I've said it before, but living in Hong Kong certainly has some advantages whisky-wise. One is obviously the local scene, which has grown immensely in the past two years and now boasts some great events, bars and publications, but the other is the proximity to several other (whisky-loving and/or producing) countries.
Weekend trip to Japan for TIBS or Whisky Live Tokyo? Sure why not. A visit to Kavalan in Taiwan? Sounds like a plan. Amrut Distillery Tour in India? Be silly not to, etc...
So when I heard Whisky L! Shanghai was happening last month, a quick check of flight schedules told me I could leave HKG in the morning, spend most of the day at the show, and return in the evening. Simple and easy (notoriously delayed Shanghai flights not withstanding)....and so a few weeks later, I was off to check out my first Mainland China whisky festival.
Run over three days, I visited on the middle day (an incredibly hot Saturday), the first open to the public. My first thought after arriving at the show was "this is a BIG whisky festival!" Set throughout several function spaces at Le Royal Meridien Shanghai, there were a lot of exhibitors.
My second thought was "this is not your usual whisky fair." No, there were no tables here, but rather huge stands with some serious production effort. Just look at Moët Hennessy's Glenmorangie stand, complete with life-size giraffe model...
As you might imagine, there was a decent-sized language barrier at some booths (entirely to be expected considering I don't speak Mandarin!) but no such barriers at Michter's, where I spotted good mates of TimeforWhisky Matt and John (from the distillery) and Eddie (of general HK Whisky fame).
Having tried the 25yo Bourbon a few months earlier with Matt and Eddie, it was great to be able to try the 25yo Rye and 20yo Bourbon - both incredibly rare in Asia (and anywhere, really). Not a bad way to kick start the show at all. Both were lovely whiskies, and without any of the harsh over-oaked tannins you might expect on such old American whiskies. I even noticed hints of Banoffee Pie on the palate of the 20yo Bourbon, and some unusual (but enjoyable) marshmallow sweetness on the 25yo Rye!
Diageo had an (expectedly) large stand, with standard several bottles from the Classic Malts range on tasting. There was also a Special Releases tasting (with Charlie Maclean!) but I arrived just too late to grab any masterclass tickets unfortunately.
Dalmore was up next, showcasing the 12, 18, and the "more is better" King Alexander III.
Pours throughout the show were generous, and whilst I BYO'd my own Glencairn for the photos, the tasting glasses provided were very cool pieces of kit. I can't find them online, but think of them as a Glencairn without the base. I'll be using it again.
The local Glenfarclas distributor had an incredible line-up of Family Casks dating back to 1954, and whilst they obviously weren't on tasting, there was an enjoyable 1998 Family Cask which showcased a lighter, less sherried Glenfarclas style.
Dewars (Bacardi) had a large stand, showcasing standard bottlings from "The Last Great Malts" range, including Aultmore, Craigellachie, The Deveron and Royal Brackla, not to mention an in-house leather worker who was...working with leather, I guess.
Never one to give up the opportunity to drink GlenDronach, I dropped by their stand for a dram of 21yo Parliament, and a chat with their always-affable brand ambassador Stewart Buchanan. A sizeable BenRiach and Glenglassaugh range was also on tasting (though sadly the 15yo 'dronach Revival was only for display).
Right next door was the Gordon & Macphail / Benromach stand, where I had the chance to revisit the Benromach range (after a 3 year break) over a long chat with G&M's Richard Urquhart. I'm not quite sure why I left it 3 years between drinks - every single dram was beautiful (more so than I remember) and I'd now rate their 10 and 15yo up there with some of the best 10-15yo Speysiders around. I was fortunate to have another opportunity to revisit the range, and the incredible 1974 41yo a few days later in Hong Kong too, which only increased my appreciation of the range.
With my flight time approaching, it was time for a quick dram and chat with Ian Chang of Kavalan, who was also kind enough to try my 2L ex-port mini barrel HK aged Archie Rose, while I enjoyed his port-matured whisky (his was better, obvs). Ian correctly identified the "whisky" as "young with an ABV in the high 60s", but was surprised when I told him it was only 4 months old (he'd picked 2 years, albeit from a larger cask).
On my way out the door, the Jameson / Midleton stand caught my eye, and I have to say, I'm glad it did. I was lucky enough to try a dram of the Dair Ghaelac, finished in virgin Irish Oak, and it was absolutely the highlight dram of the show. With some earthy smoke, cinnamon, red berries and some vanilla, it was a truly fantastic whisky.
..and with that, it was time to head back to the airport and fly home to Hong Kong, having a spent a whopping 9 hours in China. Would I return next year? Absolutely - the show was a seriously well-produced event, with a great range of exhibitors each showing a great range of drams. If I spoke Mandarin, I'm sure I'd enjoy it even more.
TimeforWhisky.com attended as a media guest of Whisky L! Shanghai (thanks Stephen).