Back in March this year I attended Whisky Birmingham 2015 with a close friend. This is an annual event run by The Birmingham Whisky Club which is open for anyone to attend though they do also run a membership scheme for those wanting something extra. This is the second whisky festival I have attended, the first being Whisky Live Dublin in 2012. After attending an event like Whisky Live which proclaims itself to be “the World’s premier whisky tasting show”, Whisky Birmingham had some rather large shoes to fill; and fill them it did!
The following is my review of the event. Although I have listed the whiskies from the Masterclasses I have not given full reviews on any and will instead link the article to full tasting notes at a later date. However if you want to know more about any of the whiskies mentioned then please ask away.
Edit: The Birmingham Whisky Club now have their own blog here on WordPress which I would highly recommend following: The Birmingham Whisky Club
Located in The Bond Company in Birmingham (UK) – a “unique complex of expertly renovated buildings which combine historic Victorian architecture with high-quality modern facilities.” (The Bond Company).
The location was certainly impressive. Cobbled courtyards hosting food vendors leading to what were indeed expertly renovated Victorian era buildings with just the right mix of old and new. Two main rooms contained exhibitor stands while small side rooms were used to host masterclasses.
General Tickets came in at £30 + booking fee and provided:
- Entry into the festival halls between 12 – 5
- Festival glass to take away at the end
- One ‘Dream Dram’ token
- The chance to try every dram on offer – no extra cost for the whisky
Masterclasses ranged in price starting at just £5 + booking fee for the Beginners Masterclass.
Doors officially opened at 11am but only VIP’s and Birmingham Whisky Club members. Main opening began at 12pm however I had cunningly booked us on the Beginners Guide to Whisky Masterclass Which began at 11:30am – this allowed us to sign in before the main ques started. It also gave us a selection of three whiskies to taste before moving straight into the main event.
The staff on hand were very friendly and accommodating. We collected our guide for the day, list of exhibitors, festival glass and our dream dram token (more on this later. Then we went straight in for the first masterclass and took seats at the back of room where all misbehaving school children would choose to sit.
First Masterclass – Beginners Guide to Whisky:
A bargain at only £5 + booking fee this first Masterclass was to really set the mood for the rest of the day. The class was run by Craig Mills:
“Craig, a whisky expert and current manager of The Whisky Shop in Birmingham, has nearly 20 years in the drinks’ trade managing Oddbins wine merchants in Birmingham, Manchester and London and also two years working for The Direct Wines Group. He has gained over 20 years’ of personal whisky appreciation and an ever growing love of all things Ardbeg!” (The Birmingham Whisky Club).
Let me tell you Craig certainly new his stuff yet he came across as friendly and accommodating. Happy to answer any questions, inclusive of the whole class and generally the sort of person you could easily see yourself having a drink with any day. After starting with some of the basics on whisky and whisky tasting we worked our way through three drams:
And a third whisky that for some obscure reason didn’t make it into my notes book. This was an oversight on my part and certainly not a comment on the quality of the whisky!
Overall the Masterclass was a great start to the day. Very informative and for a novice whisky taster I would say an essential start to the day. Even as a more experienced whisky taster I found myself learning more about whisky while in the class.
One of the best bits of advice imparted to us in the Masterclass was to select your dream dram quickly. To explain a little further everyone is given a ‘Dream Dram’ token as part of your ticket price. This token allows you to sample one whisky from a selection throughout the event which are otherwise not available for tasting. With this tidbit in mind we set out to find a dream dram. We only had 30 minutes before our next Masterclass so we had no time to dawdle.
Luckily I had already selected my Dream Dram after seeing a post about it on the Birmingham Whisky Clubs Facebook page. Bruichladdich Micro-Province Series Single Cask was my chosen dram and let me say it was a superb choice and certainly worthy of being a ‘Dream Dram’.
Now with only one dream dram token each and not wanting to deprive my friend of the chance to try such an excellent whisky we decided to share our dream drams. This spirit of camaraderie I believe is at the heart of whisky drinking and tasting. If you find a good whisky you want to share it so that others can enjoy it just as much as you.
So with one dream dram down we set off to discover a second. With that the Balblair 1983 became our second and final dream dram of the day. Possibly enticed by its elegant appearance my friend chose this excellent whisky that was once again well worthy of the title ‘Dream Dram’. For those of you with a love of whisky but a low-budget this is where the dream dram system comes into its own as it offered us the chance to sample a whisky which normally retails at around £190 /£200.
