The current pandemic lockdown situation has wreaked havoc on industry events for the second half of the year, particularly those based in NSW.
One of those impacted events is the Sydney Whisky Fair, an annual two day event hosted by the Oak Barrel in the last weekend of August.
It’s been a tumultuous few years for the event, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2019 and was then cancelled in 2020 due to pandemic restrictions. This year, in the Oak Barrel’s 65th year of operation, the event was scheduled to go ahead in-person again, however Sydney’s lockdown again made that impossible.
So the Oak Barrel team decided to move the spirit of the event online with the Sydney Whisky Forum, encompassing two weeks worth of virtual events that will drill down into various topics and feature a range of distillers. Whisky packs and products will be available for people to buy and sample along in the events, but the streams themselves will be free for anyone to watch, and then posted as educational sources for viewers now and in the future.
Scott Fitzsimons, Whisky and Spirits Educator at the Oak Barrel, told National Liquor News about what is involved to move a two day event online.
“Although Whisky Fair is two days, in the week leading up to the weekend we traditionally hold a series of events – the Australian Distillers’ Dinner and Tim Duckett’s Trails Through Tasmania are two regular nights. And for the month of August we run a series of ‘Whisky Fair Masterclasses’ that fall under the banner. So to get all that information across virtually, you need (at least) two weeks’ worth of evening to showcase everything we want to!” Fitzsimons said.
The huge lineup of activities has kicked off this week, and although its online, the biggest thing that Fitzsimons is looking forward to is connecting to everyone.
“Whisky Fair is generally a great meeting place. Even if we have 40 stands (usually around 30 of them are Australian producers) we also have people from all aspects of whisky coming to the Fair, be they up-and-coming distillers, bartenders, retired legends or just friends and drinkers. I haven’t been in the same room with a lot of these people for two years now, so looking forward to chatting and sharing a dram in a public environment,” he said.
Since the start of the pandemic, one of the biggest decisions for event hosts revolves around whether to take an event into the virtual world, and tossing up whether it will actually work in that format. For the Oak Barrel, the decision was easily made – education and experiences are a huge part of the retailer’s business model, so it was important to them to continue that in the virtual environment.
“Everything we do – wine, beer and sake included – is drink less, drink better. The products we love and stock are exceptional examples of their styles and take a lot of hard work and dedication to produce. We’re on the lucky side in getting to offer them to engaged drinkers, so it’s our responsibility to slow down and take the time to tell their stories,” Fitzsimons said.
This year’s Sydney Whisky Forum will also coincide with some very special releases for the Oak Barrel. To celebrate the Whisky Fair / Forum and also 65 years, the retailer has worked with two distilleries to bottle exclusive whisky expressions.
The first expression, announced earlier this year, is with Scotland’s Ardnamurchan. Speaking of this whisky, Fitzsimons said: “We’ve had a great relationship with independent bottler Adelphi and when they decided to build a distillery we’re followed them very closely.
“A new distillery that is one of the most exciting in Scotland, really honoured to bring over Australia’s first single cask. It’s both a nod to relationships of the past 65 years but with the fact it’s a new distillery it’s also looking to the future. Ardnamurchan might only be known by whisky nerds now, but I reckon in 10-20 years time they’ll be one of Scotland’s most sought after.”
The second expression is a collaboration being announced this week with iconic Australian distillery, Sullivans Cove.
“We’ve bottled a Sullivans Cove before in 2014, and ever since then we’ve be working with them to do something special again. We didn’t want to collaborate on a single cask ‘just because’, so we’ve been talking for about five years looking for the right thing,” Fitzsimons said.
“Personally I feel like Heather Tillott is one of the most talented Distillery Managers/Blenders/whatever in Australian whisky. With blending becoming such a critical part of modern Australian whisky and its future, having her work on a very special (and old) Double Cask release and to tell that story of where the industry is going, it felt like the right time and right bottling.”