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Manchester Food and Drink Festival 2011: Manchester Whisky Festival

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When it comes to whisky, I’m a total novice. I drink it most frequently on nights out, after I’ve decided my stomach’s nearing capacity and another pint of lager will probably make me puke. The places I tend to end up in don’t sell the ‘good stuff’ – and I doubt I’d be in any fit state to appreciate it anyway – so typically it’ll be Bells or Jack Daniels. Ice may be involved, depending on my drunken whim.

This is the sort of whisky I’m used to.

Occasionally I’ll indulge in a nice short if I’m in a fine restaurant and I’ve just had a very satisfying meal; it can be the perfect way to cap off a wonderful evening. But it’s rare I’ll actually choose what I order. I’ll generally just describe the taste I’m after and allow the barman/sommelier/clueless waiter to work their magic.

This approach has led to me being served some brilliant whiskies down the years, and not being able to remember the name of a single one.

I looked on this month’s Manchester Whisky Festival, part of the Manchester Food and Drink Festival and organised by The Whisky Lounge, as an opportunity for exploration. A learning experience, if you will. For £20, the price of a cheap bottle, I hoped it would give me the chance to try a wide range of whiskies and allow me to decide – and recall – what I actually like.

Underpinning it all was the desire to find a high-class bottle to stand on my living room shelf; one capable of residing alongside the Hennessy XO cognac that’s on there and not looking an inch out of place. A bottle to be reserved for special treats and pick-me-ups; to remind me once in a while of all that is right with the world.

Glenglassaugh Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky 26-Year-Old

Glenglassaugh Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky 26-Year-Old

That bottle might well have been the first that I tried.

I wasn’t in the best of moods when I turned up to the The Lowry Hotel for the 11am festival session. If it wasn’t bad enough that I’d made the schoolboy error of picking the sesh that meant I was going to miss the 12 o’clock match between Manchester United and Liverpool, like a right nobhead I’d also left the tickets at home.

The hour my wife and I had set aside beforehand to have a relaxing cup of tea with my mother in the Marks & Spencer cafe was instead spent on a hectic and expensive taxi round-trip to pick the tickets up. And the worst thing was, it was completely my fault.

I was livid as I queued up to enter the conference room; furious as I quickly glanced around at the busy stands and picked an empty one to start off with. Even as the good people from Glenglassaugh told me their history and took me through their whisky manufacturing process sip by sip, I was still seething at my own stupidity.

But when I was given the opportunity to try the Glenglassaugh Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky 26-Year-Old that had pride of place in the centre of the table, all the feelings of annoyance drifted away.

The picture I’ve included here does scant justice to how attractive the bottle was, with the simply curved lines of the mostly-plain bell-shaped vessel allowing the gorgeous honey-coloured whisky to shine through. It was hypnotically beautiful – I couldn’t stop staring at it – and clearly very expensive. I figured it was just a showpiece. Not for one moment did I ever expect that they’d open it up and allow me try it.

I’m not a one for tasting notes*, but let’s just say that it easily lived up to its £149.99 price tag, both on the nose and the palate. As I savoured it, and the anger subsided, I thought to myself: “You’re a lucky bugger getting to drink this. I think it’s going to be a good day after all.”

“I reckon you’re right,” I thought back. “Just one problem though – I think we’ve made the error of drinking the best whisky in the room first.”

Kavalan Single Malt Whisky

Kavalan Single Malt Whisky

Based on what we sampled in the following three hours**, I think my initial assessment was correct. Nothing came close to matching the majesty of the Glenglassaugh. The second best whisky I had was probably King Car, the latest release from the distillery of the same name based in Taiwan.

The company was apparently making its debut at a European whisky festival and they proudly told me how their Kavalan whiskies have been wiping the floor with scotch at a bunch of major awards shows in recent years. It was pretty clear to see why. There was a uniqueness to their flavours, and a freshness and vibrancy that really set them apart.

I wouldn’t be surprised at all if when they finally launch in Europe next year, they end up being a huge hit. I certainly know I’ll be buying a bottle (as long as it’s not too expensive).

Ardberg Uigeadail

Ardberg Uigeadail

The only other whisky that really stood out to me was the Ardberg Uigeadail, a highly revered drop from Islay. It stood out mostly because I didn’t really like it. I could appreciate that it was a very fine drink, perhaps the second best in terms of quality that I had all day. It just wasn’t to my taste, which I found really surprising. Given its reputation, I’d thought Ardberg might be the brand for me.

But in fact, I didn’t really like any of the Islay whiskies, or anything from anywhere else that was advertised as ‘peaty’. They just tasted of decay; like whisky that had been infused with the rotting lung of a chain-smoking cancer victim. I’m not quite sure what there is to enjoy about that.

On the whole, the day was extremely interesting. I felt like I learned a lot and moved a good few steps closer to working out what sort of whisky is right for me.*** The event was very well-organised and welcoming and the perfect place for a novice to begin a journey into this world.

I didn’t buy a bottle in the end. The Glenglassaugh’s a bit too expensive for me and I’ll need to do some research to come up with a suitable alternative. But the Manchester Whisky Festival certainly got me thinking. And that’s all I ever wanted it to do.


*If you’re interested, the Glenglassaugh website calls it “a complex whisky with rich sherry notes, combined with a medley of boiled fruits”. Seems fair enough.

**Four hours might seem like a long time, but it’s definitely needed. An event like this is nothing like the Big Indie Wine Fest, where you can go hell for leather at the booze from start to finish. You need to take your time with this one, or else you’ll probably die. Our strategy was to try out a couple of stands, sit down for 15 minutes or so until we stopped feeling wobbly, then move on to another two. Once we’d done eight or so it was time to leave.

***Highland and Speyside seemed to be up my street, and the milder whiskies, with notes of fruit and sherry. The harsher ones that tasted of emphysema and death didn’t do much for me, but it’s possible as I get older and my tastebuds change, I might grow to like them.

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