Second Masterclass – Cheese and Whisky Matching Class:
Taking our second dream dram with us we hurried back to the Masterclass rooms for our second class of the day. Once again we were greeted by Craig Mills who seemed to be running most of the Masterclasses that day. The true test for Craig now would be whether we would just receive a repeat of information from the first Masterclass or whether this would enlighten us in other aspects of whisky tasting.
This time we took seats right at the front of the class, eager to make the most of it and to engage as much as we could. Other than a few inescapable snippets of information which were repeated from the first Masterclass we were happy to find this class gave us new information and once again kept us thoroughly engaged.
We were once again given a selection of three whiskies. Along side these were three cheese samples:
- BenRiach 12yr matched with a Ubriaco or “drunken” cheese.
- Bruichladdich Islay Barley matched with a 2 year aged goats cheese.
- Talisker Port Ruighe matched with a Gratin Bleu.
As a lover of both whisky and cheese this Masterclass was I felt the highlight of the day. Not only did I get to drink my favourite beverage and eat one of my favourite foods I also got to learn something about matching whisky and food, a skill I had not really touched on before.
The Main Event:
With two Masterclasses down and our dream dram tokens spent we got down to the main event – working our way around the 26+ exhibitors and getting our fill. Now by this point I should mention that the queue for entry was rather long. So long in fact it stretched out of the courtyard, around the corner and off out of sight. The two main rooms were also pretty busy with a good stream of people working their way around the exhibitors stands.
It was refreshing to see a wide range of people at the event. Old and young, men and women and from a range of different backgrounds. This event showcases how a love of whisky transcends age and gender in defiance of the stereotype of old men wearing tweed sitting in a gentlemen’s club.
The range of exhibitors was impressive and all of the stall holders we encountered were friendly and engaging. There were single malts, blends, bourbons and even a range of specialty beers on offer. This range of choice catered for everyone’s taste and from what I saw there were no signs of the well known whisky snobbery that surely all whisky drinkers have encountered at sometime or other.
At some point we during the day we found the effects of the wide selection of whiskies we had tasted taking their effect. We headed to the courtyard to get something more substantial than a few cheese samples. Soul Food Project and Peel and Stone were on hand to offer a delicious selection of pizzas, smoked meats and sweet treats and snacks.
We quickly joined the queue for pizza knowing we needed something substantial to keep us going. I was also drawn in by their wood fueled pizza oven, offering authentically cooked fresh pizzas. As a vegetarian my friend chose their spicy kale and marinated mushroom pizza and feeling adventurous I went for the same.
The food was on par with the rest of the event – in other words excellent – and went some way to soaking up some of the large quantity of whisky we had drunk so far.
Third Masterclass – Chocolate and Whisky Matching Class:
With our hunger sated for the time being we headed into our third and final Masterclass. Once again we were greeted by Craig Mills who was probably fed up of seeing us by now. This time he was accompanied by a local chocolate expert who had brought a selection of chocolates with him along with a wealth of knowledge.
Once again we were presented with three whiskies and three chocolates to match:
- Arran Sauterness Cask matched with an Arriba milk chocolate (39% cocoa content).
- Teeling Small Batch Irish Whiskey matched with a Brazil dark chocolate (66.8% cocoa content).
- Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban 12yr matched with a plain chocolate (54% cocoa content) topped with raspberry crumb.
This Masterclass was a nice way to end the festival, acting in effect as a dessert course. It also further enhanced my whisky and food matching skills.
By the end of the last Masterclass we’d both consumed a fair amount of whisky. Despite having time left until the end of the festival we found all the exhibits were swamped with people trying to cram in a few last drams so we decided to call it a day and left while we still could under our own steam.
Overall the event was excellent value for money with huge selection of whiskies, informative Masterclasses, friendly staff and exhibitors and delicious food. This is certainly going to become an annual tradition for me and one I would highly recommend to anyone with an interest in whisky.
Whisky Birmingham 2016 will be held on Saturday 12th March so get it in your diaries! Keep an eye on their Facebook event for further details.
If you decide to attend I would give 3 pieces of advice:
- Book on Masterclasses early to avoid disappointment.
- Get their early to avoid queuing for too long (take a hip flask if you like for while you wait).
- Get your dream dram early before all the good stuff is taken.