Newcastle Whisky Festival review
Newcastle Whisky Festival 2017
The one and only original Newcastle Whisky Festival came back to town this weekend and we were lucky enough to have a couple of press tickets to sample some of the best of homegrown whiskies from all over Scotland and further afield.
For those who have not been to this epic celebration of the grain before it is a cornucopia of everything Whisky, with some truly outstanding exhibitors bringing Newcastle a taste of the legendary drink.
We turned up promptly at 2.00pm on the dot for our two-hour tasting slot, wide-eyed and eager in anticipation of what was to be in store for us. The venue, the Civic Centre in Newcastle. They handed us a nice little Glencairn tasting glass, a bottle of water, a handy guide to what was on and the various exhibitors plus a couple of tokens for the under the counter drams!
The venue was a fittingly grandiose with the stunning architecture and lavish 60’s decor of Newcastle’s Civic Centre a perfect match to the event. The crowd was an interesting mix of hardcore Whisky fanatics with an impressive array of eclectic moustaches and beards, intrigued locals, casually dressed couples, students and hipsters, plus a smattering of international tourists keen to see what was on offer for a well-earned souvenir to take home. They all mixed really well and the whole festival had a laid back and friendly atmosphere.
They had some events on such as The Blending Lab, where you can learn all about blending and have a go yourself, and the Cocktail Class and Competition. They even had talks and tastings introducing some of the best Asian Whiskies and “We Heart Islay” a special presentation of some of the very best whiskies from the isle. I’d love to say we tried these out but for us it was all about one thing…tasting the Whisky!
“Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.” ~ Mark Twain
We got straight into it with a sample from The Whisky Lounge themselves. A proud bottling of the type of Whisky they like to champion. It was called The Legendary Salty Sea-Dog.
Luckily it came without the slightest hint of Salt, Sea or Dog! This 10 year old Islay single malt had a smoky and peaty complexity, it was a little two harsh for some but I found it pretty decent. A good loosener to break us in gently and oil our tasting mechanisms as we geared up for two hours of Whisky drinking at it’s best.
Next up we fought through the crowds and found ourselves over to “An Fear Ciuin“, The Quiet Man stand. This traditional Irish Whiskey comes from a subsidiary of Niche Drinks an independently owned and operated Irish Drinks company.
Set up in honour of the founders father ‘The Quiet Man‘ is a completely unique combination of hand-selected whiskies, finished in first-fill bourbon barrels, for those wonderful sweet and spicy notes. Over 50 years behind the bar, he saw and heard it all, but like all good bartenders, John Mulgrew was true to the code and told no tales. He was ‘The Quiet Man‘ or as they say in the pubs of Ireland…”An Fear Ciuin“.
The chap on this stand was a great character and really put the extra effort in to get you to enjoy a sampling of what they had to offer. He started us off with their blended Whiskey, a real easy drinker it had a nice light and floral fragrance with some sweet and smoky notes coming near the end. A great balance of spice and oak with a slightly sweet vanilla mellow finish.
Next he poured us the 8 year single malt Whiskey, this was a fantastic little number with a hint of honey and very smooth finish.
Last up was their golden 12 year old single malt, oaky and smoky this well-balanced offering was my personal favourite up to that point, a real good Whiskey.
Our newfound friend reliably informed us The Quiet Man will be available in Fenwicks soon so we can easily pop in and grab a bottle of our new-found favourite tipple. We left him significantly drunker and headed over to see what Japan had to offer!
“I like my whisky old and my women young.” ~ Errol Flynn
The story of Japanese Whisky is an interesting one and would definitely not be the same without the father of Japanese Whisky, Masataka Taketsuru. In 1918, Masataka embarked alone on a long voyage to Scotland. In this distant land the secrets of whisky-making would be imparted to this young Japanese man, and here he would meet the woman who would become his bride.
Masataka’s vision of whisky was formed by his experience in Scotland, and he knew that the right environment was essential. However, it was becoming apparent that in order to produce whisky as he felt it had to be, he would have to become independent. Thus in 1934 Masataka established Nikka Whisky, and built its first distillery in Yoichi, Hokkaido, which though inconveniently located-he had always considered to be the ideal site in Japan for Whisky-making, similar in many ways to the Scottish town where he had studied. Nikka Whisky has now became synonymous with quality and their Whiskies are drank the world over.
We tried their Nikka Coffey Grain Whiskey. This complex Whisky comes with a mellow and sweet taste. Almost Bourbon-like it had a vanilla and corn flavour with a slight herbal note. A great drink for those who like a biscuity sweet and vibrant Whisky.
“Whiskey, like a beautiful woman, demands appreciation. You gaze first, then it’s time to drink.” ~ Haruki Murakami
Having sampled a slight sweeter Whiskey we decided to say on theme and try an Irish Whiskey Liqueur. While some purists might turn their noses up at a liqueur I am not ashamed to admit I am a huge fan of this particular beverage. For someone who does not generally have a sweet tooth The Dubliner’s Whiskey and Honeycomb seems to appeal to my taste buds on a much deeper level! I blame my father for his slightly dubious use of Whiskey and Honey as a remedy for all childhood ailments (or was it to shut me up?).
A delicious blend of Irish Whiskey and honeycomb this all too drinkable caramel delight slips down easily at just 30% abv. Warm, soft and sweet this drink was a definite crowd pleaser and its stall holder had one of the busiest shifts of the festival.
