The Whisky Virgin wonders what the gold, silver and bronze awards adorning some bottles really mean.
Oslo. It was snowing. The kid inside, never far away, woke fully and poked its tongue out, allowing the first flake to melt on my tongue. Later, there would be snowball fights. It wasn’t settling thickly in the city, but friends reported that in the hills above the city it was lying deeper.
The skis had been brought out, tyres changed, and plans were being laid for the winter’s cross-country expeditions. When winter arrives, Norwegians seem to wake up. As the rest of the northern hemisphere draws its whisky festival schedule to a close, so theirs begins.
Community spirit: The ambience at Oslo Whisky Festival is akin to a family gathering
Maybe it makes perfect sense. Whisky to many is a drink of the darker months, to be taken indoors, as central heating. Who am I to disagree with that Nordic frame of mind?
I certainly wouldn’t ever dispute the insider knowledge of the show’s presiding genius, the indefatigable Chris Maile, Norway’s ambassador for Scotch and Scotland.
At a time when many shows are edging themselves away from classic Scottish imagery – am I the only one to notice the distinct lack of kilts at events these days? – at Oslo’s, every announcement was preceded by a skirl on the bagpipes, played by Chris of course. When you have a show on three floors you need something to draw people’s attention.
If Oslo often has the feeling of a small town, then the show gives the impression of a family gathering. There’s a sense of community, as people take time to chat and socialise in between dramming. At times it seems as if the whisky is only there as a support for socialising, and that’s not a bad thing either. There’s no rubber legs, no barging in to get drams, just a slow and gentle appreciation.
While Scotch-centric, the buzz at the show (other than an excellent ‘Chris Maile’ single cask from Highland Park) were the whiskies from three Norwegian distilleries: Gjoleid from Arcus; a selection from Grimstad’s Det Norske Brenneri (DNB), already showing the influence of new blender Jon Bertelsen; and the first offering from Myken, an island (with a population of nine) in the Arctic Circle, a five-hour sail off the west coast. I know dedication to whisky-making has now reached new levels of madness.
What’s it like you ask? Myken’s peated new make was truly excellent; Gjoleid’s akvavit casks showed great balance; while the mix of ex-Cognac and Sauternes casks by DNB showed huge promise.
If, on an initial glance, Oslo is a traditional show, it was the reaction to these whiskies which showed how the market is changing. After all, the toughest audience to win over is often the domestic one – just look at Scotch in Scotland.
Sip and savour: Oslo Whisky Festival offered three floors of spirits to sample
The snow was still falling on the Sunday morning as I skittered over the ice to the station. A quick turnaround – home, what’s home? – a swap of case, and I headed to Singapore for Whisky Live. Safe to say, it wasn’t snowing, though I suppose anything is possible. If Dubai can have a ski slope, then I’m sure it’s not beyond the wit of Singaporean engineers to do something similar.
Think of this as Paris Whisky Live with extra humidity. It is, after all, run by La Maison du Whisky. Long days, pop-up bars (Tokyo’s stellar Trench Bar re-appeared much to my distinct joy), Marlène’s chamber of secrets and a specialities room.
It was also the first time I’ve seen a binocular and camera stand at a whisky show, but it was for Leica. This probably says as much as you need to know about who drinks whisky in Singapore.
If Norway was a guy’s night out, then Singapore was more inclusive: younger, with a probable 60:40 male: female split and, on the Sunday, more bartenders.
Here, as in Oslo, there seemed to be a general trend away from established brands towards smaller players and independents, and a willingness to explore non-Scotch whiskies and other spirits.
For me, the equivalent to the Norwegian whiskies was the discovery of Chalong Bay rum from Phuket in Thailand, while in a joint class with Luca Gargano of Velier we found a new and eager audience ready to treat rum as a quality spirit – the equal of Scotch.
The only way a show can prosper is by understanding its audience and being willing to lead them into new directions. For Scotch, that means having new stories to tell.
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