Virtual insanity

Posted 09 October 2020 by Matt / In Group Tastings
Virtual insanity


Across the events industry one word is now being thrown around and that word is ‘hybrid’. The blended concept (whisky pun intended) sees a smaller, more exclusive event taking place in a face-to-face environment, with the majority of attendees connecting purely digitally through platforms such as Zoom. Already the Internet is littered with companies offering hybrid services – adaptation at this time is crucial. And just last month someone decided that it was high time that hybrid events had its own Wikipedia page created – a page which pleasingly ensures from the outset that readers are not confused with “hybridisation event” –  a rather more carnally focussed term that’s really not appropriate for conferences and trade shows.

I’m not aware of any major booze-based events adopting this format as yet, but it only feels like a matter of time. Indeed, in many ways it seems like the logical progression from the somewhat strange, but arguably successful, virtual dramathon that has been 2020. Whilst some brands are still seemingly encased in carbonite with a label suggesting: “thaw us out when it’s over”, most have now effectively transitioned their outreach and engagement into the digital domain. The last 6 months have seen a cornucopia of virtual tastings – enough to dram your way from Sunday through to Monday most weeks.

Whilst I’m detecting a certain amount of fatigue – perhaps more with the prevailing world situation than necessarily with the bombardment of digital drinking  – I’d suggest that these on-screen, in person, somewhat impersonals are now a permanent fixture of the whisky world – even when we get back to face-to-face dramming as the only acceptable longer term ‘normal’.

The ability to connect people from around the world digitally should not be underestimated. The barriers to entry are much lower than attending a physical event which requires travel, accommodation, outside catering etc. And so are the cost savings presented to the organiser. No venues, no health and safety and no security detail keeping a watchful eye out for the end of show “I’lls hases a glasses of Glenwhiskyssss please” brigade. In the not too distant future, don’t be surprised to soon see job adverts for Brand Ambassadors requiring the ability (and the technology) to present online – and quite likely past experience of doing so.

I indicated earlier that I was not aware of any major alcohol events adopting a hybrid model – but already I’ve attended a smaller gathering which did. Last month, the Milroy’s Buffalo Trace Antique Collection tasting (postponed from earlier in the year) offered exactly this. A socially minded in-person gathering at their new London outpost in Spitalfields with an alongside online for those wanting to stay at home and simply connect via Zoom. It was a little messy, a little too loud for those online to truly experience all that the in-person event had to offer – but nevertheless it worked. Tentative baby steps into the world of hybrid whisky events.

I’m expecting a stampede for tickets once the first physical whisky festivals are back on the menu – but at the same time, I’m also expecting most of these festivals and shows to offer a virtual element in addition – talks, tastings or live streams – or a combination thereof. Whilst we’re all likely already experiencing a certain degree of ‘webinar overload’ –  virtual tastings and online brand presentations present enough benefits that they’re exceedingly likely to be maintained long after we’ve all returned to queueing outside of venues eager to share a ‘real’ drink with old and new friends. Digital dramming is without a doubt here to stay.

The London Whisky Show – sadly, but expectedly rebranded as 'The Virtual Whisky Show' has had to maintain its reputation as one of the premier whisky gatherings on the annual calendar. Physically it is (was?!) an imposing show – over 700 drams in 2019 – more whisky (autocorrect suggesting ‘whiskier’ here) than anyone is able to explore over a single weekend. But without the confines of Billingsgate Market – and without a near endless dram list to appeal to attendees, The Whisky Exchange has had to look for new ways of retaining its status and standing – and the calendar slot itself.

Today marks the final day of the weeklong virtual edition. Countless hours of online presentations, masterclass talks, discussion panels and a large selection of Perfect Measure tasting packs. There’s been so much on this year’s programme that it’s entirely possible that TWE Ambassador Billy Abbot has spent so much time in front of his webcam over the past seven days that his essence has now been fully assimilated into the Internet. A sort of boozier, beard-ier version of Jumanji. But then everyone needs more Billy Abbot in their lives. 

