Have you ever had the pleasure of visiting Christchurch – the largest city on New Zealand’s South Island? On my previous visits, I came away with the impression that it represented an antipodean version of an English theme park – a very English theme park. The abundance of European trees, the winding River Avon complete with punts and punters in boaters, the almost – Cotswold sandstone architecture and a generally laid-back “olde worlde” chintzy ambience of a tranquil Cathedral city set it apart from comparatively “pacier and racier” Wellington and Auckland. Note the important qualification – “comparatively”. Even in the fleshpots of the North Island, we’re not talking Vegas.
In this part of the world, whisky lovers are victims of the tyranny of distance. Sadly, you can’t get much further away from Scotland and its distilleries, on the planet, than New Zealand, without beginning to double back on yourself. Solution – if Hamish can’t come to the distillery, then the distillery must come to Hamish. Or rather that should be Michael – Michael Fraser Milne – the proprietor of Christchurch-based whisky retailer and distributor “Whisky Galore”. For any connoisseur of a quality dram, a visit to Michael’s emporium in Colombo Street, Christchurch, is to find yourself in an “Aladdin’s Cave” of the world’s very best drops, all beautifully arranged and presented. Shelf after shelf stacked with bottles, the contents of which represent the highest expressions of the “water of life” to be found on any continent. “Have I died and gone to heaven?” was my first 2006 impression. A quick pinch told me that I had, indeed, gone to heaven but I hadn’t had to die first. Not content with providing, through his “Whisky Galore” shop and mail-order delivery-service, an access to fine whiskies unmatched by any mere bottle-shop anywhere, Michael also developed a cunning plan to lure to Christchurch, primarily from distant Scotland, representatives, every two years, of the best and finest of the whisky industry and its spiritous products. The resulting convocation first saw the light of day, to great acclaim, as Dramfest 2007. Its successor, two years later, was certainly bigger and arguably better, if the loss of intimacy is balanced against the wider choice of tastings and master-classes. Any decent “Seannachaid” (Storyteller of the Clan) like myself, needs a constant fund of stories – old and new. So, in search of fresh “Whisky Workshop” material, my wife Debbie and I touched down in Christchurch for some serious Dramfest 2009 research.
The event kicked off in grand style with the “Dramfest Do” on Friday night at the not-at-all-olde-worlde Christchurch Town Hall – a 1970’s concrete structure of dubious architectural merit, from the outside, compensated by more attractive and welcoming spaces inside. Attendees had their thirsts assuaged by generous drams of Ardbeg or Glenmorangie, with few able to forego the inducement to alternate between the two seriously good whiskies as the evening progressed.
Add two bands – folk being replaced by rock as the imperative to grace the dance floor accelerated – and a generous buffet groaning with cuts of lamb and superb sea-food and the formula for a great evening was just about guaranteed. Debbie and I were fortunate to be joined for the “Do” by fellow-Brisbane lawyer Scott Cameron, his better half Susan and his charming Mum – Cathy. With Cathy living in Christchurch, and Susan coming from Dunedin originally, it doesn’t take much to tempt Scott and Susan to Christchurch for a visit at any time. Add the attraction of Dramfest (and Scott was there in 2007 too) and the temptation proves beyond human resistance. Kilts were in profusion and I was, as always, proud to wear the MacLachlan tartan in honour of my dear Mum and her forbears. Okay….all that clan tartan stuff is a bit of a fiction to sell cloth, but don’t tell anybody! The “Do” (which for Scottish readers had no connection with pigeons) got Dramfest off to a tremendous “feel-good” bang.
Presiding over all the dedicated congregation, for the entire weekend, was the splendid figure of Michael Fraser Milne himself. The event’s founder and outstanding spiritual leader – The Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Whisky.
The following afternoon saw the first very busy Saturday session at the Convention Centre. Imagine in the main ground-floor hall, wall-to-wall stands representing a stellar cast of the world’s best distillers and private bottlers, usually with something like half a dozen of their best offerings for you to sample and you’re beginning to get the unforgettable picture.All the charms of Speyside, Highland, Island, Orkney, Cambelltown, Islay, Lowland, Ireland and even Kiwi varieties were on glorious offer. Tasting glass in hand, supplied by Michael’s wife Stella, the simple drill was to make your progress around and across the hall, nosing and tasting at your leisure, noting with the pad and pen provided, your conclusions on each dram. In the process there were numerous opportunities for friendly questions, discussions and banter with the representatives and, of course, fellow tasters.
