“They tell you, maybe you don’t want to meet your heroes. I’ve met pretty much every one, and I’ve never been let down.”
— Johnny Depp
“Whatever happens, don’t spit this out,” said a stranger to me. Jesus Christ, Rob, we just met!
It’s a sunny Singaporean Saturday afternoon and we were seated in a casually ritzy boardroom of Andaz Hotel, with a view overlooking the fashionable Marina Bay district. An array of single malts were set out in front of us. Speaking animatedly in a Japano-American accent was Nikka’s chief of international marketing Naoki Tomoyoshi, who sort of resembles a young Takuya Kimura. Equal parts geeky and beginner-friendly, this Nikka Masterclass is a tasting of 8 glasses of Yoichi and Miyagikyo single malts and a basic intro to how yeasts were used to produce Nikka’s newly-released Aromatic Yeast expressions.
You’re technically allowed to use a spittoon. But the Masterclass includes a 40-year-old Miyagikyo single malt made in the 1980s. Nobody in their right minds would spit out such sublime stuff. If you do, I half-expect Nikka brand reps to show up at your place with torches and pitchforks.
I’ve heard of Whisky Live, but for years never considered myself cool enough to attend such “boujee” highbrow events. I was wrong about the whisky community of course: it’s impossible to remain uptight and aloof when your drinks are at 46% ABV and above. Experiencing the biggest regional whisky event in person made me realise that the community is an easy-going scene of new enthusiasts, friendly whisky buffs and approachable brand reps. It helps that good alcohol is constantly and freely given, keeping everyone in a state of casual, contented buzz. It’s Paradise for whisky lovers living slightly above the poverty-line, like myself. I got to taste so many drinks without spending a cent!
So, my first Whisky Live was a blast, and I’m already looking forward to Whisky Live 2023. Yet there are things I wish I knew ahead of that weekend. If you’re attending Whisky Live for the first time, here are a few things you should know to have the best experience at Whisky Live.
First, Come Thirsty
Liquor taxes are painfully expensive in Singapore, but not this Whisky Live weekend! There’s a lot to drink. An endless amount of whisky, rum, mezcal, gin to try for free. And the drinks are either superb, or at the very least, interesting conversation-starters. So come, all you who are thirsty. Maybe just layer your stomach with a small cupcake.
You’ll surely notice the huge Whisky Hall which showcases the hot new releases from the likes of Nikka, Bruichladdich, Teeling, Waterford, Starward and Rampur.
Don’t get fixated on one spot though! The Rum Gallery features some fantastic drams from established brands like Hampden, Transcontinental Rum Line and Foursquare, and also highly unusual drams from up-and-coming distilleries the likes of Takamaka from Seychelles and Samai from Phnom Penh.
There is also a Gin Alley offering Japan’s famous Ki No Bi gin, Ceylon arrack (a spirit made from coconut flower sap) and an outdoor Cocktail Balcony where a La Maison & Velier bartender would whip up for you a deliciously funky daiquiri.
More on the interesting libations we’ve encountered in the Highlights section below.
Second, Go for the Masterclasses!
Sign up for the free Masterclasses or queue to enter. These classes are where brand reps (some of them famous industry greats) do their best to educate and entertain us in a comfortable, private setting. We also get access some of the best spirits from their collections, whether it’s a rare four-decade-old Japanese single malt that won’t ever be sold to retail customers, or a 400-dollar bottle of ancestral mezcal made from hand-mashed agave hearts.
Oh, did I mention that all this is free?
So, check the class schedules and set reminders to attend. Most of us get carried away bathing themselves in the liquid buffet in the Whisky Hall or Rum Gallery.
Daniele Biondi (who helped Velier SpA create the Haitian Clarin phenomenon) hosted this year’s Hampden Masterclass. The passionate man of Velier took us on a truly a deep dive into the grimy and funky dunder pits of Jamaican rum. I probably learnt more Chemistry from Biondi during this 2-hour masterclass than I have from my A level tutor.
