish forever.  Thank you for allowing me to be part of it.

The only small problem I had during my Fredericton stay was on the last day of the festival. We had the most difficult time trying to make it to the famous Lunar Rogue pub and return to our hotel. What an odd time to organize a 2 hour-long parade to celebrate, I presume, the very successful 2016 edition of the festival (Note: added during proof reading: Well I am now told that the parade held in downtown Fredericton on November 26th was for the arrival in town of Santa Claus. No wonder I did not see nor hear pipe bands but that explains the vast number of excited children on the sidewalks!)...

As if things could not get any better, there was an unofficial festival whisky dinner to close the five-day event at the historical Rossmount Inn in Chamcook near Saint-Andrews by-the-Sea. When I was mentioning that I was going to the Rossmount Inn after the festival, everyone from the Maritimes mentioned that I was in for a treat with the food served by chef Chris Aerni. Little did they know that it was another whisky pairing event with Martine Nouet. 

The five-course dinner was fantastic and add to that the expert whisky pairing, it was just spectacular. As mention by Graham, if Chris was a in a large city it would be near impossible to get in without reserving months in advance. I was very privileged to be able to join the table of Johanne and Graham, Krista and Ross, Linda, Joanna as well as the other Montrealers who benefited from an unfortunate last-minute cancellation to get in, Larry and Alex. Attendees usually reserved their place for next year's dinner before checking out. This is what I have done and since my return to Montreal, I have already changed my will: my place will be transferred to a love one!

You all know that I'd rather be on Islay, but for a week in November, well, there is no other place that I'd rather be than Fredericton (and Chamcook)! See you next year #WhiskyFabric for another mind-blowing world-class whisky festival. 

And I will apologize to the 2016 attendees for revealing this well hidden and priceless gem..."

Benoit & I on the Corryvreckan, Islay 2016
Merci Benoit! Our Spirits Festival is certainly the place to be, and as I introduce it to whisky friends (may they be from Canada, USA or abroad)... one thing they all have in common is they are return festival goers in the years to come. This is the power of #whiskyfabric. Share your gems with the people you love!  

Here's to raising our spirits, may we continue to do so for many years to come. 



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