The Single Malt & Scotch Whisky Extravaganza is a traveling event put on by the Scotch Malt Whisky Society of America (SMWSA). Apparently this is the 18th year of the Extravaganza, and the first year that it has come to Phoenix, AZ. I’ve never been to other, bigger whisky shows, but from what I can tell, this is a similar format for the main event (a bunch of booths where you can try whisky and talk to industry representatives), minus the additional “master classes” that are offered at some of the other shows.
The event appears to be run mainly by the Shayne family. Alan Shayne is the president of the SMWSA, and his daughter, Gabrielle, is the one who has provided marketing information to me and other bloggers on the event. Both were also active participants during the Extravaganza itself. There is a pre-show whisky panel session from 6pm to 7pm, then the main show from 7pm to 9pm.
The SMSW Extravaganza costs $120 for SMWSA members, and [theoretically] $135 for non-members. However, it’s easy to get a discount code for the member price. Gabrielle Shayne has worked with a bunch of whisky-related sites and blogs to get word out on the event and make discount codes available. There is a Scotch Hobbyist code of “SH2011″ that can be used for this purpose. From one of my emails, it looks like I could have gotten a free ride for blogging about the event, but I actually paid the $120 and went as a non-press attendee. I met up with a friend, Adam, from a local Single Malt Whisky Society (not affiliated with SMWSA), and hung with him during the event.
Prior to the main “extravaganza” there was an hour long Whisky Panel session available on a first come first served basis. I got there just before this session started, and entered the room to find what felt like around 25 people in the audience, along with 8 or so Whisky Panel members. The panel was made up of industry representatives, including well known ambassadors such as Simon Brooking (Laphroaig), Mitch Bechard (Glenfiddich), Ricky Crawford (The Glenlivet), and David Blackmore (Glenmorangie). I think a few additional audience members joined in, but not sure of the total count. It wasn’t a huge group, anyway.
We each got a nosing glass, pre-filled with some Laphroaig 10 year. Apparently the Panel members take turns supplying the dram served during the session, and it was Simon Brooking’s (U.S. Ambassador for Laphroaig) turn. We also received note cards, upon which we could write down a couple of questions that we would like to have answered by the panel. The questions are chosen and read by Alan Shayne, and this Q&A process makes up the full focus of the session.
One of my two questions was read and answered. I asked why there are differences in ABV between some of the UK and USA bottlings. Specifically, we get an extra 3% ABV (43 vs 40) in a number of popular standard bottlings. It would appear that it really just comes down to money, and especially the fact that the standard expressions have been reduced to being something of a commodity item in the UK big box stores. They’re getting next to no margin on these bottles, so they’ve dropped the ABV.
My other question was not asked…I was wondering which is better, Ninjas or Pirates. Apparently Mr. Shayne didn’t feel this was the appropriate forum to have such a question answered. And so, I await a chance to ask somebody more in the know.
The Whisky Panel Q&A session ended a few minutes before the 7pm official start time for the main show. They led all of us panel attendees in through the back entrance of the main event ballroom with the ambassadors, giving us first dibs at the whisky booths and the excellent buffet. There were booths lining the sides of the room, with food at one end, and large tables in the middle for dining and chatting. There were typically one or two distilleries represented per booth. There was a single booth for the Diageo Classic Malt distilleries, and SMWSA had two booths…one with five of their private bottlings, and another booth representing their “public” face (Spirit Imports), where they had a couple of Classic Cask expressions, some Douglass Laing, and Big Peat.
The booths were staffed by a combination of the ambassadors, other distillery representatives, and models. Alan Shayne spent a fair amount of time at the SMWSA booths, and his lovely (and knowledgeable) daughter Gabrielle was the primary host for the SMWSA private bottlings. There was also a booth where you could pick up a couple of cigars (Warlock and VegaFina) and register for a raffle at the end, where you could win one of a number of bottles of whisky or a full box of cigars. Finally, there was a booth dedicated to SMWSA membership information.
I have mixed feelings on the models at the booths. I mean, they looked great, but I also want to ask questions about the expressions and the distillery. I guess my vote is for a combination Ambassador/Model approach (or find more all-in-one hosts like Gabrielle). Win/win :-). It was also amusing to see the interaction of some of the attendees with the model hosts. I waited for the ridiculously good looking woman at the Aberlour booth to pour me a sample of the 18 year while some guy chatted her up. Nice try, but I don’t think so.