Jamaican rums are special for their hogo or iconic rum funkiness. So, our favourite part of the class was obviously the chance to taste all 8 official marks of Hampden that go into their iconic funky rum blend. We began at the floral and mild OWH at 40 grams of ester per hectoliter of pure alcohol (gr/hlpa), to the heavily tropical LROK (also bottled as the Hampden Rum Fire) in the middle at 300 gr/hlpa, and ended the tasting on the legendary DOK which has so high ester content that comes in just under the legal threshold of 1600 gr/hlpa.
Wait – it gets better. In a very Italian show of hospitality, Biondi’s team ended the class with an unexpected cake party, a Hampden DOK-infused rum n’ raisin panettone. I was in Jamaican-Italian rum heaven .
Apart from rums and whiskies, craft mezcal is also starting to capture the imaginations of spirits lovers. It’s fitting we attend a craft mezcal workshop run by Código 1530, a multi-generational tequila and mezcal maker from Jalisco, which has been privately making craft mezcal for only family members to enjoy for several centuries.
We began the tasting with a threesome of Código tequilas, but I was blown away when we transitioned to tasting artisanal mezcal and ancestral mezcal, both of which had very richly floral notes and a sweet and gentle smokiness.
While I confess I’m new to the Código brand, their ancestral mezcal is hands-down the most beautifully interesting spirit I’ve tasted in a while. Unlike the previous expressions, this is made from hand-mashed agave (“ancestral” mezcal regulations forbid the use of technology, whether it is machinery or even a donkey), steamed in an earthen oven and distilled in a clay pot still. This gives it a sweet earthy nose, bright notes of honey, vanilla, and a bright minerality that clearly came from the use of a clay pot still. Dios mío, this is stunningly good!
Third, Prepare to Meet your Heroes
You will come face-to-face with rockstars from the whisky and rum world, the likes of Richard Seale (who took Foursquare Rums to acclaim) and Mark Reynier (the person behind Bruichladdich and Waterford’s success).
I approached Mark at the Waterford showcase and within 3 minutes of me professing my admiration, he took my glass without asking and poured me big dram of the new Waterford Heritage: Hunter. This was made from a forgotten but highly flavourful heritage variety known as Hunter barley that had been lost to history due to whisky producers preferring cheaper (and higher alcohol-yielding) barley varieties.
The proof is in the pudding. Despite Waterford’s very subtle oak maturation policy, this is easily one of the most flavourful barley-forward whiskies I’ve tasted. There’s a fascinating creaminess intertwined with bright tropical fruits – so unusual for an Irish whisky. This tasted like fresh banana cream, vanilla ice cream and also has a complex finish of baguette and mild chalky minerality. This was too good not to share – I passed my glass to a couple of strangers around me.
If you’re clever like Brendan, you’ll bring a marker pen and your bottle of Octomore 1.1 to have it signed. I settled for a nervous handshake and a clinking of glasses with Mark.
We both met our hero, and neither of us was let down.
Finally, pop some Supplements
There’s also no shame in taking a little blue pill if it helps you last longer till the evening.
I’m obviously talking about alcohol digestion supplements.
We don’t often get access to so many rare spirits in one place, drinks you can’t say no to. Don’t be a hero or heroine. Perhaps there was a time when you could drink enough to kill a small village, but those days are behind you – especially if you’re blessed with DNA making you prone to Asian flush syndrome.
Pop those pills. You’ll have a week’s worth of drinks this weekend.
Best Hits From Whisky Live
My mates and I tasted at least a hundred drinks, so it’s impossible to mention all of them. But what follows is a haphazard gallery of our most memorable highlights:–
[VIP Room] I loved the wine cask-matured expression from the Chichibu-LMDW Antipodes Collection which had a remarkable note of white grapes, citrus and florals. Also finally got a taste of Ki One Eagle, the oldest whisky from Korea’s first single malt distillery – this was incredibly jammy, fruity and soft on the palate. Reminds me of a cross between a Jim Beam and a Starward from Australia!
