I have said it before, but I will say it again: I am a lucky man. There are many reasons I remain convinced of this fact, but as it relates to my point today, I get to read, write, make, taste, talk about, share and spend time immersed in something I am truly passionate about.
Nearly ten years ago I fell in love with malt whisky and although I now hold gainful employment in the whisky industry, I assure you the romance is still alive and well. I still buy bottles. I still go to bed with a whisky book by my side (currently leafing through Phillip Morrice's Schweppes Guide to Scotch). I still taste as much new whisky as I am able to. I still relish speaking with other whisky geeks, malt maniacs, and peat freaks. I still go to tastings for fun, out of hours. I still love whisky.
I was fortunate enough to attend what must be the most unique whisky festival in the world, Maltstock in the Netherlands September 9-11, 2011. (Read Cask Strength's Neil Ridley or Master of Malt Ben Ellefsen's thoughts on the event)
My colleagues and I arrived at a scout camp at De Berendonck near Nijmegen with a car bursting with bottles, glassware, two beautiful barrel-shaped pinatas, and three daily costume changes for my fabulous colleague, Tony.
Maltstock lacked many things that define most whisky festivals: queues at stands, branding and pop-up banners, people shoving glasses in exhibitors' faces saying "gimme your oldest"/"what's your most expensive scotch?", poor food, a ticketed dram policy, people attempting to show off how much they know (or think they know) about whisky, some hotel conference room, or a curfew. Running for three days at a campsite in Nijmegan, Maltstock is the only celebration of whisky perfectly suited to the drink it honours.
With many whisky festivals earning nicknames like DrunkFest and WhiskyLoathe due to the large numbers of attendees who are clearly there to drink as much as they possibly can and act like pricks, there are a growing number of new festivals around the world hiking ticket prices to their festivals in an attempt to filter out some of the "undesirable" elements and offering an ultra premium, exclusive experience.
Maltstock isn't premium, it's primal. It is isn't exclusive, it's inclusive. And with over 200 bottles open, poured at will by every attendee to their hearts' content, there was not one incident of vomiting, fighting, abuse, property damage, public defecation, or theft; features of many other festivals that I have personally witnessed.
Maltstock is about people. People who love whisky. People who want to be with other people who love whisky. No matter their income or nationality or age or knowledge level. And you know who that attracts? Nice people. Nice people who want to meet other nice people. People who want to share in the discovery of new single casks from obscure indie bottlers. Nice people who want to rediscover Glenfiddich 12yo or Glenlivet 15 French Oak (as I did). Nice people who want to find the worst whisky in the world. Nice people who want to enjoy something they love in the company of other nice people. Who wears nametags at the whisky fair in your city? Vendors? Distillers? Ambassadors? You can put a nametag on a hired model who explains that "at the Johnnie Walker distillery we use closed distilleries in our Green single malt," but unless she is coming back to my hotel room, I cannot help but wonder why I needed to learn her name. At Maltstock everyone wears a nametag and every single person I met was a fucking legend.
And again, that is what whisky appreciation is about: People. It is a communal elixir, a product that grew out of the agricultural tradition and nourishes the society that so naturally builds around it. Whisky is, as David Daiches has so perfectly articulated, "more than indulgence: it is a toast to civilization, a tribute to the continuity of culture, a manifesto of man's determination to use the resources of nature to refresh mind and body and enjoy to the full the senses with which is has been endowed."
When you look at woodcuts or old paintings of distilling in Scotland, or of crofters enjoying some clearach, you don't see a man sitting alone in a sterile makeshift home office with his nose in a glass and his twitter feed twitting away. No, you don't see people hovering at one side of a trade display table, arms outstretched, discussing why Ardbeg 10 is inconsistent or Springbank has gone downhill or the stainless steel washbacks at Macallan have any impact on the flavour of the malt or "gimme yer oldest." You see human beings with other human beings in a natural environment enjoying whisky and talking about nearly anything but.
This is what Maltstock provides.
Thanks to the organisers and volunteers and to every single attendee. When I began to work for William Grant & Sons 3 years ago, I was proud and excited. But I remember spending an evening dramming at Sukhinder Singh's office with John Glaser calling me "sellout" all night. And maybe he was right. In this role one must be corporate and responsible. Maltstock, thank you for allowing me to be neither again.
If you are already attending next year, see you there. If you are not and are within a few hours flying time of Schipol, get your ass to Mars.