All in all, I was very satisfied with the layout and flow of the event. I got to try quite a few better-than-average expressions (detailed below), eat some great food, and enjoy some entertaining conversation. Towards the end of the show, they made an announcement that the “Super Pour” period had begun. Some of the booths pulled out special expressions that had been held back prior to that point.
Coolest Booth: Laphroaig/Ardmore - They had raw barley that you could chew on to get a feel for the taste, and blocks of peat representing both the Laphroaig and Ardmore styles of peat. They would light up the peat so you could take in the aroma, noting the differences between peat types, and better understanding how this fuel type influences the flavor of the heated barley, and ultimately, the distilled spirit.
Picking nits? A few of the booths offered underwhelming expression selection. Highland Park only had the 15 and 18 year. I sure would have liked to see a bottle of 25 or 30 year brought out for the Super Pour period. Some might have also been disappointed at not having the Glenfiddich 30 year make an appearance, but I get the focus on Snow Phoenix right now. Maybe next time. Also, if I had a ride, or was staying at the hotel, another 30 minutes to sample a few more expressions would be welcomed.
Whiskies I tried
- Aberlour 18 - Perfectly nice, I tasted this towards the end of the evening. Hard to say if it’s worth the premium over the excellent 16 year. Didn’t seem like it tonight.
- Ardmore Traditional Cask – I’ve had Ardmore in Compass Box blends, but never as a single malt. It’s actually better than I thought it would be. Not a huge peat, but some pretty nice spices. It has a notable pine taste that you could also smell in the peat at the booth.
- Balvenie 17 Year Peated – This was very good. The barley isn’t actually peated. They start with regular Balvenie whisky casks, and then do a finish using barrels that previously contained peated whisky (peated Balvenie whisky in fact). The peat cask influence is fairly subtle, but makes for a very balanced whisky. Not sure about paying $120 for it, though.
- The Classic Cask – Rare Scotch Whisky 35 Year Blend – This was the first and last whisky I sampled on the evening, and my favorite overall. If I recall the information on this expression correctly, it’s comprised of 30 or so single malts, matured for 25 years in varying cask types. They’re then vatted together with about 15% grain whisky (making it officially a “blend”) and matured another 10 years in first-fill sherry casks. A total of 600 bottles were produced. More notes on this one at the end of the blog post…
- The Dalmore 18 Year - A solid dram, very much of the Dalmore profile. The subtleties of this one were somewhat lost on me, though, having tried it later in the evening.
- Glenfiddich Snow Phoenix – Another solid dram. You’ve probably read about this one, produced from casks of various types ranging from 13 to 30 years old, plucked out of warehouses where the roof had collapsed in last year’s winter storms. I’ve not been a huge Glenfiddich fan (relative to some other Speyside distilleries), but I did enjoy this quite a bit. It’s another one that probably calls for a more controlled environment and a dedicated glass. Worth another try in the future.
- Glenmorangie Finealta – This was my second sample on the evening, and I was very impressed with it. Peated to a mere 8-10 ppm (according to David Blackmore), you’re certainly not going to confuse it for an Ardbeg. However, I really liked the peat that showed up…very earthy like a Talisker or Bowmore, and a nice compliment to the vanilla and citrus notes more typical of a Glenmorangie whisky.
- Glenrothes 1985 – Here we go…a sherry cask matured Glenrothes. I’ve been wanting to try one of these. It was a very enjoyable whisky, but not as bold as the Classic Cask 35 or Yamazaki 18. I’d like to try this one on its own sometime. It seemed like a very “clean” sherry presentation, with no sulfur to speak of.
- Glen Spey 21 Year – A limited release for 2010, this Super Pour demanded a stop at the Diageo Classic Malts booth. Great dried fruits and wood spices on the nose, and the mouth was fantastic at the bottled 50-ish percent. No water necessary. A real treat!
- Isle of Jura 16 - Another perfectly enjoyable whisky, but sorry, I just couldn’t get much out of it late in the evening after so many other whiskies. Another one to try on its own.
- Laphroaig 25 – This was the Laphroaig super pour. I was really excited to be able to taste this. Now I’m especially glad I did, as it confirmed my preference for the less expensive 30 year old. The 25 year was great, don’t get me wrong. And it’s certainly bigger on the palate (at 51% ABV) than the 30 year. I just don’t find the sherry flavors to be as developed here. Interestingly enough, Simon Brooking stated that the 30 year only contains 20% sherry casks vs. 40% sherry casks in this 25 year expression!? I find this really hard to believe, but he said those extra 5 years in the sherry casks really drew out the flavors in the 30 year.
