By Liza Weisstuch

A world beyond whisky

A recent festival opens the eyes of our writer to other realms
At the end of March, I flew to London to join my Whisky Magazine colleagues at the Whisky Magazine Awards dinner and Whisky Live London. As loyal readers of this magazine know from the last issue, which announced the winners in many categories, from taste to people, attention and passions among whisky drinkers have moved far beyond Scotch, Bourbon and Irish whiskies, which pretty much dominated the industry for most of history. There were awards for Best Australian, Best German, Best Swedish and Best New Zealand. To further indicate drinkers’ interests beyond the warehouses of Scotland and the US, this year’s Whisky Live marked the debut of Gin Live, a tandem event at the same venue. Upon entering the tent where gin-makers showcased their vibrant botanical tipples, my mind did a complete 180 from the dim, musty warehouses where the angels pilfer their share to bright, sunny fields of herbs, flowers, spices and plants.

It was hard to go back to the hall where whisky-makers were pouring their well-aged drinks, to switch my palate, and mind’s mode back to the water of life.

I wandered back to the gin tent and proceeded to be schooled on the marvels of making 'mother’s ruin' with seaweed or tonka beans (illegal in the US because of its alleged psychedelic effect, I learned) or ginger.

Gin Live marked something extraordinary which can be viewed in two different ways: Is there a whisky fatigue setting in? Or are imbibers becoming so profoundly engaged with their drinks that a curiosity has now extended to other categories, categories that, some might say, were seen as monolithic in the past. Some might fiercely disagree with that comment, but consider this: how many times have you seen articles about gin in mainstream newspapers and magazines, be it travel-related or concerning tasting? How many times have you seen whisky articles? Whisky Magazine launched in 1998. The sister publication Gin Magazine launched in 2017. I rest my case.

While I’m by no means going to say whisky’s dominance is positioned to fade, I will say that the academic approach to the drink has spawned a new appreciation of other spirits. And that is thrilling. Thoughtful approaches to diverse spirits means more passionate bartenders, which means more options for drinkers, which means an industry that’s more egalitarian, more flexible and quite frankly, more fun. It’s infusing (no pun intended) a youthful energy into the entire alcohol industry and expanding drinkers’ palates and minds.

The day after Whisky Live I took a bus two hours north to Cardiff. I quickly learned that the Welsh capital has a vibrant cocktail scene with young, forward-thinking bars that could easily hold their own against some of London or New York’s finest. I had cocktails that pushed the boundaries, I did not, however, have any flights of whisky at a whisky bar, something I always make a habit of doing when I visit a city for the first time. That is because there were no whisky bars.
I did, however, try a gin from Tokyo made with a Japanese pepper, yuzu peel and sakura leaf, among other ingredients. I tried a gin from Cambridge made with truffles, and a gin from San Francisco made with bay laurel and pine needles. The bar was called Gin and Juice and it has the look of a Victorian parlor. On the night I perched myself at the mahogany bar, the bartender explained each of the gin’s botanical elements with the informed thoughtfulness that I’m accustomed to hearing from bartenders at whisky joints, when they wax on about barrels and grain bills. Around 7PM, a few young men in suits scanned the massive menu listing several hundred gins. “I’m not really a gin drinker,” one of them told the bartender. There was a short exchange, a look of piqued interest from the guest as words like 'sweet' and 'savoury' were tossed about, and a satisfied nod when he tasted the bartender’s recommended gin. It reminded me of my first times in whisky bars.

Watching this I thought: we’re going to see a lot more gin festivals in the next few years.