It was April Fools' Day and Finnish spring was showing its best. Sun was shining and temperature was above 10 degrees. I was heading towards Turku, my beloved old friend. I always enjoy returning there, but this time, I had a reason and that reason was was Viking Line's Grace Whisky Fair.
Our whisky fair had gotten a rocky start when we didn't get any of the whiskies in our pre-order. We had the chance to create a pre-order from the whole of the Viking Lines' selection and the whiskies would have been ready for us in the tax-free once we board the ship. A while after our order my friend got a message, that all the whiskies we selected had been pre-sold to Cinderella whisky fair and we got a whole lot of nothing. I have attended at the Grace whisky fair once before and I was excited to get back, although there were few disappointments in the pre-information. In the earlier cruise a buffet lunch was included in the price, but this time there wasn't a lunch even the ticket price was a bit higher. In the current cruise there was only one Master Class that was repeated three times and in the earlier cruises there were several Master Classes to choose from.
First checkpoint was my friends house and more specifically his whisky cabinet. This time the most memorable whisky was this really bad Bunnahabhain and a lot of other delicious whiskies. I might have to share my thoughts on bad whiskies and why it's important to drink them also, but we'll get to that in another blog post in the future.
First whisky related meeting happened when we arrived to the terminal. We were queueing our tickets when I noticed that a gentleman in front of us had a huge luggage. Before my brain had any chance to process anything I had opened my big mouth and made a comment about how much whisky he was about to bring back from the fair. After a short chat he revealed, that he's actually taking whisky in to the boat because he's working for a distillery. It was Teerenpeli's Senior Whisky Ambassador Jussi Oinas and he was accompanied by sales and marketing director Veera Pastinen. We of course tried to get a sneak peak of what's inside the luggage, but that information would have to wait until we're in the whisky fair. The starting event for the fair was set up in the ship's conference area, where they served a Boulevardier and toast followed by a music performance. When we were in the same place there was time to evaluate the amount of attendees and I would say it was over 100 but probably under 200. First negative thing that I have to point out is the missing engraving on the glass. Big part of the whisky hobby is the people and memories I gather from tastings and fairs and what would be nicer than a collectable glasses that takes you down the memory lane every time you visit your whisky cabinet. After the welcome speech and drink, it was time to head to the tax-free where the actual fair is set up. Shopping World was open for everyone in the ship and the whisky fair was like a little circus show for the other passengers. Having the fair at the tax-free only really works when the shop is closed from other passengers. Now the distillery representatives had to stop discussions with the whisky fair participants and explain the nature of the fair for the passengers.
I spent the Friday night mainly talking to Kyrö and Teerenpeli people discussing latest events and trying to pry information on some of the new releases, but neither of the distilleries didn't share any information. With Teerenpeli people we had a good discussion about their festive whisky that was released few years ago only in their restaurants. Many of my friends consider that to be the best Finnish whisky ever. We also had a nice chat about their new visitors center and plans related to it. My friends and I were actually the first visitors in the new visitors center about a year ago. Besides good conversations there were some great whiskies. From Teerenpeli there was a this about six years old whisky that was matured in Amontillado casks. Kyrö Distillery had brought a peated new make (that was excellent) and few bottles of the single cask release that was officially released in Cinderella Whisky Fair. I also asked about few Kyrö IB whiskies that I have purchased from Germany. In addition to Kyrö and Teerenpeli I popped in to other tables to taste potential whiskies to buy. When the tax-free was closing it was time to head in to a bar to enjoy some refreshments. First day had been great, interesting discussions, nice people and plenty of new whiskies. Then we had a small error of judgement when we decided to head in to the nightclub instead of going to bed. When we finally managed to get in to our cabin, it was closer to a sunrise that I would like to admit. Main day After a very short sleep our group headed for the first VIP Shopping event. Whiskies were free and other passengers weren't allowed in to the tax free. Sadly, after a few wrong decisions made previous night, only one of our group was able to consume these free drinks. For me, this was a complete waste of time. I did a quick evaluation of the situation and decided to head back to our cabin and have a rest, so that I would feel better for the rest of the day. This meant, that I would miss the Master Class tasting , but as I already knew the whiskies they would be serving I wasn't too down. This also leads to my next development proposal. First of all, here are the whiskies from the Master Class called 'From Highlands to Islands' Bunnahabhain - Eirigh Na Greine Bunnahabhain - Cruach-Mhona Bunnahabhain - An Cladach Deanston 10Yyo Bordeaux Cask Deanston 2008 Oloroso Cask Matured Four of the whiskies were also available in the fair at any point and our group was familiar with most of them already. As a whisky enthusiast I would like these tastings to have more specialties or maybe more valuable whiskies that you would like to taste before buying. I still fondly remember the Teerenpeli Master Class from my first Grace whisky fair. There were whiskies that were matured in different sherry casks (not available in retail) and also they brought those sherries to the tasting. I believe that most of the whisky fair attendees are more seasoned whisky hobbyists and the basic bottles rarely offer anything new or interesting for them. After resting and restoring my strength I was ready for lunch. As I mentioned earlier, lunch was not included in the price of the fair. We grabbed a quick meal in first place we found and then headed back to the Shopping World. Before starting the whisky sampling again I was ready to buy souvenirs for my family. Basically candy for the kids and some red wine for the wife and myself. (Special thanks to Juho Lokka from Interbrands who took time from the whiskies and showed some great wines.) After checking the kids and wife of my list, it was time to figure out my own "souvenirs". I had tasted this excellent 19 Year Old Craigellachie Single Cask last night and loved the "two faces" it had. Without water is was musty with heavy sherry flavour, but still versatile and long lasting. With water there was a whole new world where light floral notes took over and created a completely new whisky. I was already settled with the fact that I only take one bottle of whisky home (shocking, I know) until I stopped to sample some whiskies with Michaela Weckman from Edrington. I had tasted through few of the opened Highland Parks and was talking about how I only will be taking one whisky home, as I haven't found anything else interesting to take home. And it was at that moment, when I heard the magical words from her mouth "Have you tried this Travel Retail Edition 18 Years Old from Highland Park, these are the last bottles and then there won't be anymore of it." I'm familiar with the whisky and it's excellent, so somehow magically the bottle just appeared to my shopping basket. I also might have exceeded my budget so it was time for me to head to checkouts before finding new opportunities.
