On June 5th, I attended an event so grown up, I can barely believe that I was allowed into it in the first place. What could be so grown up that a bearded and ID-carrying man would doubt his ability to enter, you ask? Was it a real estate seminar? Some kind of exciting timeshare opportunity? Nope. Way more adult. It was a Whisky Festival.
I lined up outside The Whiskey Jar, a characterful (and I mean that in the best way possible) bar in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, with my friend Holly and a queue of other excited people. Not simply a queue of bearded older men (maybe sailors, I don’t know) like you’d expect. It was exciting and encouraging to see such a varied demographic of people here. I learned upon arrival that expectations and reservations were to be left at the door.
Young men and women (and some beardy older men too, just not exclusively so) filed into the brick building with an interior that carried a distinct speakeasy type of vibe. Once inside, a young woman introduced us to how things worked in the festival. Judging by the hoarseness of her voice, she must have repeated this script many times to others ahead of me in the queue. I felt bad for her as she must have had hours still to go and I don’t think her voice was going to last (at least she knew a good place to get a restorative tonic of whisky and lemon, but perhaps that option wouldn’t be available whilst she was still on the clock).
I’d never been in The Whiskey Jar before and once I was familiar with its interior I started to question why that was the case. I like overstuffed armchairs, exposed brickwork and extensive whisky collections. This place seemed perfect for me and I felt like a fool for being so new to it.
The main floor was decked out with a few stands offering the whiskies that were included with the price of admission, a small area where an acoustic band were playing and the full-time usual bar on the side that was there providing whisky-based cocktails for a fee (who was having those, I have no idea). There were crowds and queues but also a delightful selection of things to drink (admittedly, they were all whisky). It was only after we had spent ages in our first queue (we were committed to trying a ‘World’ whisky first) that we discovered the lower floor. This glorious boutique of consumption featured stands of whiskies from all over, staffed by representatives that were more than happy to pour you a dram and tell you tales of heritage and distillation. I learned, for instance, that Japanese single malt whiskies (and, by extension, the blends that are made with them) are held to exceptionally high purity and quality standards. So high are these standards that a Suntory single malt from a couple of years ago won the award for best whisky in the world. The sample measures were small (which was lucky as there were a lot to try) and free (huzzah!). There was also a selection of whiskies available to purchase by the bottle. Luckily this stall was a cash-only affair or else Holly and I would have walked out with bottles that we totally wanted but really didn’t need.
All told, we tried a vast number of whiskies that day from all over the world. The ones we tried (and I know I’m missing a couple, but it was a long day of whisky drinking) were as follows (ranked in no particular order):
- Paul John Brilliance (55.5%, India)
- Paul John Edited (46%, India)
- Nikka All Malt (40%, Japan)
- Suntory Hibiki Japanese Harmony (43%, Japan)
- Suntory Hakushu (43%, Japan)
- Suntory Yamazaki (43%, Japan)
- Powers John Lane (46%, Ireland)
- Auchentoshan Three Wood (43%, Scotland)
- Chivas Regal 18 (40%, Scotland)
- Highland Park 12 (40%, Scotland)
- Aberlour 10 (40%, Scotland)
- Macallan Gold (40%, Scotland)
- Makers Mark (45%, USA)
- Buffalo Trace (40%, USA)
- Jim Beam Double Oak (43%, USA)
- Jim Beam Apple (35%, USA)
There were a lot of very, very nice drinks amongst that list (I also had a burger half way through which was fantastic, but that hardly deserves recognition amongst all the whisky). If I had to pick a favourite (and I don’t, but I’m going to anyway) it would probably be the Suntory Hibiki Japanese Harmony (amazing name, right?). I tried it before I knew of Suntory’s award-winning pedigree, so I was not swayed by their reputation (nor was I swayed by Bill Murray’s advertisements in the film Lost In Translation). It was deliciously tasty and it comes in a beautiful bottle (that helps). Honestly though, I don’t think I tried any that I didn’t like. I liked some far more than others (and I suppose I wasn’t massively keen on the bourbon) but they all had their strengths.
One of the coolest things about this particular day out was that it confirmed for me that I do indeed enjoy whiskies. I’m not pretending to like it, nor am I forcing myself to, like I have done with so many drinks in the past. It was the best kind of day; I had some fun, I learned a little and I drank a lot (in terms of selection, not in volume).
You won me over, Whisky Festival. If and when you come around again, you can be sure to see me there.