“I’m focused on the ‘whisky fabric’ of Birmingham,” says Amy Seton.
The events organiser, from Moseley, is the brains behind Whisky Birmingham, the city’s very own annual independent whisky festival, set to return to Digbeth canalside venue The Bond on Saturday.
“To me that means the collection of everybody involved in whisky and creating a scene or a ‘fabric’ made up of retailers, bloggers, events, enthusiasts and anyone and everyone who wants to have a dialogue around whisky in the city.”
Just over two years ago, aged 34, Amy launched the Birmingham Whisky Club, a monthly evening class where groups sample six drams during a tutored tasting.
Different themes throughout the year can see the class concentrate on Scotch whiskies for Burns’ Night, bourbons for Independence Day, and a new event Whisky Women will see Birmingham’s third women-only tasting session in March.
Demand was so high that last year she launched the inaugural Whisky Birmingham, welcoming connoisseurs and newcomers to sample traditional and contemporary whiskies from around the world.
Returning this weekend, Amy is using the event to forge strong bonds between Birmingham’s whisky community – and to set the city’s whisky festival apart from all others.
As well as drawing major brands to the city (including Speyside dons Gordon and MacPhail, Welsh distillery Penderyn, Morrison Bowmore, Isle of Arran distillers, Eaux de Vie, Suntory and Compass Box), the event is offering local touches from some of the city’s finest independent food and drink specialists.
Visitors will be able to have an exclusive sample of Japanese whisky Hakushu Distillery Reserve which has not yet been launched in the UK, as well as trying one of the peatiest whiskies in the world, Bruichladdich’s Black Art, with a staggering phenol level of 167PPM (parts per million), compared with Ardbeg’s 55PPM.
There will also be rare samples of Bowmore’s Devil’s Cask, which is now sold out.
Paying £25 to tour the stalls sampling the range, each visitor receives a “dream dram” token to exchange for one full measure of something special.
And after pouring starts at midday, three tutored tastings will follow, pairing different whiskies with chocolate (with treats from Birmingham chocolatiers Kneals), cheese (led by local cheese purveyors Curds and Whey) and cigars (from London specialists Hunters and Frankeau).
Streetfood will come from Hockley’s Soul Food Project, serving up duck gumbo, pulled pork baps and Brazilian stew, while Kings Heath’s pop-up Dosa will be serving south Indian nibbles and a five-vegetable sambar stew with rice, dumplings and chutneys.
Amy says: “We’re getting a lot of newcomers from outside areas coming into Birmingham for whisky and last year we had people from Liverpool and London and bloggers from various places coming especially for the festival.
“Over the last three years I’ve noticed bars in Birmingham becoming much more interested in stocking whiskies and asking what they should have on their shelf.
“People seem to be realising you can’t just have a whisky selection, you have to also have trained staff who are able to enter into a dialogue with customers.”
Strengthening Birmingham’s whisky network, Saturday’s festival will see a Digbeth-based rare and collectable retailer, a Stirchley beer specialist and a pair of Selly Oak bloggers standing alongside whisky’s biggest brands.
Krishan Rajput, resident beer expert at Stirchley Wines, will be showing off an unusual collection of whisky-influenced brews.
He says: “We thought it would be nice to go to a whisky festival and show people what could be done with the by-products.”
He’ll be showcasing a Double Scotch ale from Shropshire brewery Thornbridge, aged in Auchentoshan casks for 12 months.
Krishan will also be giving samples of beers that have been barrel-aged alongside their original counterparts.
From craft brewer Siren, he’ll have the original breakfast stout, Broken Dream, plus the same beer barrel aged in Jim Beam bourbon casks and the same beer again aged in Buffalo Trace barrels.
He’ll also have beer from independent Norwegian brewery Nøgne ø, including a smokey rye ale and a bourbon barrel aged variation of the same beer.
He says: “I think people who are into whisky tend to have a very sophisticated palate, so when you’re running workshops matching whisky with cheese, chocolate and cigars, I think beer can work with whisky in the same way.”
Birmingham’s Hard To Find Whisky, a mail order company running from a warehouse in Digbeth, will also be adding a different dimension to Saturday’s event.
Sales director Justin Bourne said: “At many whisky festivals visitors can sample this and that but then go away and they won’t be able to find those whiskies to buy anywhere.
“But anything you taste at this year’s festival we’ll make sure you can purchase it.”
They have a huge collection of discontinued, rare and collectable bottles.
Their most expensive, a rare bottle of Macallan distilled in 1938 and bottled in 1983, sold for £50,000.
The dream dram from these masters of malt will be a £1,000 bottle of Port Ellen, a well-known rare and collectable whisky.
“It’s something completely different for Birmingham,” says Justin, “and that’s why we jumped on board.
“In London whisky is absolutely massive. It’s everywhere. In high end bars you could spend £50 a shot on whisky.
“There’s not enough of that yet in Birmingham but we’re starting to see more bars and restaurants take notice.”
While most festivals offer stands to traders keen to tout their goods, Birmingham’s will see bloggers Jon Bryant and Mike Ward showing off their favourite bottles, motivated by nothing more than their love of whisky.
The pair from Selly Oak launched their Living Room Whisky blog nearly three years ago after Jon enticed Mike to share his hobby.
Mike says: “I think things have changed over the last three years in Birmingham and within beers and pubs whisky’s getting more accessible now.
“Amy has done a good job of putting Birmingham on the whisky map. Before it was just London and Scotland.
“At the festivals we’ve been to we’re now hearing people in London and elsewhere saying they want to come to Birmingham for this.” He adds: “Because we are not representing a whisky company or brand we’ve got the freedom to bring whatever we are really interested in - and what we think other whisky drinkers will be interested in too.
“Last year we brought a lot of whiskies that people hadn’t tried before and that was a lot of fun.”
This year’s stand will include: Ardbeg’s peaty Uigeadail, a floor malted whisky from Japanese seller Chichibu, samples from the new Lake District distillery and Tomatin’s Cu Bocan.
Jon says: “These aren’t on the shelves of supermarkets but they’re still accessible. It’s really nice being able to meet people and introduce them to the whiskies that we like.”
* For tickets and more information see www.whiskybirmingham.co.uk .