“The light music of whisky falling into glasses made an agreeable interlude.” ~ James Joyce
It was round about now with the sheer volume of Whiskey sampled we wisely but somewhat reluctantly decided it might be best to take a short break and see what else the event had to offer. The crowd had calmed down from the initial rush of excitement and enthusiasm, and now was scattered casually around the venue putting the world to rights and chatting about everything Whisky. Novice or hardened veteran of Whisky it did not matter, everyone was just enjoying the festival. It was around then the water bottles provided came into use, saving many from an early exit!
“Love makes the world go round? Not at all. Whiskey makes it go round twice as fast.” ~ Compton MacKenzie
There were stalls selling various Whisky related paraphernalia, a comfy area with couches to relax and hot food available upstairs on the mezzanine level. It was a decent spread but we stuck to the old Geordie mantra “eating is cheating” and decided just to have a brief rest on the comfy 60’s sofas.
As we recuperated and regrouped we all swapped notes and stories on our favourite tipples of the day as if we were seasoned experts and had just been asked to fill in for a hung-over Olly Smith on ‘Saturday Kitchen’ .
“Happiness is having a rare steak, a bottle of whisky, and a dog to eat the rare steak.” ~ Johnny Carson
As time passed we prepared ourselves for the main event, the ‘Under the Counter Drams‘. These were available on request in exchange for tokens.
White Tokens £3 each.
Orange Tokens £5 each
Black Tokens £10 each.
This gave you an opportunity to sample some of the extremely rare (and therefore expensive) offerings they had brought with them. This was a great idea as it gave you a chance to taste Whiskies that you otherwise never come across or be able to afford, while giving the more seasoned experts with deeper pockets the possibility to find the perfect bottle for them to take home as a treat.
For my special treat I decided to try The Macallan Rare Cask Whisky. This cheeky rare and rich little number is drawn from the broadest spectrum of casks (16 different types!). At near £200 per bottle I got a generous glass for a £10 black token.
Less than 1% of the casks maturing at the distillery have been identified as fitting to bestow the Rare Cask name, so it really lives up to its name! These casks are so rare that will never again be used in any Macallan Whisky. Combining Spanish and American sherry seasoned oak casks they give rise to an excellent drink.
“There is no bad whiskey. There are only some whiskeys that aren’t as good as others.” ~ Raymond Chandler
A full-bodied and unashamedly loud beginning gives way to chocolate, lemon and orange, before well-balanced warming hints of spice with nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon and cloves take over before the full warming and woody finish. It is both light and zesty but also full and warming, a real quality Whisky.
Rich and complex it is an amazing Whisky and it was fabulous to try. It definitely stole the show so far and you can taste the quality.
With the festival nearing to a close and a handful of tokens I decided to treat myself some more and wandered around the room looking for my grand finally. Everyone was doing the same, getting the last few drams in before the two hours were up. We gathered together and swapped a last few notes on our favourites so far.
“Always carry a flagon of whisky in case of snakebite and furthermore always carry a small snake.” ~ W.C. Fields
As time drew to a close it was difficult to get to the exhibitors stands as everyone had the same idea but I battled through the crowds bolstered by the coalescence of powerful booze and single-mindedly steadfast in my quest to find the very best Whisky for my final dram.
My pursuit eventually paid off as I was rewarded for my dogged determination with my closing libation. This awesome offering was from That Boutique-y Whisky Company, an independent small batch Whisky bottler.
The first thing that catches your eye with this exhibitor is their amazing labels and bumpf, these stylish hand-drawn designs are all from a local artist and really make them stand out.
Filled with humorous in jokes and references I was a big fan.
For more on their amazing artwork click here…
But after all it’s the Whisky that really matters and that was an equally nice surprise.
My friend tried their Secret Distillery #2.
This cheeky little number is an outstanding single malt from a famous Highland distillery that “shall not be named“. We tried to find our best to find out what distillery but exhibitor and Whisky aficionado Dave Worthington was taking the secret to his grave!
I decided on their Caledonian for my final drink and was not disappointed.
This 33 year old vintage was from the long closed Caledonian distillery (The ‘Cally‘) in the heart of Edinburgh. Even though it closed its doors for the last time back in 1988 and though apartments now live on the site, it lives on in this amazing Whisky and the massive chimney that still remains on its former site. If you happened to climb to the top of it, you’d be greeted with a stunning view of Edinburgh, just like on this label.
This is a release of just 144 bottles and is one for all Whisky fans to watch out for!
Coming in at 50.3% abv it is surprisingly fruity, with notes of candied peels, banana and honey. This sweet taste dances on your taste buds and is almost reminiscent of a childhood 10p mix up at times. The plate is creamy citrus and vanilla before giving way to the show-stopping fudge, butterscotch and a pleasantly warming Christmas spice finish. This really was my star of the whole festival and I’d definitely recommend whole-heartedly.
You can learn more about That Boutique-y Whisky Company on their Facebook page here.
“Whisky is liquid sunshine.” ~ George Bernard Shaw
With a belly full of warming Whisky we whiled away the last few minutes of the festival waxing lyrically about Whisky. It was a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend an afternoon and I’d recommend it to anyone, Whisky expert or novice drinker the Newcastle Whisky Festival has something for everyone. We sauntered off into the Newcastle city centre a little wiser and a lot drunker after having an amazing time.
~photos courtesy of Melissa Nicholson photography.