- Scappa 16 – A pleasant surprise, this is very sweet, but also super clean and quite enjoyable. What a great warm weather whisky this would be! There’s probably a bottle in my future.
- SMWSA – “Deep and Dynamic” Cask No. 41.46 (Dailuaine 7 year) – A young Speyside whisky from a distillery I hadn’t even heard of. I don’t recall specific flavors, but it was big, fruity and sweet. Big, and a little “hot” on the palate, yet not rough or even particularly immature. Pretty impressive for a 7 year.
- SMWSA – “Master and Commander” Cask No. 93.39 (Glen Scotia 10 year) – Mmm…a sherry cask Campbeltown whisky. I’m pretty sure I like this better than the 10 or 15 year Springbanks.
- SMWSA – “What a Magnificent and Handsome Nose” Cask No. 29.88 (Laphroaig 9 year) – Laphroaig spirit matured 9 years in a refill sherry butt. What’s not to like?!
- Suntory Hibiki 12 – Wow, is this sweet and fruity! You really do get a sense that this was partly matured in plum liqueur casks. It’s not sickly sweet or syrupy, though. Very nice balance, and an impressive blend. I asked why it was so slow to work its way across the U.S., and it sounds like it’s just the economic reality of trying to get the masses to purchase a $65 12 year blend. Ok…so sell it to us cheaper!
- Suntory Yamazaki 18 – As impressed as I was with the Hibiki 12, I followed it up with a sample of Yamazaki 18 for a little perspective. Boy does this one leap out of the glass and dance on your taste buds. Big, deep sherry and wood spices. Very much worth a premium over the Hibiki 12.
Whiskies I wish I had tried
- Auchentoshan 18 Year
- Douglass Laing Double Barrel 10
- Highland Park and Bowmore (this sounds very interesting!)
- Glen Grant 16
- Glenfiddich 21 – I’ve been wanting to try this for ages, and keep missing the local Glenfiddich tastings. In this case, Ambassador Mitch was out mingling with the 21 year in hand when I went to the Glenfiddich booth. I tried the Snow Phoenix instead, and never made it back to try the 21. Doh!
- Isle of Jura Prophecy – I really would have liked to compare this directly to the Superstition…just ran out of time.
- Loch Chaim – Isle of Arran 1996 13 Year
- SMWSA – “Innocence and Depth” Cask #25.55 (19 year Rosebank)
- SMWSA – “Gradual Seduction” Cask #125.88 (16 year Glenmorangie)
Awesome whiskies I could have tried
These are all great and/or unique whiskies worth trying, but I either already own a bottle of them, or have tried them on multiple occasions, so I focused elsewhere.
- Ardbeg Corryvreckan
- Balvenie 14 Year Caribbean Cask
- Balvenie 21 PortWood
- Big Peat
- The Glenlivet 21
- The Glenlivet XV
- Glenmorangie 18
- Glenmorangie Signet
- Laphroaig 18
After the raffle and “last call” from the whisky booths, I stopped back by the Spirit Imports booth and was given a pretty generous sample of the Classic Cask Rare Scotch Whisky 35 Year Old. I found my way to a comfy couch in the stylish Biltmore Hotel lobby and nursed it for 30 minutes while enjoying some conversation with Adam.
The Classic Cask 35 year has a huge nose of red fruits, and raisins, along with bourbon-like sweets and wood notes. It had ample body in the mouth (though not huge), and then a finish that lasted forever. Bottled at 43%, it didn’t feel weak at all (not that I’d complain if there were 3-5 additional ABV%). What really struck me about this whisky is that it had the same distinct, fantastic taste at the end of the night that it did at the beginning. Where other expressions seemed to start running together, this one held its own. It’s pretty expensive…$250 to $300 a bottle. Upon first tasting it, Adam and I both thought it was excellent, but kind of pricey for a “blend.” By the end of the night we agreed to go in on a bottle and split the cost. I can’t wait to try it again in my home to see if it’s all I thought it was.
Bottom line - I hope we (Phoenix) showed well enough to become a regular stop on the SMSW Extravaganza tour. Gabby Shayne said we had around 200 people, which is actually quite good for a first time venue. I will definitely sign up for the 19th Annual Extravaganza if it comes here. Kudos to the Shayne’s for putting on a great event! Now…what to do with these cigars. Don’t tell my wife, but I just might try one.