May 13, 2014

The Sweet and Merry (Whisky) Month of May

I was driving along the other day listening to William Byrd's madrigal, The Sweet and Merry Month of May, written in 1590. Living in Ottawa, I certainly find this May to be sweet and merry, after the winter that kept on giving. I don't even mind that a phantom rabbit, or some such creature, munched all the heads off my crocuses. There were crocuses! Yeah!
(Fake bunny, not crocuses)
It could be due to the giddy joy of Springtime, coupled with the explosive growth in whisky appreciation, but May is manifesting itself as a major merry month for whisky lovers, with an abundance of festivals and events.
To kick things off, Homecoming Scotland 2014 has decreed that May is Whisky Month. The Islay Whisky Festival, Feis Ile, starts in May; the Spirit of Speyside has just finished; the Spirit of Stirling just wrapped up; the third annual World Whisky Day is on May 17th, as is the Glasgow Whisky festival; the first ever International Women of Whisky Day was on May 3rd. Not to focus only on Scotland, the 10th annual Spirit of Toronto event was also on May 3rd. And so the list goes on.
Kusshi oyster with Bruichladdich 10 year old at Spirit of Toronto - Brilliant!
Moment of Clarity - Botanist Gin, Vanilla/Cassia Bark Bitters and Lemon Syrup. My favourite cocktail at Spirit of Toronto

Outside of May, the number of whisky festivals is growing at an incredible rate; and there's no shortage of whisky sippers keen to travel the globe and pay substantial prices for tickets to Masterclasses, grand gala events, distillery visits, food and whisky pairing dinners, and tastings of drams of all kinds. There are thousands of different whiskies on the market, so these events provide an opportunity to taste widely, and hone in on particular whiskies, distilleries, styles and other characteristics that personally appeal. Almost all of the festivals involve live music, much camaraderie, and the opportunity to connect with folks who share the same passion for uisge beatha. On Islay, each of the distilleries produces special festival bottlings for the event - hot commodities that sell out quickly, often on release day.
I'll be on Islay next week for Feis Ile 2014

The Festival phenomena is relatively recent. Feis Ile started life in 1985, Spirit of Speyside in 1999,  in Canada, the New Brunswick Spirits Festival started in 1996. The Kentucky Bourbon Festival in Bardstown - a must for Bourbon lovers - will be enjoying its 23rd year this September. Others were born since the Millennium - Inverness (2011), Stirling (2012), Spirit of Toronto (2005), Victoria Whisky Festival (2006), Winnipeg (2013) Kingston (2013). All of these festivals are wildly popular, with many events being snapped up the instant they go on sale.
Official toasting bourbon of the Kentucky Bourbon Festival. I served this in April at an Arnprior blind tasting.

Ironically, I booked accommodations on Islay over a year ago, but didn't get out out of the gates quickly enough for the events reservation process, resulting in this kind of dismay.
This can happen quickly when thousands of visitors descend on a  wee island!

Still, thanks to a little tenacity, coupled with the flexibility and generosity of some fine whisky people including Jim McEwan (Bruichladdich), Andrew Brown (Bunnahabhain) and David Wood (Caol Ila), we have a fabulous week of whisky, food, music, hanging out at distilleries, and grand conversation to look forward to. I'll be tweeting and instagramming while on Islay, and writing about all the great events afterwards.
Islay has a ninth distillery in the works. Check out the plans for Gartbreck, hoping to begin production in the Fall of 2015.

Two fabulous whisky and food events


Whisky selection at Divino's April 2014

In April, I returned to Divino Wine Studio to lead another whisky tasting. To my mind, this is one of the premier spots in Ottawa for fabulous whisky and food pairings. Over the last few years, I've selected over seventy different whiskies for this venue. Current Chef and co-owner Cristian Lepore, digs deep into his Italian roots, and turns my high level suggestions for food pairings into delicious works of art, refusing to finalize each of the five courses until he, and co-owner and Sommelier, Eric Diotte, have sampled the whiskies alongside the creations. The result - incredibly happy guests and "Sold Out" signs for every event.
Starting to pour for the Divino whisky tasting

Many congratulations to Top Chef Canada Rene Rodriguez of Navarra Restaurant. If there's ever a global competition for Top Whisky Chef, my money's on Cristian Lepore. This was the line-up for the April event, although the brief descriptions, by necessity, don't fully describe the many nuances and different elements in each course. Delicious!


The following day, I was in Arnprior for the annual Optimist Club whisky tasting fundraiser. For this year's event, Dan and Chris, the tireless organizers, decided that a blind tasting would be fun, so I decided to select five whiskies from five different countries, with minimal clues as to what was going on.
Ed Murphy pouring perfect secret drams in the back room
95% of attendees loved the blind tasting format; a few would have preferred to know what was in each glass beforehand; and a few more were having a good time until they discovered that there was only one Single Malt in the collection.
The line up included the amazing Green Spot Pot Still Irish Whiskey from Midleton Distillery; Nikka Pure Malt White from Japan which, with its peaty character, fooled almost everyone into thinking it was from Islay; the award winning Lot 40, 100% rye Canadian whisky; the delectable 1792 Ridgemont Reserve bourbon; and the luscious and unpeated Bunnahabhain 18 year old, which most people attributed to Speyside.
Three of the five whiskies in the blind tasting
The food at this event was deliciously prepared by dedicated volunteers, and included the best Cock a' Leekie soup I've ever had, wonderful smoked trout and smoked salmon, more-ish corned beef on rye, apple custard cinnamon tarts and spotted dick with two sauces. Yum!
This annual event is like a kitchen party - lots of fun and camaraderie, good food, good whisky. In fact, I think I'll start calling it the Spirit of Arnprior! Join us next year before it's Sold Out.

GrapeScot whisky tour

All going well, and apart from Feis Ile on Islay next week, I'm planning to be in Bardstown for the Kentucky Bourbon Festival in September, and in Scotland again  next May for the Spirit of Speyside, and perhaps another trek up magnificent Lochnagar.

I plan to take a small tour group to Islay in 2015 - probably the Fall. It'll be fabulous, and whisky focused! Email me if you're interested, and I'll make sure that you receive details when the grand plan is ready for release.
After Islay, I'll be back at the Army Officers Mess on June 13th for another great whisky tasting. The summer - yes, it's coming - is a great time for private wine or whisky tastings, indoors or out, for special occasions or just because. Drop me an email if you have something specific in mind, or just an idea brewing.
Meanwhile, have a sweet and merry month of May.
By the way, if you like port, try Madeira. Delicious!
Have some Madeira, m'dear!
Slainte ! Cheers!