East Croydon Cool talks…Whiskey/Whisky

East Croydon Cool talks…is a blog series that explores topics of cultural interest via local area experts. With St Patrick’s Day on the horizon, whisky is once again Spirit du Jour, with it taking up more column inches and advertising space than usual. Whilst using celebrities to front the marketing of alcohol brands is no new thing, we were struck last week by the launch of Jameson’s new #WidenTheCircle campaign featuring another favourite Irish export, Aisling Bea. As the world re-opens, the campaign is a comforting reminder that everyone’s social circles have been reduced over recent years! And with Aisling at the helm, it also helps get rid of any old stereotypes of whisky being an ‘Old Boy’s Club’ drink.

Against this backdrop, we were intrigued to hear that Croydon’s first Whisky Festival would be held in the Borough on Saturday 2nd April. We spoke to organiser Richard Foster from ‘Exploring Whisky’ to find out more…

Hi Richard, firstly Whisky or Whiskey?!
Both actually. Ireland and the USA use Whiskey, whereas Scotland and the rest of the world tend to go without – but it’s a technicality really. If someone’s worried about how it’s spelt, they’re probably not drinking the right stuff (or they know far less about it than they’re letting on!)

Tell us more about your business, Exploring Whisky
I started running whisky tastings at Ignition Brewery in Sydenham just over 3 years ago when I moved to the area. They’re a not-for-profit and I did it to help them get people through the door of their taproom, but my hobby fast became a side-hustle, which then became a full time job.

I gave up my job in marketing this January to focus on the business – I was working with big drinks brands there, but it’s so much more enjoyable sharing a dram with people in person , especially when you introduce them to something new they really love. We do regular events, private tastings (birthdays, weddings, work events etc.) and now I’m putting on the first ever Croydon Whisky Festival.

Give us the Whisky 101 – how’s it made and what are the key differences between blends?
OK, this is a BIG topic, but let me boil it down for you… whisky is basically beer, that’s distilled (in a copper kettle) into a spirit and then left in oak casks that previously held Bourbon or Sherry for at least 3 years. You wouldn’t want to drink the beer (or wash as it’s known) but the ingredients are the same (barley, water, yeast). I like to say Whisky is beer’s older, wiser sibling!

Single malt is just a whisky from one distillery (made with malted barley). A blend is any whisky mixed with whisky from another distillery (could be malt, grain or mixture of both). Interestingly, most single malts are blended, just from multiple casks (barrels) from within the same distillery. Most whisky is then watered down to the required ABV (though you can get ‘cask strength’ whiskies and even ‘single casks’). That’s just the UK laws, don’t ask me about the USA or we’ll be here all night!

There are also grain whiskies, some of which are making a resurgence, like Rye and corn (in the USA corn whiskies over 51% corn are known as… Bourbons! Look, you’ve got me started on the US now…)

Where did the idea for the Croydon Whisky Festival come from?
As mentioned, I was born, grew-up and went to school in Croydon and my parents still live here. I have a soft spot for this weird & wonderful place – particularly the Old Town / Surrey Street Market area. That’s one of the reasons I chose to hold the festival at The Venue on Middle St. (previously Beano’s record store for those in the know). It’s a brilliant venue set over 3 floors, each with a distinct vibe, which will give us interesting and defined spaces for guests to explore on the day. I also realised that there was a gap in the whisky calendar and a geographic Croydon shaped hole that needed plugging, so here we are!

What will be happening on the day?
Tickets are £35 (or less for early birds) and for that you get a free tasting glass and bottle of Sekforde botanical mixer (to make your own highball when you get home), but the real deal is that you get to sample as many whiskies and spirits on the day as you like from all of our amazing brands.

We’ll also have cask beers from Ignition Brewery to purchase on the day (or bottled to take home with you), Mr. Tinto coffee selling hot & cold beverages and hot & cold food to line the stomach. Finally we’ll have an on-site shop so that you can buy any of your favourite whiskies to take home with you when you leave.

What whisky brands will people be able to try?
We’ve got a fantastic list of brands taking part, all of them progressive, craft distilleries and independent bottlers from all around the world! Brands confirmed include:

Armorik, Artful Dodger (bottler), Balcones (USA), Bladnoch (Scotland), Bruichladdich (Scotland), Bruges Whisky (Belgium), Copper Rivet (England), Cotswolds (England), Doghouse Distillery (England), East London Liquor Co. (England), Eire Whiskey (Ireland), Hyde Irish Whiskey (Ireland), Kyro (Finalnd), Mackmyra (Sweden), Milk & Honey (Israel), Nc’Nean (Scotland), Penderyn (Wales), Spirit of Birmingham (England), The Oxford Artisan Distillery (England), Uncle Nearest (USA), Westland (USA)

We’ll be joined by distillery founders, distillers and distillery employees representing some brands, and a host of passionate brand ambassadors and friends repping the remainder of those attending.

Who is the festival for?
Anyone over 18 who wants to explore amazing craft whiskies and spirits and have a great time. We want to break down whisky stereotypes and I’m really proud that our tastings are frequently attended by a broad mix of people (it’s not all “pale, male and stale” here, oh no!). Sadly we don’t have disabled access to the top two floors, but if you have mobility issues and want to come we urge you to contact us in advance so that we can make your day as enjoyable as possible for you – and we’re working on this for next year already.

Do you think there is a stereotypical whisky drinker?
Not any more, no. I’ve got loads of whisky friends, clients and colleagues who are female, LGBTQ, non-white and gradually we’re seeing a wholesale shift in the demographic of whisky drinkers. The thing they all have in common, is a love of the good stuff!

What is your favourite whisky?
The million dollar question! Right now I’m really enjoying White Peak Distillery’s inaugural release – they’re a Derby distillery and this is their first whisky release. Their site is amazing (and well worth a visit if in the Peaks) and the whisky is so developed and multifaceted for something so young. I just love trying new things all the time be they young, old, malt, grain or even rice (yes, the team at Circumstance in Bristol make a rice spirit that’s divine!)

What if “I don’t like whisky” or “I’ve never really drunk whisky before”, will I like it?
Most people have had a bad experience with whisky when young – be it too much Jack Daniels or drinking from your Grandad’s heavily peated decanter. Whisky today is so much more than either of those experiences.  You can add water or ice to make a dram more to your palate, or even mix it with coke or ginger ale. All I usually ask is that you try it neat once to understand the drink you’re then going to enjoy.

And remember, there are so many whiskies all with amazing stories behind them – even if you didn’t let a drop touch your lips, you’ll have a great day listening to the magical tales of babbling brooks, shining copper stills, barrels that have traversed the world – oh, and naked Finnish men in a field of Rye. I mean, what’s a Saturday afternoon in Croydon without a few naked bums?! 😉

For more information and to get your tickets to the Croydon Whisky Festival, CLICK HERE.

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