I vividly recall my first Whisky Lounge experience. I had travelled by train, hungover, to Brighton on a Saturday morning to help with that fine city’s iteration of the UK’s greatest travelling whisky circus. In what I was later to discover was a surpassingly typical turn of events, I was originally supposed to be helping out in the Show’s shop, but ended up pouring whisky on the Balvenie stand for the greater part of the day.
In Douglas Adams and John Lloyd’s The Deeper Meaning of Liff, in which place names are assigned to previously unnamed phenomena, Ashby Magna is defined as “To use an object for something other than its intended purpose, for example sitting on a table instead of a chair or drinking beer out of a tenor horn”, while Botswana is “Something that is more fruitfully used for a purpose other than that for which it was designed. A fish knife used to lever open a stubborn can of luncheon meat is a fine example of a botswana.”
I could flatter myself, therefore, by suggesting that Amanda Ludlow has a talent for spotting Botswanas and Ashby Magna-ing them. Within minutes of my arrival at the Brighton Hilton she had told me to drink some coffee, eat some breathmints and instructed me to stop working in the shop, to set up a tasting and then to report for duty to the Balvenie stand to cover for my friend and former colleague Dr. Sam Simmons, who was hosting the tasting I was about to set up.
It should also be mentioned that the same authors also have a definition of Ludlow: “A wad of newspaper, folded napkin or lump of cardboard put under a wobbly table or chair to make it stand up straight.” As a perennial wobbly chair myself, I have to say that I’m grateful for having been Ludlowed.
There is something entertainingly chaotic about the scene at any large-scale public TWL event, generally due to the extreme levels of fun being had by the attendees, but this belies the holistic genius of Eddie and Amanda at overcoming obstacles on the fly, and glosses over the huge amounts of effort put in by the team to make each Show such a success. One of Amanda’s favourite metaphors is that of the duck floating serenely around the lake while paddling furiously below the surface.
It’s difficult to select which stories to tell from my vast archive of TWL’s splendid triumphs and hilarious calamities. From my first London TWL event, held in the same Royal Horticultural Halls that had only recently been abandoned by the laughably inferior Whisky Live, two memories stand out: an outstanding bottle of the famous 1970s Glendronach 8 year old fruitbomb that the staff guzzled in short order after everyone had gone home; and the moment when a well-known blogger on her way to appear on a panel about Women in Whisky gaily asserted that she’d never tasted Springbank or Glendronach before because she only drank whisky that was sent to her to write about. The Whisky Lounge has a mesmeric, addictive quality of combining the sublime with the ridiculous, generally inadvertently, but always coming out smelling of roses.
Another case in point: a year or two ago during the festival on Islay, one member of the team discovered on the morning of his departure that he had mislaid his wallet which had his ID for travel purposes. Ransacking Finlaggan House and the neighbouring cottage (where the team was staying) while refusing adamantly to be driven back to Kilchoman (where the wallet had last been seen), he determined against all sound advice to forego his flight to Glasgow and instead take the ferry from Port Ellen back to Kennacraig, from whence he caught a bus to Glasgow and a train back to York, thereby adding most of a day and hundreds of pounds to his costs.
Soon after he had left, at the exact moment when it was just too late to do anything about it, Kilchoman called the house to report that his wallet had been handed in; while we were still laughing about this, the report came that the flight he had given up had been grounded due to fog, stranding everyone on the island except for those, like him, who had managed to get a seat on the ferry. Roses, I tell you.
I think what I love most about The Whisky Lounge is the sense of collectivity, and what I admire the most in this all-in-it-togetherness is the continual promotion of goodwill and the putting aside of petty rivalries in the name of an unwavering commitment to the greater good, to the wider benefit of whisky: in short, the promotion of Whisky itself, rather than simply the industry which produces and profits by it.
This latter distinction is something that at first seems simple and obvious, but is in fact on closer examination a distinction that many other companies and organisations and events and marketing firms have singularly failed to recognise and embrace, and by failing to do so, have subsequently failed in their own objectives. To a cynical optimistic contrarian such as myself, this is immensely pleasing.
It would be wonderful if, as I believe to be true, the continued success of The Whisky Lounge is as a result of this generous inclusivity in their philosophy: that by promoting the enjoyment of Whisky first and their own endeavours second they create genuine authenticity for themselves, which fosters trust and goodwill in their audience – and thereby they do themselves more good than other companies whose only approach to their consumers is the relentless drone of noisy self-aggrandisement which in turn defeats itself by putting off those whom it most desires to win over.
The result of all this is that TWL has connected in a way that no other company has done with the Holy Grail of industry PR target markets: the new, enthusiastic whisky fans. Yet TWL will always appeal to these new arrivals into the whisky world: with their absurdly good value ticket prices and their no-snobbery, no-bullshit values, theirs are the most accessible and friendly of the UK’s whisky events.
Thinking back over the years of my association with TWL, all my memories make me smile, and you can’t ask for much more than that. So many stories, so few of them publishable! All manner of heroic triumphs and sacrifices, comical setbacks, unseemly Twitter debacles, self-inflicted black eyes, bacon sandwiches, forgotten boxes of whisky, malfunctioning service lifts and unforgettable, spine-tingling tastings. Everything dealt with in style and with humour. A pint at the end of the night no matter the hour or the circumstances. Long may they prosper.