People

Blending the Ingredients

The man behind a Canadian transformation
By Davin de Kergommeaux
Wherever Lawrence Graham goes he has a gift for bringing the ingredients of a happy and interesting life with him. When he was a rancher in Africa, he helped make 10,500 acres of wide-open savannah, and the village it supported, thrive. Prior to that he had spent several years aboard a sailboat which took him and his family around the world.

Feet firmly back on solid ground in his native Canada, Graham, an Army Reserve Officer, then found himself managing an Officers' Mess and its whisky collection. That experience was the first step in the gradual transformation of a sleepy Canadian city of 125,000 into a whisky epicentre.

Today, the Victoria Whisky Festival is becoming recognised as one of the premier international whisky festivals.

This event has grown to include four full days of carefully coordinated sessions with more than 40 masterclasses, dozens of A-list brand ambassadors on hand, several hundred whiskies on pour, and many spin-off functions.

If that is not enough, in 2009 Lawrence Graham launched Whisky Intelligence, a whisky news web site that has since become a must-read for industry types and whisky aficionados.

Strange but true: whisky was not always part of Graham's life. "For a while I experimented with the lesser spirits and in the course of that misadventure was slowly introduced to single malts. From there things have gone horribly wrong: the clubs, the festival, Whisky Intelligence, the Malt Maniacs, a major over-supply issue at home… but seriously I've been glad of the journey and wouldn't change a moment of it," he says with a wry smile.

Downplaying his own contributions, Lawrence credits his friends for Victoria's burgeoning whisky scene.

"With the festival, we all have our various areas of responsibility and we are now hitting our stride. We understand what we need to accomplish and we do it without stumbling over each other. Our volunteers are simply superb. They really are our 'secret weapon'. Everybody acknowledges that The Hotel Grand Pacific puts the final polish on the Festival."

So what's the secret to the festival's success? "We put a lot of effort into creating an environment where the presenters can deliver their message effectively," he explains. "We always sell out, but we also understand that because we support charities, this adds to the ticket price. It's an expensive festival to produce. Therefore we always look towards value for the attendees.

" Why Victoria? "I think a variety of factors," explains Graham. "The Festival and the various clubs have certainly made a significant contribution. The Officers' Mess with its extensive whisky collection and open houses brought likeminded whisky people together. It was, in many ways Victoria's first whisky bar.I recently attended a whisky tasting and the ambassador commented that Victoria had more whisky events than any other part of western Canada and that his boss is always asking about Victoria and its whisky scene. Something is happening here!"

Part of that "something" is a willingness by Graham and his whisky colleagues to take participants beyond the bagpipes, haggis, and Scottish fare so common at Canadian whisky dinners. "People already know how to have dinner together; we just throw whisky into the mix and say a few words, here and there. The guests and the whisky do the rest. Dinner, whisky and friends, it's hard to go wrong with that combination isn't it?"

Canada's whisky landscape, isn't that changing, too? "I think single malts are here to stay but blended whiskies will make a bit of a resurgence. Prices, as always will go up especially in the near term, as demand is so very high. I expect whiskies from what have been nontraditional countries in the past will continue to do well. However, I do look slightly askance at the hundreds of small distilleries coming on line in the United States. I anticipate a lot of pain ahead in that regard, although I would be pleased to be proved incorrect."

Graham does not dismiss blends - quite the contrary. "I have a small collection of magazine advertisements from the 1930s and they are very evocative. My very first whisky, snuck from my father's liquor cabinet was a blend and I loathed it; it tasted and burnt like gasoline. Happily I have managed to put that moment behind me. I like blends because in some ways they are intellectually simpler than single malts and sometimes when I don't want to agonise over cask numbers, ABV, chill filtration or colouring - when I just want to have a whisky - a blend is a good 'go-to' dram. I simply don't buy into the premise that blends are inferior to single malts, each has its place and each is very enjoyable."

A lover of balance in life, as in whisky, several years ago this soft-spoken, retiring, whisky icon married his polar opposite, Carollyne Yardley, a star in the arts community. Yes, Lawrence Graham continues to blend the ingredients: life, adventure and happiness.