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*Full disclosure: I was given complimentary admission to the National Whisky Festival. However, creative control of the content of this piece is 100% my own.
The Return of the Whisky Festival
Thanks to the C-word, of which we’re all completely fed up hearing, whisky festivals were stolen away from us. Now that we have them back, I’ve noticed some changes in my experience of them.
We have all been affected by the events of the last two years but what I’ve noticed in myself recently is a much greater desire for conversation. I’ve always been something of an introvert and though I like people and can be very socially driven, the art of the chat hasn’t always come easily to me. I think the experience of lockdown, however, when we were all starved of company has shackled that particular anxiety to some degree. I find myself chatting to people more often and for longer.
Prior to the pandemic, I viewed whisky festivals as an opportunity to check out lots of new whiskies. A chance to survey the current landscape and look for drams I might want to write about. I’ve always found them to be fun days out but it was primarily about the whisky. Now, in this (hopefully) post-pandemic era, I’ve found such events to be all about the people.
Festivals have become a way to reconnect with familiar faces. They are a venue to chat with people from the whisky scene, so many of whom have been tiny faces on my computer screen for the last two years. They are a place to meet new friends and know immediately that you share an interest. It’s no longer simply a chance to try new whiskies (although that’s certainly fun), it’s now a social convention.
The National Whisky Festival is a series of events that takes place across various Scottish cities. I was attending the Glasgow Edition which happens at SWG3, a sprawling campus of a venue that was once a factory before the empty space was used as an art studio and a party venue for rave promoters. Now it’s a sort of conference hub, hosting everything from concerts to exhibitions to clubs… and whisky festivals, of course.
I’ve been attending the National Whisky Festival since it first appeared in Glasgow in 2015. Back then I was attracted to the event’s association with Celtic Connections, Glasgow’s Celtic music festival. The idea of pairing whisky with music has always appealed to me so this was a big draw. I must confess, however, that the music rather unfortunately fades into the background. I fear I get too lost in conversation to be fully aware of the short performances that take place throughout the session. One day I’ll remember to stop and absorb the music.
The very first event suffered from one or two teething troubles. I remember the program was so stuffed full of additional content like talks and masterclasses that each one could only last 30 minutes. I signed up to a Loch Lomond tasting but it turned out the brand ambassador thought he had more time. Rather than adjust his plans to the new timescale he stuck to his guns and took us through all six of the whiskies he had laid out in that short window of time. It was a very intense 30 minutes!
Those initial difficulties, I’m pleased to say, have been ironed out. The National Whisky Festival now runs like a well-oiled machine (no pun intended). The venue is wonderful and atmospheric. The stalls are laid out sensibly with lots of space to move around and even in the early frenzy of excitement when the doors first open, it never felt overly-crowded.
The masterclasses have now been cut down to a manageable two per session. On this occasion I opted for the Scotch Malt Whisky Society‘s Festival Bottling sampling and was impressed with the effort the team had gone to in creating little scenes within which to enjoy each dram. There was a visit to Granny’s house for tea, a family holiday in a caravan and best of all, a visit to an Islay pub. Massive credit to everyone involved in putting that little set together.
The festival does a good job of offering variety with a good mix of distilleries and independent bottlers, and the odd gin or liqueur thrown in for good measure. What was especially noticeable this year was a strong Glasgow presence. Not only did we have Glasgow 1770 on offer but along the same row was The Clydeside and King’s Inch. How far this city has come, to have three single malt brands on show! Other highlights included a Highland malt from an undisclosed distillery, bottled by Elixir Distillers, a Teaninich bottled by Duncan Taylor and a Blair Athol that formed part of the Fable range. It was also nice to see Douglas Laing there promoting the age stated versions of their Remarkable Regional Malts.
Sadly, as often happens when you’re enjoying yourself so much, the event was over far too soon. That’s the problem with whisky festivals, you never want them to end. Still, there’s always another time. For The National Whisky Festival, the Aberdeen Edition is up next. It’s due to take place September 10th. For more information and tickets etc visit their website here. I’ve only ever been to the Glasgow version so really can’t comment on the others, though I’m sure they’ll be just as good.
One teeny, tiny bit of nitpicking, however. Not with the event but with their marketing. The National Whisky Festival is fond of referring to itself as Scotland’s Definitive Whisky Festival. That has never sat particularly well with me. It’s a great event and I always enjoy it but there are lots of wonderful whisky festivals in Scotland and many of them have been working extremely hard to provide events for many, many years. A relative newcomer referring to themselves as the “definitive” comes across as a little disrespectful, to me. Maybe it’s an attempt to be “disruptive” or something. Everything in the booze world has to be “disruptive” now doesn’t it? Thanks Brewdog.
That tiny issue aside, I like this festival and will no doubt be back for the 2023 edition. If nothing else, it’ll be a chance to catch up with all those people again. A chance to have a great conversation over a wonderful whisky. An opportunity to remind ourselves never to take life’s simple pleasures for granted. I can’t wait!