The first whisky festival held in Bergen, Norway since it became my new hometown was a bustling two-day community celebration of brown spirits and of beer. It was also great fun.
Held in the somewhat labyrinthine back halls and passageways of the Grand Terminus Hotel, the layout of the festival was a bit strange, but it really worked. One of the stranger parts of it was the gallery that looked out over the main hall. Attendees found their way up there and took seats while they leisurely enjoyed drams and watched the goings on below. I half expected to look up and see Statler and Waldorf from the Muppet Show laughing down at all of us on the main floor, but all I ever saw were a bunch of happy Norwegians luxuriating up there.
The festival spanned Thursday night through Sunday, the main event Friday night and Saturday afternoon into the night bookended by bar takeovers and parties at The Tasting Room. The event offered a number of impressive masterclasses, none of which this reporter managed to attend, as many of the most desirable ones sold out almost immediately. I’ll do better on that front next time, though I must say that I didn’t feel like I needed a masterclass to break up my time in the main event: the main hall, along with the other spaces and rooms that had vendors in them, had so much to offer, and the vibe was so genial everywhere, that I was pretty damn happy just exploring and talking with friends old and new.
In particular, the interesting special bottlings and offerings from independent bottlers were outstanding. Highland Park had the Kaupang from its Single Cask series, Diageo had many Distiller’s Editions, the William Grant table had both the newest Balvenie Peat Week and the Kininvie 23, and the Douglas Laing table had many of the Premium range of their fantastic blends (Timorous Beastie, Scallywag, Rock Oyster, etc.)–just to name a few. Perhaps the star of the show for me, however, was a 7 year old Chichibu matured in a Sherry cask bottled by Dr. Jekyll’s Pub in Oslo. First of all, 7 year old Chichibus are not easy to find, but Sherry matured ones are even rarer. And it was an excellent, clean, tannic Sherry beast. I will have to get more of that one, one way or another.
Another treat was getting to taste Myken Destilleri’s First Edition–their first 3 year old official whisky release. At the Oslo Whiskyfestival, I had had the pleasure of meeting Roar Larsen from the tiny distillery on a fairly remote island in the north of Norway, and there I had been impressed by the quality of their young spirit. Beyond the joy of seeing Roar again–whisky people really are the best–it was great to be able to experience the next stage in the development of this young distillery’s products. Keep an eye on Myken–what they’re doing is special.
Two observations on this festival, one good and one less so: the good is that the prices for the drams (paid in tickets–or bonger) were very reasonable. This made for a relaxed experience, because you didn’t feel that you needed to mind your bonger quite as carefully as a result. The other observation is a complaint I understand is common to whisky festivals in Norway: food was not an included part of the deal. The Grand Terminus Hotel’s restaurant was open to festival attendees, and the way to the restaurant was clearly marked–and I did see some people go down there to get some food. But I think it makes much more sense to charge a little more and integrate food offerings more prominently into the festival itself. After all, food really helps mitigate the effects of the alcohol, and in such a fun environment with so much good stuff on offer, food would have just helped extend the fun.
With that said, however, this particular festival offered something I have not really experienced before: the “& Beer” part. Now, I’m a whisky guy first and foremost, so the first night, I didn’t even try one beer (and frankly, didn’t even think about doing so). But after a particularly fun first night, the next day, I did not really need a lot more whisky, but having some beer samples sounded great. Actually, being able to downshift to beer during the second day was delightful and refreshing. It also led to my meeting a whole new set of friends among the beer producers. Almost all of them had offerings on tap as well as in bottles, and many of the beers I tried were fantastic. In particular, I had a blast meeting the folks from Austmann Bryggeri in Trondheim and from Bergenhus Bryggeri right here in Bergen. The coffee stout (or was it a porter? It was one of those…) that Bergenhus Bryggeri had on tap was my favorite beer in the whole festival: bright and thick with deep, deep coffee notes and a head so creamy it could’ve been foam on a cappuccino.
Overall, the whisky festival in my new hometown is simply a winner. Frode Harring (the owner of the Tasting Room in Bergen) put on a great show. I can’t wait until next year’s festival.