There’s a little known spirits fest that takes place every November in Fredericton, New Brunswick. Although it doesn’t have the renown of the annual festivals held in Scotland or the American WhiskyFest, attendees agree that the NB Spirits Festival is one of the best. The five day festival holds a variety of master class tastings lead by industry experts, whisky and food pairings, a whisky cooking class and a Friday night Showcase event. We opted to participate in 4 Master Class tastings and the main showcase event.
There were just over 30 tastings to choose from this year, but of course it’s impossible to attend all of them. One of the great aspects of the festival is that it’s very inexpensive compared to other events. Nearly all tastings were $20 and had about five samples at each class. They can also be quite unique such as the one hosted by the amazing Martine Nouet who paired whiskies with types of dance and music. There were also some rare dram classes that were priced at $50 but more on those later. Our classes of choice were the Dalmore tasting, Crown Royal/ Bulleit/ George Dickel, World Whiskies and The Chairmen’s Dram.
The Dalmore tasting was an excellent introduction to their line of whiskies with samples of the 12 year old, 15 year old, Cigar Malt and King Alexander III. The Dalmore rep did the usual history presentation of the distillery that these tastings of single distilleries tend to have. Explaining why Dalmore bottles have the head of a 12 pointed stag on the bottle, a story which could possibly make for a great comic book. It’s the kind of story you can picture being told generation after generation around a fireplace while having a few drinks about an ancestor of clan Mackenzie saving King Alexander III of Scotland from a raging stag. I preferred the 15 year old over the 12 year old whisky because it had more complexity to it and less alcohol on the palate. The nose of the 15 reminded me of those chocolate oranges and the taste was of ginger and a clove-cinnamon fruit cake. I had tasted the cigar malt previously and still love it but I was really taken by the King Alexander III. Maturation occurred in a number of different casks providing a nose of berries and plums with a taste of lemon lime, almond and nutmeg. It’s an ever evolving dram that makes for a great slow drink. The best part of the tasting was when the presenter was explaining the importance of yeast in spirits making and said “Yeast is like the force in Star Wars”.
Meanwhile, Steve was at the Crown Royal/ Bulleit/ George Dickel tasting that consisted of the Bulleit 10 yo, George Dickel Rye, George Dickel No. 12, Orphan Barrel Barterhouse and the Whisky of the Year according to Jim Murray Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye. As soon as I walked into the tasting, I knew I was likely not going to enjoy it. I was the first person in the room other than the whisky reps. The first sample was the Crown Royal Northern Harvest, which I’d actually had a taste of before as a sample at the local liquor store. All I can remember was knocking it back and thinking, yeah that’s a Crown Royal. At the tasting I was a bit more attentive. On the nose the Northern Harvest reminded me specifically of Crest Toothpaste, very sweet smell. As for taste, the only note I made was “bar soap”. The Dickel Rye was unremarkable for a rye, only note was that water brings out a mild black cherry flavour. The Dickel 12 was a bit better in that it was how it was advertised, it’s a sour mash, and you know it on the nose. It has a nicer, more sweet bourbon taste to it. The Bullit 10 year old was the “highlight” of the class, in that it was the only bottle I could see myself buying. It had a nice tobacco smell on the nose and a nice caramel flavour. The last sample was the most ridiculous, for me, especially after the fact. The Diageo rep only focused on the exclusivity of the bottle, being from an orphan bottle and that 20 year old bourbon is rare, but never actually mentioned how it tasted. In the tasting below, we also tasted the Barterhouse, but Davin de Kergommeaux, being an actual fan of whisky did a better job of selling me on the taste of the whisky. It was very interesting to see two different perspectives on the same bottle, within an hour of each other. The bottle itself? The only noteworthy aspect was the flavour which I wrote “Werthers”, as in the candy. Take from that what you will.
Then we were both off Whiskies of the World hosted by Davin de Kergommeaux, writer of Canadian Whiskies (a great book). He had visited each of the distilleries and had anecdotes about each, such as the workers at Amrut taking breaks for tea time. The drams for this world tour of whisky were: Orphan Barrel Barterhouse bourbon (USA), Green Spot Irish Whisky, Hibiki Harmony (Japan), Amrut Fusion (India) and Kavalan Fino Sherry (Taiwan). Our favourites were the Green Spot and Amrut Fusion. The nose of the Green Spot was very nutty with some vanilla and honey but the taste wasn’t what I expected from the nose. It had a lemon pepper taste that pair wonderfully with haddock. Our least favourite was the Kavalan as it was very harsh, smelling of nail polish remover. Drinking it makes you have that do this expression similar to that of Kegel Face from the comic Sex Criminals. I could also picture her drinking this as it’s certainly a villain whisky.
The main showcase of the event allows you unlimited samples over three hours at a cost of $85. With over 200 whiskies there’s plenty to choose from. Think of it as the main show floor at a comic book convention. There is also an on site liquor store that has some excellent discounts but you have to arrive first thing if you want to get a particular bottle before it sells out. Once again, the on site store broke last year’s record and sold about $227,000 CDN worth of product over three hours.
