The Drambusters Whisky Festival returned to Dumfries for a 7th year, 44 stalls, 700+ punters and shed-loads of whisky. The venue for this event is Easterbrook Hall at The Crichton - formerly the Crichton Royal Hospital founded in 1838 as a psychiatric hospital. Easterbrook Hall was the last element of the Hospital - completed in 1938. The site is now largely a campus for a number of universities. South of the campus is the 252 hectare Crichton Royal Farm, originally used to supply the Hospital and provide work for the patients, it is now part of Scotland's Rural College.
One of the great things about a festival in a smallish town like Dumfries, is that a substantial proportion of people in the town are at the festival, so you keep bumping into them long after the last pour. Go into pub or restaurant after the festival and there'll be someone there with a Drambusters bag or wristband.
Having had a grand tasting the night before, which included a sneak preview of the Festival programme, an early start was clearly in order. (Actually, I started with a dram of WoodWinters 27yo Longmorn on my porridge).
Links to individual whiskies are to TB Watson, where available on their site.
We may have overdone the early arrival at Easterbrook a bit - 50 minutes before the start, no one else joined the queue for about 15 minutes, but this did ensure we were first in what transpired to be a lengthy queue at the Tomatin stand for their 36yo - and it did not disappoint. I think I can say that this is the first time I've been to a whisky festival and the first dram has not been surpassed! There were some close calls though...
I normally wait a while before heading for the peated whiskies, but with three Octomores (ThrOctomore??) available, and that stand already being mobbed, it seemed like the place to go next. First up was Scottish Barley 6.1 at a mere 167ppm, but as with all Octomores, however high the initial ppm, the final dram seems to emerge well balanced and easily drinkable to all but the most peat averse. For me this was the best, but the phenomenally phenolic Islay Barley 8.3, 5yo, 59.5% and the highest ppm ever seen. I think it's best to let the official description from the Bruichladdich website tell the story: "The autumn of 2010 was wet and windy. A late harvest saw Octomore farmer James Brown facing heavy losses from greylag geese and herds of wild red deer, resulting in a precious little yield. Malting the this Octomore grain produced results that were unprecedented, the readings came back at 309.1ppm." Nearly half of what they ended up with was matured in red wine casks, and after the initial smoke smack the red wine and red fruits shone through the peat haze. OK, I've gone over the top a bit here, as I said above, it is a balanced dram, the peat is more prominent than the others, but far from palette destroying. That having been said, I did have a few more (less) peated whiskies to bring me back to earth. The first of which was the Octomore 8.1, 8yo, 59.3%, 167ppm, matured entirely in first fill bourbon casks - and I think that's why I probably didn't like it as much as the 8.3, with the added dimension of wine casks.
I had not heard of the Islay Boys Flatnose (named for Ketill Flatnose, 9th century Norse King of the Isles) and Barelegs (named for Magnus Barefoot aka Barelegs, 11th century King of Norway and Dublin - and various islands in between), but their selection of Blended Scotch, Blended Malt, and Single Malt (the Barelegs - Lagavulin), whilst never in contention for dram of the day, was certainly worth exploration, and at a competitive price.
There was little time for more dramming before the Masterclass with Iain Fortreath from Angus Dundee. When a £20 masterclass starts off with one of my favourite OB drams 21yo Tomintoul, normally £100 a bottle, you know you've hit the jackpot. 6 drams - three each from Tomintoul and Glencadam - 21yo, 25yo from both, then Tomintoul Five Decades, NAS because the youngest whisky is 10yo, but married for 18 months with the older whiskies. The result a superb dram - I can't wait for the Six Decades bottling! But the 35yo Glencadam was the overall star for me - if only because it was a complete contrast from the rest - the only dram to have been matured in Sherry - an American oak ex-Olorosso hogshead - and a deep, dark brown.
Unlike the previous week, I concentrated on malts - there weren't as many grains about, but even so, I clearly missed some of the gems on offer. I'm hearing lots of good things about the 1997 Càrn Mòr Celebration of the Cask Tamdhu, which was sadly upside down and empty by the time I arrived at the stall (also sadly, though less so, I failed to get a picture of it). They also had an interesting 6yo not quite Balvenie - teaspooned with Glenfiddich, so it can't be described as a single malt - called "Two Speysiders by a stream". Their distillery Aberargie is now up and running.
My other goal of the day was to speak to as many of the new distilleries as possible. Darren McCormick, formerly at Annandale, who is joining former Annandale colleague Malcolm Rennie at the Lochlea distillery on a farm once owned by Robert Burns, says they hope to have the equipment installed by January. Crafty Distillery from Newton Stewart, currently only make gin, but are hoping to lay down some malted spirit next year - and I was persuaded to sample their Hills and Harbour gin - for which they distil the base wheat spirit before distilling it with botanicals, unlike many of the other new gin distilleries. For a gin, and I'm not a gin drinker, I quite liked it - it was not juniper heavy, and they make a point of using locally sourced ingredients. Despite having organised a separate gin and rum festival during the year, there were quite a few stalls with gin and rum on show, but other than as described above, I didn't sample any.
Hunter Laing were present with a sample of their range, the 21yo Tobermory caught my eye, but nothing further to say about the Ardnahoe Distillery than has been reported on their website. Arran confirmed that warehousing has been built on their new site at Lagg in the south of the island, and that some Isle of Arran casks were likely to be stored there soon. The Madeira cask finish will soon be phased out of their range - it was only a stop gap due to a shortage of Amarone casks. No further news to be had at the show on Rosebank, further than that Iain MacLeod have secured an £80m funding package to proceed with their plans.
Finally to the local new distillery - Annandale. David Thomson, Co-Owner & Managing Director, of Annandale was at the show, and I got the opportunity to talk to him about his plans for the whisky. Although the first casks turned 3 years old the previous week, the initial releases will be limited to numbered bottles from a couple of casks, more general release can be expected in the Spring. You can still get the first cask for £1m if you want to - yes it's a crazy price, but I got the impression that that's because David really wants to keep it for himself - but he has a price... For the time being they are still selling the Rascally Liquor new make spirit. At the show they had what might be described as nearly whisky, cask samples of spirit of over 2.5 years old - peated and unpeated, sherry and bourbon matured - these are very good indeed - and you won't need £1m to buy them.
A return visit to Tomatin to get a picture of the great 36yo bottle, didn't turn out so well photographically, but gave me the chance to sample some of their other whiskies - Earth a peated variant, though not so peat-freak pleasing as the Cù Bòcan, and their Cask Strength.
I should also mention the Indie Brands stall (they had two stalls one showcasing Arran, the other a number of different whiskies as well as other spirits). At this other stall, I sampled the blended Japanese whisky Yamazakura; The Corriemhor Cigar Malt - an undisclosed single malt, which the rear label says was originally put together by Richard Paterson; Muckle Flugga over wintered in the Shetlands (TB Watson describe it as a blended malt, but the label says it's a single); and Peat's Beast.
All too soon it's 16:30 and all over for another year, join the throngs heading back to Dumfries - busses are laid on, but most people seem to be walking - it's a nice evening. Time to sober up, and the Pearl Palace seems just the place - their Special Sizzling Garlic Crispy Chicken (my emphasis) is just the thing.
So the end of a healthy day - porridge is good for you; as is cycling; whisky is the water of life; and garlic is good for the blood. Well, I feel better!