It's been a formidably large selection of events throughout the week  – perhaps too much for the whisky community to handle. But regardless no one can say that they weren’t spoilt for choice. An experimental approach that no doubt will set some trends for future events to come.

No whisky festival is complete without show bottlings, and so irrespective of the digital-only format, this year – the 2020 edition of the Whisky Show sees the release of three new single cask bottlings. Each individual bottle features a unique label which depicts a part of a larger image. They also come adorned with an individual code which when entered online allows the bottle holder to ‘claim’ their part of the design. Rather like visiting Laphroaig, but with less necessity for wellies and fewer little flags for the visitor centre to clear up once a year.

The bottlings are due to be released for sale via The Whisky Exchange shortly – expect them to sell quickly. TWE has kindly provided me with some review samples so I've pulled out all the stops to get my notes written before the bottlings go on sale.

The Dramble reviews Imperial 1994 The Virtual Whisky Show 2020

Bottle Name: Imperial 1994 The Virtual Whisky Show 2020

ABV: 45.3%
Distillery: Imperial
Bottler: The Whisky Exchange
Region: Speyside Age: 26

The first show bottling from the Virtual Whisky Show 2020 is subtitled as ‘An Ever-changing World of Impossibility’. The label, designed by TWE’s Raj Chavda takes the concepts of Escher and the Penrose steps (after the father/son team of Lionel and Roger Penrose) and gives them a tab of acid. It’s a riot of illusion and impossible shapes. I keep staring at it as if it’s a Magic Eye poster – sadly it’s not. Maybe next year Raj?

The whisky itself hails from the now closed (indeed demolished) distillery of Imperial. Which, up until a few years ago was something of a hidden gem for hunters of lost distilleries – bottles being substantially cheaper than the more well-known dead distilleries, but the spirit quality still being notably high. Times change – and as there’s less and less Imperial to go around, it’s desirability (and asking price) has risen.

This TWE show bottling was distilled in 1994 and filled in a single barrel (#5874) in August of that year. It was matured until this September when it was bottled at 26 years of age and 45.3% ABV. A limited number will be available from the Whisky Exchange website for £199.

Nose: Polished lemons and barley water sit with crystallised ginger cubes whilst sunflowers and pressed flower stems are joined by orange liqueurs, fermenting apple peels and soured citrus. In the background – a dash of red wine vinegar alongside a couple of spearmint leaves. Reduction reveals a bakery side with over buns and doughy bread – it’s a rather different complexion to the initial sharp, lemon-y focussed profile – but it’s just as pleasant.

Taste: Soft and silky on the arrival with sunflower oil texture and quite a grassy initial profile – reeds, flax and cut grasses. Fruits follow – lemon syrup, orange peels and mango puree – before a roiling wave of cask influence – pepper and char provided a formidable foil to After Eight Mints, mentholated oak and polished oakiness. The addition of water reveals Shredded Wheats, lemon barley water and creamy citrus bon bons. It reduces some of the attack from the cask with pepperiness and char still prominent, but less commanding.

Finish: Exceedingly long. Stem ginger and pepperiness persist with the addition of red chilli heat. These are tempered by a touch of cooling mint and a squeeze of lemon.

A powerfully composed Imperial which, despite it’s mid 40s ABV, seems to drink higher due to the prevalence of spice and char throughout the palate and into the memorably long finish. Not the fruitiest example I’ve had from this distillery, despite the time in cask – but nevertheless a whisky which feels authoritative in its own way.

Score: 85/100

The Dramble reviews Ardbeg 2000 The Virtual Whisky Show 2020

Bottle Name: Ardbeg 2000 The Virtual Whisky Show 2020

ABV: 57.2%
Distillery: Ardbeg
Bottler: The Whisky Exchange
Region: Islay Age: 20

Guaranteed to sell out in a flash, this Show special Ardbeg was matured in a single ex-bourbon hogshead for 20 years before being bottled at 57.2% ABV. The label ‘An Ever-changing World of Order’ shows a mechanised ‘whisky factory’ which features machines doing all of the work (lifting, moving, disgorging and bottling) that previously humans would have undertaken. Judgement day approaches.