For the more dedicated faithful, ticket- only master-classes were held separately upstairs and we were fortunate to attend the master-class presentations by Alex Bruce (kilt/English accent) of the Adelphi Distillery Co. – a premium independent bottler – whose HQ is in a castle, for goodness sake – and Andrew Beamish (no-kilt/English accent) of the pioneering Tullibardine Distillery in Perthshire. Alex’s demonstration of the “beading test” was so exuberant I thought the bottle would explode. In Andrew’s presentation I noted with interest that the Tullibardine label bears a crest with the date “1488” on it. I asked him if there was not a risk that some might mistake that as an age statement and believe they were drinking 521 year old whisky! He was good enough to tell me that the date referred to the marriage of James IV of Scotland, whose celebrations were fuelled with beer made from a medieval brewery on which site his distillery now stands. Well, there you go – you learn something new everyday and it’s a bad day if you don’t!
Having Dramfest over two days this year proved to be a sensible measure. Our experience on the Saturday, confirmed that by attending the two master-classes, there was no way justice could be done to the other exhibitors in the time remaining. Prior to embarking on day two, we joined other Sunday morning promenaders in Cathedral Square where no less than 5 separate pipe-bands were entertaining the masses with what seemed like the popular and enjoyable repertoire of wee bands in the lower grades. Brought back memories of my own piping days of long ago in the ranks of London’s “The Highland Gathering Pipe Band”. Alas, most of my “he-dorims” and “ho-dorims” are sadly forgotten now.
Whisky folk – people who appreciate the nuances of the culture and history of the spirit – its cerebral as well as its sensual pleasures – generally respect it too much to allow occasions like this to become an opportunity for just a “piss up”. Consistent with that ethos, despite the liberal access to some stonking whiskies, there were remarkably few attendees sporting either wobbly-boots or wobbly-brogues when the day drew to a close at 6:00p.m. Remarkably, the rain ceased at the same time, allowing Debbie and myself the prettiest walk back to our delightful boutique hotel – “Off the Square” – and to end a pretty perfect day with a Kilkenny in the “Irishman Bar”, managed by a Sligo fellow, and a powerful curry at the “Raj Mahal” (we couldn’t find the “The Two Fat Indians” but that’s another story) a few doors down.
At the Convention Centre, the Sunday crowds had mercifully thinned from Saturday’s throng and we got to mark off just about all of our “must taste” drams as well as to attend a further two master-classes. Somebody’s got to do it. Dr. Bill Lumsden (no-kilt/Scottish accent) superbly contrasted his Glenmorangie and Ardbegproducts and assured us that “Wee Shortie” the Jack Russell at Ardbeg is a real dog and advised us that the Japanese word for “delicious” was “weeshee” which was the reaction most of his Tokyo audience gave to the “Astar” expression. Ian McWilliam (kilt/Scottish accent – yes!) of Glenfarclas kept us enthralled with the story behind that iconic Speyside label, for six generations in the Grant (no relation to Glenfiddich) family’s private ownership. But I can’t say anymore can I, Ian? It’s a secret!
In the main hall I was lucky enough to bump into another Brisbane lawyer – Phil Canning – who like us had happily made the trip across the Tasman and will do so again. All too soon the 6:00p.m. “witching hour” arrived, signalling the end of Dramfest 2009. The collective reactions from all in attendance included “can’t wait for the next one!”….”Why can’t we have it every year?”….”Why isn’t there something like this in Australia?”
Our Sunday night repast was Korean-fare, heavy on the fiery Kim Chee, which probably required a nice peppery Talisker to aid its digestion – but the tea had to do instead!
The next day prior to our departure for Brisbane, Debbie and I found time for a farewell call-in to the “Whisky Galore” shop (how could we not?) where Andy Brown was holding the fort in Michael’s absence. Andy’s a lovely guy from Dundee in the East of Scotland originally, who, on hearing my own West of Scotland accent, cordially asked me what part of Ireland I was from.I replied “The Greenock part”. I forgive him! With Bruce, another Aussie visitor from Sydney, whom we recognised as a fellow master-class attendee, Andy gave us a “Cooks’-tour” of the premises which included the office upstairs where Michael’s pretty-damned-exclusive “Keeper of the Quaich” membership certificate was on display. With some rare Kilchoman and Edradour expressions on board, we bade farewell to “Whisky Galore” and to Christchurch – till the next Dramfest, of course!