Time for a bit of a throwback. Obviously the COVID pandemic means we haven’t been able to enjoy any large scale whisky tastings or festivals. Maybe it’s because I miss these type of events, but I recently started thinking back to one very special tasting I attended in 2018, called the Legends of Whisky. And what an event it was! Featuring three absolute titans of the whisky world, it’s safe to say this was an incredibly unique occasion. Jim McEwan, David Stewart and Richard ‘The Nose’ Paterson had hosted an event together once before, but to have these three icons together in the same room was something very special. And it was so nearby! The venue in Leiden, Netherlands was just a short train ride away, so this opportunity was simply too good to pass up. Just after the event I had started writing about it, but somehow I never finished. Time to set the record straight.
It’s hard to overstate the impact these three Legends have had on the way that whisky is enjoyed today. If I drink a cask finished whisky, it’s in large part thanks to David Stewart’s pioneering vision in exploring different cask types. If I drink an Octomore, it wouldn’t’ve been possible without Jim McEwan’s bold experimentalism. And if my carpet is full of whisky stains, well… that’s entirely due to Richard Paterson’s unique way of sampling whisky. Each Legend has had an illustrious career, neatly summarised in a small book that was part of the goodie bag. For each of them, it describes a journey from humble origins to the apex of the whisky world. You can find plenty about that online so I won’t recount it here, but it was a good read, completed by a wealth of nice pictures.
The setting was fantastic, with the event being hosted in Leiden’s gothic basilica. The echoing chamber of the church made it seem at times that the Legends were delivering a sermon, but they were entirely preaching to the choir tonight. And how could they not be? With over 155 years of experience between them, the gathered whisky fans were hanging on their every word. Whether it was a touching personal story (David), a funny anecdote (Jim), or a dash of showmanship (Richard), each Legend had their own unique way of bringing across their love for whisky. And their passion showed: this seemed like more than just another mandatory gig in a set of calendars undoubtedly already bursting with promotional events. These were just three chaps with a sincere mutual respect who seemed to genuinely enjoy interacting with each other and the crowd. Whether it was Jim complaining about the pitcher of ice that Richard had scattered all over the stage (not to mention the front rows) or the self-deprecating humour on display, it was nice to get to know the personalities behind the different brands. And to understand how their personalities in turn impact the whiskies that these brands produce.
And what excellent whiskies these gents have crafted! Each host brought top-notch whisky to the table from distilleries they’ve worked with. Richard was up first, and while it was a bit disconcerting to see him throw his 20 year old whisky on the floor – true to style, it must be said – we all kept our precious liquid to ourselves. Richard’s first dram was a cask strength Jura, aged in American oak that previously held 30 year old Matusalem sherry of the Palomino and PX variety. It was a sumptuous sip full of blackcurrant, citrus and Christmas cake flavours. David followed this up with a 22 year old Balvenie from a first fill bourbon barrel, exhibiting those typical Balvenie flavours of honey, butterscotch and marzipan. When it came Jim’s turn we were treated to an ever-so-smooth Bruichladdich Black Art, which Jim crafted as a tribute to Princess Diana. I imagine this puts the distillation of the whisky somewhere in 1997, but in fact the recipe is a secret to anyone but Jim, who hasn’t even written it down anywhere.
After a musical intermezzo full of Scottish folk music, we continued with David’s second pick of the night, a 25 year old Balvenie DoubleWood. This expression was launched to celebrate the 25 year anniversary of the more well-known 12 year old DoubleWood, but was an altogether richer, more chocolaty version of its younger sibling. Richard then treated the church floor to some 24 year old Dalmore – before pouring himself a new dram. His choice had also aged in casks that previously held Matusalem sherry and had some vague connection to Christopher Columbus, but I have to admit that after five cask strength whiskies my note taking had taken a turn for the worse. I’m sure it was excellent stuff.
I do remember what came next. So far we’d enjoyed sublime, sweet-tasting sherry whiskies, or more reserved, bourbon-aged class, but it was time for a peaty finale. This came in the form of Jim’s Lochindaal recreation. Located near Port Charlotte and the Octomore Farm, Lochindaal became one of Islay’s ghost distilleries when it permanently closed its doors in 1922. Peated to a light 20 ppm and aged in American oak, Jim crafted a classic Islay whisky. Knowing that this was one of Jim’s personal creations that would never be launched commercially made it all the more special.
While the music took over again and the hosts were belting along to The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond (they’d had as much to drink as we had), almost as an afterthought we were poured a Port Charlotte 10 year old. Not a bad dram by any means… though not of the calibre we’d enjoyed earlier. Seeing the Legends on stage together, it struck me just how special it was to have these three guys together in one venue. And even more precious to see them connecting and having a good time together. It reinforced my belief that at its core, whisky isn’t anything fancy or decadent, but rather a means of bringing people together to bond over a shared passion and enjoyment. This was a tasting I won’t soon forget. The whiskies, the hosts, the crowd… in one word: Legendary.