[VIP Room] Nikka’s heavily anticipated Aromatic Yeast releases – I’m a big fan of the Miyagikyo that is much fruitier than the usual with lashings of honey and torched nectarines. Also got a chance to taste the Mars Shinshu-LMDW collection that was specially matured in the various climates of Nagano (Shinshu Distillery), Kagoshima (Tsunuki Distillery) and Yakushima Island (Yakushima Distillery). The richness, punchiness and bold peat funk of the Yakushima-aged expression blew me away, in a good way.
[Whisky Hall] Stepping into the Whisky Hall, it’s impossible to miss the Nikka ice cream cart offering free scoops of Nikka whisky ice cream made by Kindred Folk. The Coconut Whisky Cream was like heroin for the crowd with many re-joining the queue for extra serving. This has the authentic freshness of Thai coconut water, cream and a Nikka Grain Whisky infusion. I almost missed my Nikka Masterclass because of this ice cream.
[Whisky Hall] At the centre of the Whisky Hall is the Collectors’ Square where you’ll have access to the rarest of rare bottles at a reasonable price (this is the only section in the event you’ll have to pull out a wallet). The 25-year-old Macallan from the 1970s is bloody delicious and every bit worthy of the brand hype with lovely depths of hot chocolate, sweet hawthorn candy, black tea and even some prosciutto meatiness. I also tasted an incredibly elegant 1988 Miyagikyo with a thick, oily texture and a rich palate of stewed fruits.
[Whisky Hall & VIP Room] Still a rarity in many Singapore whisk(e)y bars, we were treated to a nice lineup of bourbons from brands like Wiseman, Blantons, Michters, Kentucky Owl and EH Taylor.
[Whisky Hall] We had a taste of a 31-year-old SMWS Benraich which everyone loved – a fruity vibrant punch of fresh pomegranate, raspberries and a finish of black tea and mild oiliness. Starward Whisky from Melbourne is here too with an exclusive release of its limited edition Vitalis single malt made to commemorate Starward’s 15th birthday. This is a nice blend of the classic Starward notes of rich red currants, raisins and a finely balanced finish of both strawberries and oak.
[Rum Gallery] Heading over to the Rum Gallery now – we had our first tastes of the new release under cult rum distillery Hampden’s Great House range. This is a classic Hampden – beautifully perfumed, tons of overripe tropical fruits and even a small splash of mouth-watering balsamic vinegar. Interestingly, we’re offered another Hampden made from a mark that shouldn’t exist according to public records – something to excite the rum geeks!
[Rum Gallery] The rum world is recently joined by up-and-coming distilleries from the far reaches of the Carribbean, the likes of Takamaka Distillery from Seychelles and Papa Rouyo from Guadeloupe. Already, everyone won’t stop talking about them. The unreleased Takamaka in my hand has a distinct note of aromatic grated coconut seen in many Nonya kueh. Habitation Velier continues to discover young rockstars the likes of Papa Rouyo which on my first tasting has highly unusual notes of bright papaya milk and a surprising smoothness for a 62% ABV white rum.
[Rum Gallery] And in case you miss the Hampden Masterclass, the Hampden 8 Marks Collection is available for tasting anyway.
"Happiness is only real when shared."
– Chris McCandless, Into the Wild (2007)
In case you’re wondering, no we did not taste everything in one day. There’s just too much to see. It’s a good thing we obtained two-day tickets for both days of the weekend.
After a really productive and, dare I say, spiritual Sunday afternoon, everyone I knew was in a blissful state of contentment. We wandered to the Collectors’ Plaza to obsess over the provenance of a dusty bottle of Saint-James Rhum made in 1885, when horse carts were still the main vehicles of transportation. I'm curious what happens when you drink this antique juice?
What a weekend. What a Whisky Live. Flavour and story are the obvious ingredients of a good whisky or rum. But this event is a helpful reminder that a big, big part of spirits appreciation is the communal element of making new friends, sharing notes and discovering an exceptional dram together. Whisky is liquid happiness. And as with many happy moments in life, they feel so much more real when shared with someone else.
Hasta la vista, friends. I’ll be back for another round in 2023.