Thursday, 1 April 2010

The Whisky Lounge Festival Brighton

Hilton Brighton Metropole
Kings Road, Brighton
East Sussex BN1 2FU

Oh my. What an afternoon. Never having been to a whisky festival before, I expected the Brighton leg of the Whisky Lounge Festival tour (a.k.a. The 1st Brighton Whisky Festival) to resemble a beer festival, except with whisky. It turned out to be nothing of the kind. Rather than pay an entry fee to squeeze into an uncomfortably crowded hall and queue to pay for our drinks, à la beer fests, we simply paid our entrance fee (£16, including a free whisky glass) and were able to wander leisurely around more than a dozen stalls, each staffed by a different distillery or bottler, offering us advice, information, wisdom (occasionally) and all the tastings we could want. It was a lot of fun.

I can't recall precisely how many expressions we tried, but I feel driven to report the very highest of my highlights.

Compass Box

This artisan Scotch whiskymaker has been producing interesting blends - some of malts, one of grains and one of malts and grains - since 2000. I admit that since getting into my single malts I'd acquired something of a disdain for blends, and particularly for grains, considering them lower grade and best suited to students. But being a dedicated experimentalist, as well as a sucker for clever marketing, I was keen to try out Compass Box's selection (pictured top) and see if I couldn't expand my drinking horizons just a little bit further.

 This was their basic offering, a blend of single malts and a single grain, aged between 10 and 12 years old. Smooth, was my recollection, as well as delicate, it made a pleasant first dram of the day.

Oak Cross
(pictured below): A blend of single malts, this was a little spicier than the Asyla, but overall a little thin.

The Spice Tree (left): This one, amusingly, was briefly ruled 'illegal' by the Scotch Whisky Association, which objected to the way Compass Box, in the style of winemakers, inserted new oak into old barrels. Now, this blend of single malts is back, and for me it tasted dry, and pleasantly of honey. 

The Peat Monster: 
 My winner for the best-named bottle by a long way, another blend of single malts, this managed to taste smoky, earthy and peaty (obviously) while avoiding too many of the harsh medicinal notes that similar potions can impose.

Hedonism: This was the only one I'd tried before, inside a birthday cocktail at a fancy Soho bar - not necessarily the most effective of vehicles for savouring what appears to be a pretty expensive whisky. But my second tasting confirmed what I'd initially suspected: this was lovely, my favourite of the five, a smooth but complex blend of grains aged between 12 and 28 years old, with sweet bourbon flavours coming from American oak casks and loads of vanilla too. Thanks, Compass Box.

Berry Bros & Rudd

I was entirely ignorant, until just recently, about the industry of buying up casks of unfiltered, undiluted and uncompromised spirits, and bottling them for sale under independent labels. Berry Bros (pictured above) was therefore a revelation. Here, I tried a whisky older than me - a 1971 "Berry's Own Selection" Invergordon (below right). This was a single grain, 47% vol whisky, which retailed at £95. The description suggested coconut and banana on the nose, which was indeed the case, not that I'd have guessed without prompting. My notes read, simply, "vanilla", which I have to confess was slightly lazy of me (you'd have thought I'd at least have managed a "nice finish").

The first bottle we sampled here was a 1998 Berry's Own Selection Laphroig. Having tried the bog-standard version (available at all good airports), and having found its antiseptic qualities already stretching the limits of my taste buds, this was very interesting. Sweeter, stronger (61.1% vol) and generally more vibrant, the Berry's bottling tasted like Laphroig in technicolour, or to bring things up-to-date, in 3D.

At some point, there was also a Macduff 1984, with a 'smoky' flavour, as distinct from 'peaty' (as someone helpfully explained, smoky tends to mean burnt and toasty, while peaty describes earthy and medicinal qualities).

The English Whisky Company

Finally, amid all this Scotch, a word for the English. Much has been written about the first working whisky distillery in England for 120 years. The English Whisky Company (above), based in Norfolk, will always have that going for it. From the couple of samples I tried here I'd say it offers a great deal of promise, but given that its oldest bottle is just three years' young, I'd prefer to withhold judgement until its whisky has a little more time to grow up.

Goodness, that was a lot of blogging. But then, it was a lot of whisky. The Whisky Lounge Festival will be hitting London's Old Truman Brewery in Brick Lane on the weekend of May 15-16, 2010. You can't be disappointed.


  1. I tried the Invergordon on the Berry Brothers stand at Whisky Live London this year - it was really very nice indeed, one of my favourite single grains I've tried so far. Annoyingly I didn't discover the stand until right as the event was closing, which meant that I didn't get a chance to try any others - there was talk of a 30yr old Caol Ila that they had that was meant to be rather special.

    Now to book tickets for the London leg of the Whisky Lounge tour...

  2. WWooowww!!!! So many good whiskys! We really need to have a look at this festival next year ;)