When I first saw the asking price of £399 there was a sharp intake of breath. The last Whisky Show Ardbeg (bottled 2 years ago and 2 years younger – go figure) clocked in at £299 – but despite flying off the shelves didn’t prove to be the flippers paradise that clearly they expected it to be. On SWA, to date, all but one bottle has hammered for less than the original RRP. As such, and particularly with the price of the recently released OB Traigh Bhan (£200 for a 19yo), this feels pitched at a level to actively dissuade the flippers and to only really appeal to die-hard fans of the distillery and its idiosyncratic distillate.

Nose: Smoked preserved lemons and swimming pool changing rooms (steamy with menthol and floor cleaner) are joined by beach shingles, smoothed pebbles and smoked golden caster sugar. Running throughout – cough syrup and Vicks Vapour Rub together with pine resin and overt wood smoke. Dilution reveals salinity together with candy necklaces (a great juxtaposition in aroma), burnt toffee and overdone honeycomb.

Taste: Oily, fatty and viscous in texture. Lime juice arrives on the palate first, together with a healthy sprinkle of sea salt. Following quickly are beach fires, shingle and sand and smouldering logs. Chocolate ganache follows together with soothing medicinal vapours and a selection of tinctures and bandages. Water introduces tar and mentholated lemons whilst also expressing burnt, but still silky toffee.

Finish: Long with sustained oiliness, lime zest and an alluvial combination of aggregates and coal dust.

Very well composed older Ardbeg with particularly notable ABV integration. Perfectly drinkable at 57.2% and equally happy diluted. As expected for the level of maturity, the distillery profile is substantially calmer than it presents in other bottlings – but nevertheless it is expressed throughout and punctuated by a well-judged citric pang. Scored for quality – not for the fairly eye-opening price.

Score: 87/100

The Dramble reviews Girvan 1989 The Virtual Whisky Show 2020

Bottle Name: Girvan 1989 The Virtual Whisky Show 2020

ABV: 51.8%
Distillery: Girvan
Bottler: The Whisky Exchange
Region: Lowlands Age: 30

The final bottle from this year’s Virtual Whisky Show hails from Girvan grain distillery. ‘An Ever-Changing World of Artificial Intelligence’ shows what’s happened once Skynet has come online. What was originally done by hand, then assisted by machines has now become fully computerised. All hail our robot overlords. There’s no people here – just high-tech looking machinery - and androids. As posters go, it’s modern, striking and attractive. As far as predictions of the future go – it’s somewhat more depressing.

The bottling has been matured in barrel #167858 (presuming an ex-bourbon hogshead from the information provided) for 30 years before being bottled at 51.8% ABV. It’s the cheapest of this year’s show bottlings, clocking in at £135 – substantially cheaper than the official ‘Patent Still’ 30-year-old released by Grants back in 2013.

Nose: Immediate resinous glue – balsa constructions and Airfix kits. Varnish is in the mix also and sits with toffee, soft caramel and roasted cereals. Vanilla pudding and crème patisserie sit with caramel popcorn, whilst monkey nuts are enriched with a spoon laden with golden syrup. Diluted there’s added complexity with eggy bread and cinnamon toast alongside lemon bitters.

Taste: A big and characterful arrival of burnt sugars, high % cocoa solid chocolate and old resinous oakiness. Toffee and honeycomb follow together with charred barrel staves and desiccated coconut. The development offers eucalyptus oils and sugary vanilla pods together with moist earthiness. Water adds roasted chestnuts and paint thinners alongside damp vegetation and caramel syrup.

Finish: Medium to long with dry oakiness, spry pepper and roasted anise spicing.

A straight-forward but highly effective Girvan packed full of likable aromas and flavours which have all been teased out and perfectly balanced by a solid 30 year maturation. Responds well to the addition of water and to my mind represents an ideal grain whisky to introduce people to the category with.

Score: 86/100

Master of Malt



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