Sip, sample, savour and learn at Whisky Festival

Long-time festival volunteer offers his tips to enjoy the festival

Dave McMillan

Dave McMillan

A taste of the old world and the new comes to town this week with the annual Victoria Whisky Festival, Thursday to Saturday (Jan. 14 to 16).

Now in its 11th year, the festival attracts enthusiasts from around the world. In addition to tasting both newly released drams and old favourites, attendees can learn about each distiller’s process and what creates striking and subtle differences between whiskies.

That education aspect is a key component to the festival, says Dave McMillan.

The 19-year veteran of Oak Bay Police retired last year and made one of his first post-retirement vacations a working holiday in Scotland at the Springbank Whiskey Academy.

There he joined aficionados from Denmark, Italy, France and elsewhere to work and learn in the distillery.

McMillan has volunteered with the festival for eight years. His appreciation for the amber nectar began after receiving some whiskey as a gift. He began learning more, and that led him to the festival.

“I got more involved, and started tasting more and learning more about it,” he says, noting he appreciates the cultural aspects that tie into his Scottish heritage. “I also enjoy learning and getting educated. Each distillery has its own story and its own kind of whisky.”

Growing from that first festival, which  featured 100 whiskies at the grand tasting and four masterclasses, the festival now presents eight consumer tastings on Thursday and Friday, the Canadian Whisky Awards dinner, and 36 masterclasses on Saturday.

Held at the Hotel Grand Pacific, the event concludes with the Grand Tasting Saturday evening. Festival proceeds are donated to charitable organizations.

While whisky appreciation used to be seen as an older person’s activity, more enthusiasts are in their 20s and 30s today, says McMillan. People are also becoming more confident in their tastings. “It’s an experience that really elicits memories,” he says.

“It’s not about the drinking, it’s about the flavours,” he adds, advising festival-goers to focus on the taste, and make use of the spittoons available. “My motto is you don’t drink whisky, you taste it.”

Lawrence Graham, Victoria Whisky Festival president, says with so many new whiskies, people are looking to build their knowledge.

“Rather than buying their same favourite whiskies they are becoming more adventurous, armed with a knowledge of the process and the results that creates,” he says. “People are more and more curious about whiskies from Canada, the United States, Japan, India as well as from Scotland.”

This year’s festival will showcase more than 250 whiskies crafted in 50 distilleries from Scotland, Ireland, England, Canada, United States, Japan, Taiwan, India and France.

Thursday also brings the sixth annual Canadian Whisky Awards, celebrating the best Canadian whisky from across the country, selected. Winners will be posted at canadianwhisky.org.

Rides home are also available for attendees.

For additional information and a schedule of festival activities, see victoriawhiskyfestival.com