2011 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 large-scale traveling roadshow of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (let’s just call it the SMWS, shall we?) rolled into San Francisco on November 9th, and again proved to be a great time. The SMWS, though appropriately based in Scotland, has branches around the globe, and offers its members the chance to buy unique (and uniquely named) bottlings of their carefully selected casks. The Extravaganza not only gives the SMWS a chance to showcase a few of their own selections but has quite a few of malt whisky’s finest distilleries on hand to showcase their booze.

The evening began with the hour long, oft-humorous, occasionally informative Whisky Panel, a Q&A hosted by SMWS’s Alan Shayne who filtered the audience’s questions to this terrifying array of industry ambassadors:  Neyah White – Suntory/Yamazaki, Martin Daraz – Highland Park, Johnny Mundy – Glenrothes, Glen Grant, & Bowmore, Nicholas Pollacchi – The Balvenie, Mitch Bechard – Glenfiddich, Steve Beal – Classic Malts, Bushmills & more, Winston Evans – Glenlivet, Rick Edwards – Aberlour & Glenlivet, and Gabe Cardarella – Dewars & Aberfeldy.  Not only was the Whisky Panel a great way to start the evening (the nice dram of Aberfeldy didn’t hurt either), it also allowed the attendees to bypass the long line of non-Panel attendees waiting to get in to the main event.

Once inside, tasting glass in hand, I met up with Chris & Nate from WhiskyWall and headed straight for the SMWS booth where Mr. Shayne was pouring, among others, an excellent 18yo Bladnoch (Cask #50.42), a complex, spice-filled 28yo Genburgie (Cask #73.40). From there, well…believe it or not, there was a lot of whisky tasting. Notable among these:

  • It was great to taste through the range of Bushmill’s Single Malts, I’m a big fan of the 10yo, but hadn’t tried the 16yo or 21yo.
  • Oban 18yo. Yup, great stuff. This lived up to all the good things I’ve heard about it.
  • A tasty Bunnahabhain 1997 Peated 13yo from The Classic Cask. Nice Bunnahabhain sea salt and sweet with the addition of some tarry, smoky peat.
  • I was excited to try the newly-available-in-the-US Johnnie Walker Double Black. I think both JWRed & JWBlack are good value, stalwart blends and was looking forward to the purported smokier and more complex Double Black. Sadly, it didn’t leave much of an impression, and didn’t stand out as markedly different as much as I expected it to. I’ll definitely have to give it another try.
  • On the other hand, I really enjoyed The Black Grouse, which is the smokier version of another blend I like quite a bit, The Famous Grouse.
But on top of all that, the two biggest highlights of the evening for me were:
  • The Hakushu 12yofrom Suntory. Finally, a new Japanese whisky available on American shores! Really excellent stuff, lightly peated, at once familiar and uniquely different.  Sadly though, it’s also fairly limited at the moment, so get it while you can. Hopefully the success of Hakushu will inspire more Japanese
    whiskies to make the trip across the Pacific. 
  • Balvenie Tun 1401 Batch #3. Wow. The third in a series of “small batch” exclusive bottlings, Tun 1401 #3 is made up of 10 casks, 3 ex-sherry, 7 ex-bourbon, distilled over the years at the hands of Balvenie’s David Stewart. The youngest whisky here is from a cask filled in 1989, the oldest from 1967. After making the cut, the 10 casks were emptied into Tun 1401, a 2000 litre marrying tun, to get know each other a little better before being bottled in an edition of 1800. Balvenie ambassador Nicholas Pollachi almost levitates with excitement when talking about this whisky, as well he should, he had a hand in making it and it is truly stunning stuff…lush, deeply complex, with a delicious array of wood and spice. Well done, Mr. Pollacchi, we’ll miss you on the West Coast.

If you’re a thirsty Scotch neophyte, the SMWS Extravaganza is a perfect opportunity to sample a number of whiskies and chat with a number of industry folks to get to know the stuff better. Smaller, more laid back, and obviously more focused than the massive free-for-all (in a great way) that is WhiskyFest, it’s easier to spend more time at each booth and really contemplate a whisky without being tempted by the other 300 whiskies in the room. If you’re a diehard Scotch fan, it’s hard to go wrong at the SMWS Extravaganza. Lots of whisky, lots of good conversation about whisky, what’s not to love? While I do enjoy that some big whisky expos have seminars and “master classes” offered along with the main event, I like that the Extravaganza just has the Whisky Panel beforehand and that’s it. That leaves more time to be on the floor, exploring all the whisky at one’s own pace. I would like to see a more varied selection for the serious aficionado, the distilleries featured are  for the most part the expected big ones. The event would benefit from having smaller, less well-known distilleries and more independent bottlers, but at the same time, I realize it’s an expensive proposition for those companies to do traveling shows such as these. I was a little disappointed that several of the whiskies listed in evening’s book were no shows. I was really looking forward to trying the lauded Old Pulteney 21yo, but alas, no Old Pulteney nor An Cnoc neither. Same goes for The Dalmore and Jura as well as the Irish whiskey, Knappogue Castle. All in all, though, the SMWS Extravaganza is a great event and one I always look forward to…definitely a recommended show.

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