Around Town: Whisky Not just a man’s drink

As tantalizing a blend as wine, women and song might be, it got some competition opening night at the ninth annual Victoria Whisky Festival.

Women Tasting Whisky was the main event at Hotel Grand Pacific, a magnet for single-malt magic and a new generation of whisky aficionados this weekend.

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Ninety women filled the Pender Island Ballroom, where Alwynne Gwilt, a.k.a. Miss Whisky, taught them almost everything they wanted to know about whisky.

Hodie Rondeau, chief chocolate officer with Xoxolat, demonstrated the wonders of pairing fine chocolate with aged top-shelf whiskies including Compass Box, Glenfiddich, Nikka and BenRiach.

“Tonight is a great example of the fact loads of women love whisky, too,” said Gwilt, a London-based whisky educator and writer who grew up in Prince George.

“They’ve liked whisky for ages but it’s been more hidden. Ads always seem to show men drinking whisky. It doesn’t lend itself towards the idea that women are part of the fraternity.”

Rondeau said whisky and chocolate are “very strong players” that are particularly well-matched.

“They both have a lot of intensity,” she said. “It’s easier to pair beautiful whisky and chocolate than wines. The intensity of wine often isn’t strong enough to play nicely with chocolate.”

Connoisseur Davin de Kergommeaux, author of Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert, agreed that whisky is reaching a whole new audience.

“I think the new generation doesn’t look upon whisky as a man’s drink. They think it’s a person’s drink,” he said, adding 29 per cent of Canadian whisky drinkers are now women.

He attributes its growing popularity in part to new batches of flavourful whiskies and the allure of shows such as Mad Men.

“Canadian whisky is getting some cachet again,” he said before his appearance at the Canadian Whisky Awards. “A lot of these women drinkers are younger people who don’t care what their father or mother drank. Over the past three or four years, a lot of whisky conoisseurs have been looking outside of Scotland. We’ve seen a 25 per cent growth in exports of Canadian whisky in 2013 alone.”

The Canadian whisky guru says consumers shouldn’t be put off by what some so-called aficionados regard as “heresy” — adding a little club soda to a glass of whisky.

“It makes it taste bigger. The bubbles grab the flavour first in your mouth,” de Kergommeaux said. “Whisky shouldn’t be mystical.”

Co-founder Iain Hooey, who organizes the event with festival president Lawrence Graham, was on Cloud 9 opening night, and he hadn’t touched a drop.

The whisky festival sold-out faster than ever, said Hooey, noting attendance has ballooned from 450 in its inaugural year to 1,600 this year.

The festival has 47 events over four days, including a grand tasting featuring master blender Richard Paterson, a.k.a. The Nose, and master classes in premium products from distilleries in countries including Scotland, Ireland, Japan, Taiwan, India, Canada and the U.S.

“We’ve proved to the whisky world that Victoria is truly a whisky destination,” Hooey said.

“When we started there was one whisky club in town. Now there are at least nine.”

Hooey proudly notes the festival has no paid executive director or employees and 100 per cent of proceeds go to charity — Victoria Crime Stoppers and The TLC Fund for Kids this year.

“We’re just a bunch of volunteers who like whisky,” said Hooey, whose team still strictly enforces its no drinking-and-driving policy and provides complimentary rides home.

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