2010 SMWS Extravaganza San Francisco – Recap

Thank you very much to the Scotch Malt Whisky Society of America for the opportunity to attend the Extravaganza as press.

The etymology of the word extravaganza reads (at least from several online sources) thusly:

“from 1754, with reference to peculiar behavior; from 1794, of a fantastic type of performance or writing, from It. extravaganza, lit. “an extravagance,” from estravagante, from M.L. extravagantem”

I’m not too sure that 1754 bit works very well, while I’m guessing there are some that would consider a room full of people (many in plaid) sticking their noses into small glasses peculiar behavior, the majority of us probably look upon a scene like that and sigh with relief, knowing that, at least for one night, the heights of civilization have been reached. So let’s go with the second, the 1794 root of the word, “a fantastic type of performance”, for in a way, the San Francisco version of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s Extravaganza roadshow was a pretty fantastic performance, and not just by the whiskies themselves and industry reps either. For two and a half hours on a balmy Tuesday night, a great many whisky fans waltzed gracefully (some more so than others) around an Intercontinental Hotel ballroom ringed with a great selection of excellent malts.

A little background…The Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS) was officially founded in 1983 by one Phillip Hills who, after running a small, private single cask concern with a bunch of friends, took the thing public when the group purchased The Vaults in Leith. The Vaults was not only the whisky cellar for the group, but functioned as a gathering place and social space. Over the years membership has increased as has the number of SMWS venues. There’s now a second location in Edinburgh and another in London. The Society purchases single casks from distilleries around the world, available for purchase by its members only. The SMWS bottlings are typically very unique and instead of focusing on the distilleries they came from, the Society identifies them by evocative names (“Oh For The Joys of a Long Winter Night”, etc.) a cryptic number and detailed tasting notes. Membership has grown so that there are now branches worldwide, with the Extravaganza being its travelling road show.

For some the evening began early with The Whisky Panel, an hour-long Q&A with a gathering of top industry reps. Attendees submitted questions to host and Scotch Malt Whisky Society of America President Alan Shayne, who then presided over a casual, laugh-filled discussion on topics ranging from wood management and age statements to heartfelt odes to whisky from each panel member. Up on the dais were: Steve Beal – Classic Malts, Bushmills & more, Robin Coupar – Bowmore, Glenrothes, & more, Nicholas Pollacchi – The Balvenie, Mitch Bechard – Glenfiddich, Neyah White – Suntory/Yamazaki, Ricky Crawford – The Glenlivet, Bill Lumsden – Glenmorangie & Ardbeg, and Simon Brooking – Laphroaig & Ardmore.

Promptly at 7:00, we marched into a good size ballroom with a buffet down the middle, plenty of tables to sit at, and of course, plenty of whiskies ringing the entire space. I made the bold, unorthodox choice of starting the SMWS Extravaganza tasting with tasting of SMWS malts. There were five malts on offer this time around including an 18yo Rosebank a 8yo Glengoyne, a 13yo Linkwood a 17yo Glen Scotia and a 7yo Ardbeg. All five were definitely interesting with the standouts being the complex, challenging Glen Scotia and the excellent Linkwood.

From there I moved on to the Douglas Laing & Co. booth which definitely left an impression with a nice Old Malt Cask 1996 Isle of Arran 13yo, a very butterscotch-y, spicy, and wonderful Premier Barrel 1996 Highland Park 13yo, and a spectacular, uniquely fruity but still peaty and smoky, McGibbon’s Provenance 1990 Caol Ila 14 yo. I love the distillery offerings from Caol Ila, so it was great to try an independent bottling, especially one that seemed to honor the distillery profile and add another delicious layer of complexity on top of it.

Moving on, no big whisky show is complete without a stop by the Highland Park booth to taste again their incredible 30yo. Beautiful stuff, sadly, it’s also bit pricey. The day I buy a bottle of this is also the day I buy a custom-built distillery-yacht with my lottery winnings, so in the meantime I’ll just have to keep waving my glass at them at the big expos. Nearby and also delicious were the Glenmorangie 18yo and Sonnalta Px. It was nice as well to have a chance to chat with Bill Lumsden, the guru behind the current spate of incredible releases from Glenmorangie and Ardbeg. It was also nice to say hi to Simon Brooking and have a taste of the wonderful Laphroaig 18yo and the terrific Ardmore 30yo. The more Ardmore I drink, the more I think that I need to drink more Ardmore. There’s excellent whisky coming from this Highland distillery, here’s hoping some new expressions pop up in the coming years.

After a palate cleansing bite to eat from the sumptuous buffet (which really was rather sumptuous), Chris from Whisky Wall and I descended on the Glenfiddich booth with the renewed vigor of 10 bloggers for what turned out to be the highlight of the evening. We had long conversation with Mitch Bechard and, well, one thing led to another and suddenly there was a bit of Glenfiddich 40yo in our glasses. What an incredible malt! I was prepared for a grand, rich, heavily oak-tinged dram, but was surprised with a grand, rich, incredibly vibrant and well balanced whisky that had such depth that the 40 years worth of wood was just one well-incorporated aspect of a greater whole. Absolutely delicious stuff, as was the 30yo we tried after that. Again, like the 40, this was a really fantastic, bright, and energetic older whisky, balanced, lush, and nuanced. Like the Highland Park 30yo, the Glenfiddich 30 & 40 are bottles I’ll have to wait to pick up when I’m picking up that aforementioned distillery-yacht, so it was truly a treat to give them a try.

Another highlight of the night included a great conversation with Balvenie’s Nicholas Polacchi over tastes of the excellent 17yo Peated Cask, the beautiful 21yo Portwood, and the honeyed 14yo Caribbean Cask. I thought both the Peated Casks and Caribbean Cask were great, stylish examples of cask finishing a malt. Peated Speysiders while often delicious, can be somewhat clunky and not too well-balanced, the Balvenie 17yo integrated the peat from the wood extremely well. Likewise, the 14yo Caribben cask really balanced the sweet, sugared rum influence with the whisky.

All in all, the Extravaganza was a truly great event. It’s a very different one than, say, WhiskyFest because it’s more focused and more intimate. Outside of a handful of Irish and Japanese Whiskies this was all about the Scotch stuff. The crowd size was perfect for the room making sidling up to the table fairly easy at all booths and better still, making it very easy to talk to the ambassadors and reps there. It wasn’t the frenzied celebration that WhiskyFest is, and while that definitely has its place and is a hell of a lot of fun, the Extravaganza is a bit quieter, and more reserved. I would recommend coming early for the Whisky Panel, not only was it a fun intro to the event, it also got you registered early for the tasting. When the panel was finished, all that attended got to bypass the line of late-comers, smugly walk right up, grab the souvenir tasting glass, and walk right in the ballroom. The food was excellent, perhaps the best of any large-scale show I’ve been to yet, and was kept well stocked for most of the event. It was also very nice to actually have a table at which to sit down and eat, there again lending a more measured tone to the evening. Shows like these can certainly be expensive, the non-member ticket for this one was $135, and there’s always the question of “is it worth it?” In the case the Extravaganza, I would definitely say yes and recommend checking one out next year when the tour comes to your town. Well done SMWS, and thank you!

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One thought on “2010 SMWS Extravaganza San Francisco – Recap

  1. Great write up Pete! You encapsulated and summarized the “vibe” of the event perfectly. As always great to catch up with you and look forward to sharing another dram soon.

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