Thursday 7 June 2012

Whisky Live and how to survive it

The problem

Whisky Live Dublin is almost like two events happening in parallel. There is an exhibition floor with distillers, bars, whiskey shops, etc, where you can taste whatever takes your fancy. Simultaneously (out the door, around the corner and down the street) formal whiskey tastings known as "masterclasses" take place (and cost extra).

You get three hours to use as you like. Last year, I went to the masterclasses and missed out on the informal chat and sampling on the exhibition floor. This year, I did the opposite.

So which is the better strategy? On the floor, I can talk directly to the exhibitors to find out what's new, and taste only whiskeys I'm unfamiliar with. On the other hand, a distiller might bring along something quite special to a masterclass - something from the cask or an experimental, unreleased blend, perhaps. It would be a pity to miss that.

Buying a VIP ticket this year gained you an extra masterclass before the exhibition floor opened. But even there you had to choose between various offerings, all different from the normal masterclasses. Choice overload!

Whisky Live, then, comes with significant opportunity cost built in. If you do X, you can't do Y. Inevitably you later meet someone who did Y and tasted something marvellous. Whatever value you feel you got from the day, you can't help mentally subtracting the value of the things you had to pass up.

The solution

I have a partial solution to this. First, Whisky Live is not just a day. The week leading up to it was stuffed with tastings and whiskey dinners, mostly at W.J. Kavanagh's in Dorset Street. I was at two tastings there: Ireland v Scotland, and Single Pot Still.

W.J. Kavanagh's
These were the same format as a Whisky Live masterclass but far more relaxed since nobody had to be anywhere else. There were some awesome surprises (my first taste of haggis, the first public pour of Yellow Spot in Ireland and a sample of the recent gorgeous recreation of "Shackleton's" whisky, for example).

Ireland v Scotland was a two-hander from Michael Foggarty, co-owner of W.J. Kavanagh's and Rob Allanson, editor of Whisky Magazine. Michael championed Ireland and Rob, Scotland. They took turns to extol notable examples of each country's output while light-heartedly bashing the opposition. It's a contrived setup but a good excuse to range far and wide over whiskey brands and styles.

In between sups, the pub's kitchen sent out various Scottish and Irish nibbles. W.J. Kavanagh's is the sister pub to award-winning Dublin gastropub, L. Mulligan Grocer. It's the same team with the same food mission, so the nibbles showcased only the best cheeses, white pudding, haggis, and so on.

Sad to report, Scotland shaded the contest when Rob cracked open the "Shackleton", a very fine example of the Scotiish blender's art and a rare chance to taste history.

The Single Pot Still tasting the previous night was a run through Irish Distillers' SPS range (including the new Yellow Spot but oddly omitting Green Spot) in the company of Seamus Lowry from IDL. This is exactly the type of tasting that might run as a Whisky Live masterclass. There is a lot of educational mileage in comparing a family of whiskeys so they are very much worth doing if you haven't tried them side-by-side before.

To get back to my point, the first thing you can do to get the most out of Whisky Live is to take advantage of the events leading up to it during Whiskey Week. You will be all masterclassed out by the big day so you can spend more time on the floor at the stands.

Join the Irish whiskey society

My second tip is to pick up as many tastings during the year as you can. If you wait until Whisky Live to do all your whiskey exploration then you will be disappointed; you can't see everything at Whisky Live. If, on the other hand, you regularly attend the Irish Whiskey Society's monthly tastings, chances are you will have most of the masterclass whiskeys covered already, and can focus on seeking out the more unusual bottles at the exhibition stands.

Whisky Live might just have finished in Dublin but this plan calls for a whole year of preparation so there is no time to relax. The next two society tastings are Scottish and US micro-distilleries. See you there.