I loved the showcase the first time I attended a few years ago. I was new to whisky so it allowed me to sample a variety you wouldn’t get from one tasting class. Now that I’m more aware of what I like and know the different distilleries better, I was better able to hone in on particular whiskies that I wanted to try that weren’t available at a tasting class. The festival hands out a booklet listing everything available to taste so if you arrive a little early you can easily glance through it picking out what you’d like to try. The bottle opened with the most flare was Highland Park’s Odin, only one was opened at a specific time and it was quite the crowd to get a sample. The showcase has a wonderful social atmosphere that you don’t get from most tastings, always running into people and having great conversations, but it’s also very crowded. Would I go again to the showcase? I honestly don’t know. Some people absolutely love that kind of atmosphere, some people can’t stand being in such a crowded space. I fall somewhere in the middle. If there was another way to work in a social atmosphere then I wouldn’t do the showcase. For example, if there were to be a Women in Whisky master class, similar to comic book conventions where women creators hold a panel followed by a social, then that would be more for me.
There could be four whisky women, each talking about how they got into whisky and discussing their favourite dram. Although for those in the know it can be easy to socialize after the showcase ends as there are gatherings in various rooms at the convention location. I won’t get into those though because what happens at Spirits Fest stays at Spirits Fest. Although I will say the best mixed drinks of my life were made on a hotel ironing board.
On the last day we attended the final master class hosted by Frank Scott, chairmen of the festival and owner of the best whisky bar in Canada and possibly the world, The Lunar Rogue Pub. The bottles sampled came from the chairman’s personal collection and were all quite rare. Not only is he a collector of fine whiskies but also a great storyteller, opening the tasting with his whisky origin story and the many troubles he had in finding a place to practice the bagpipes (essentially nowhere). We sampled Convalmore 1981, Balvenie Rose 16 yo, Macallan 25th Anniversary release 25 yo, Macallan Easter Elchies 2008 12 yo, Brora 20 yo 1982, and Longrow 16yo 1974. Given how much these bottles went at auction recently, if you were to buy these today it would cost over 12 thousand dollars.
The Convalmore distillery is now closed, which is unfortunate because this was a really nice dram with a honey vanilla nose and a scent that reminded me of an early summer farm. The spirit dances on the tongue with a palate of lime zest, clove and nutmeg.
The Balvenie Rose had a unique rosey amber hue from being matured in portwood for its entire 16 year maturation. It certainly had floral notes on the nose that reminded me of lavender and lilac bushes on a summers breeze. The taste was much richer than expected from the nose but certainly complementary and reminded me of a spicy molasses cake with raisins.
The Macallan 25th Anniversary dram, released in the early 1990’s, was bought by Frank in the early years of the NB Spirits Fest for a few hundred dollars but can now sell for $4000 today at auction. The dark amber dram smells of sweet sherry, chocolate raspberry and raisins, like a table spread with fresh fruit and spice cakes and cookies for Christmas. Tasting, your whole mouth gets all the moisture sucked out, like opening an airlock on a spaceship. Found the palate to be somewhat simple of ginger and clove. At this point we begin to ponder how many bottles must be bought as an investment to be resold that are never opened to drink. Which is partly the reason why Frank hosts this special tasting, as he has so many bottles but what’s the point if you can’t share the experience?
The Macallan Easter Elchies, which is only available at the distillery, looks like coke in the glass despite only being aged 12 years, which is why whisky colour is not always indicative of aging! The nose was of rich oak, orange juice and clove. The palate was very strong and overwhelming and certainly needed to be brought down a notch with some drops of water. Had a very rough tannic taste and also reminded me of drinking a strong IPA beer, very bitter and tasting of diesel. We were then told the story of three roughnecks working in Alberta that came into the Rogue who each ordered a dram of an expensive Macallan. They were puzzled by the funny little Glencairn glasses, Frank explained how they help deliver the aroma of the whisky. They then proclaimed that one can of coke should be enough for the three of them and mixed the very expensive whisky with with it. This was met with a mixture of laughs and gasps around the room.
The Brora 20 was sort of like a stronger Convalmore, again with a floral warm summer nose and that of a kitchen baking bread and tasted of honey and black pepper. It was refreshing after the strong Macallans.
Finally the Longrow 16 yo, which is part of Springbank distillers and can be described as a highly peated Springbank, had a grassy hay barn nose with a touch of lavender. There was an overall sweetness to the taste, with a saltiness at the front of the mouth and a pepper peat finish.
Our top three were the Convlmore, Balvenie and Longrow. Not unsurprising considering we both don’t like the characteristic sherry taste of Macallan whiskies. We got to try all this for a price of $50 and are very glad we decided to participate in this amazing tasting.
Much like after a fan expo, we were exhausted yet still excited from all the festival events. If you decide to travel to the festival be sure to set aside some time to explore the Maritime provinces. At the very least head on down to Chance Harbour for the Nature Spa to detox and grab a lobster roll afterwards at Whitetail Fisheries Lobster Shop in Lorneville. If you’re not done with tasting new things then the Maritimes is also home to an amazing assortment of micro breweries that has really exploded the last few years. There’s a burgeoning distillery scene as well, we grabbed ourselves bottles of Caldera Whisky and Glynnevan Whisky as well as some Sea Fever Rum. Other distilleries from the region include Glen Breton, Ironworks and Fils du Roy. And if you forget to bring some reading material be sure to check Strange Adventures Comic Shop!