I set a goal to sample as many whiskies as I could when the last VIP Shopping event started. To be able to do that, I had to start pouring "extra" whiskies away. Extra, in this case, meant that if the whisky isn't close to 90 points in my head, it goes away. I asked the samples to be as small as possible, because I don't enjoy wasting anything, but still I had some looks and comments when I poured whisky away. I started with Westland American Single Malts, nothing special came from those. Nice whiskies, but nothing exceptional. Dun Bheagans 21 Years Old Fettercairn had the honors to be the worst whisky for the fair. Really odd, didn't really taste like whisky, something had went way over or terribly wrong. Chieftain's 15 Year old Cigar Malt that had 63,2% abv was also a hard one for me. I spent quite long adding water and trying to find the sweet spot. Nothing wrong with it, just wasn't for me. While sampling this one I started a discussion with another whisky enthusiast who struggled with the same whisky and she happened to use a phrase something like this "It's really hard to get this down and it's taking time from good whiskies". She also recognized a quality whisky, but it just wasn't for her. I then had to chance to enlighten her, that there's always the option of pouring the whisky away and continue to enjoy better whiskies. The biggest surprise for me was Glenfiddich. I have overlooked it a bit because I bought the Reserve Cask bottle from airport and really didn't like it. I ended up chatting with Jeanette Tranberg who is the Brand Ambassador working in Hans Just A/S. I was telling her, that I've been lately on a hunt for a perfect floral/fruity/parfymic whisky and she offered me some glenfiddich. I was sceptic at first, but the 15 Year old Distillery Edition and Project XX were really nice and close the type I was looking, but sadly my budget was already stretched, so I had to leave the whiskies there. After the VIP Shopping it was time to get rid of the last whisky tickets. I also noticed, that it was possible to get samples from all of the bottles that were open under the counter. While sampling different whiskies I met two gentlemen who came to me asking where was the Glengoyne 21 years old. (They probably mistook me as a sales person as I had the Viking Line branded glass holder necklace and I was chatting with Edrington Brand Ambassador.) We happened to stand next to Glengoyne shelf and I said, that it's probably sold out, as
there's none in the shelf. They then proceeded to ask recommendations on what to purchase instead. I told them to try the Glenrothes 25 that was on a great discount, but that was "too spicy" for them. They wanted whisky that was creamy and smooth. There was also Balvenie 16 that I just had tasted myself and I said, that maybe that's more their taste and after a short hesitation they agreed, that it's good. I guided them on a correct shelf in the Shopping World and two happy customers were thanking me for being a good sales person. When Hans Just A/S representative heard about my sales work, she gifted me with a Glenfiddich notebook and Balvenie tasting glass. I was really happy with my sales reward.
As the fair was coming to an end, I realised that I haven't taken pictures at all. I quickly got few general pictures of the few last people. Kyrö Distillery was taking down their stand, but Juho Lokka helped me out and I got pictures with them. Sadly Teerenpeli had already packed their stand. This was a good lesson for me, next time I will start with pictures. Feelings about the Grace whisky fair It has been over a month and I've had time to ponder what feelings the fair left. There were a lots of positives on the whole trip, but I would have been able get them by just buying a ticket to a basic cruise. I would actually have saved some money and get almost the same experience (missing the Master Class was of couse my own fault). Next year I will probably head to Cinderella whisky fair and in a way, that's a shame. I would like to Finland have our own Whisky cruise with that's as "important" as Cinderella. I do understand that part of that requires people to go there, but I would hope that Viking Line would also put effort to it. If Grace whisky fair comes second in everything, I can't see it growing up in the future. I surely will give a chance to Grace whisky fair again in the future, but I hope that there's more varitety on whiskies and maybe the fair would be outside of the Shopping World.
The best thing about this cruise were all the amazing people that I met. I had several great discussions with other enthusiasts, bloggers and people working with whisky. Special thanks to Juho Lokka from Interbrands, Kyrö distillery Mari Saarenpää and Timo Mäkelä, Teerenpeli distillery Veera Pastinen and Jussi Oinas and Michaeal Weckman from Edrington. I had great conversations with everyone and sometimes not about whisky. It was you, who made this a whisky cruise for me.