DramFest 2020 (Photo: Duncan Greive)
DramFest 2020 (Photo: Duncan Greive)

KaiMarch 9, 2020

Review: a day at DramFest, Christchurch’s utterly perfect whisky festival

DramFest 2020 (Photo: Duncan Greive)
DramFest 2020 (Photo: Duncan Greive)

More than 70 stands giving away more than 350 whiskies sounds like a recipe for chaos. Instead, it’s a near-perfect day out. 

They came from all over Scotland: from the Highlands, the Lowlands, Islay and Campbeltown and plenty more besides. Further afield too – I tasted a whisky flavoured with sheep’s dung from Iceland, one finished in wine casks from Japan, and another that had somehow sweated its way to eight years of age in the heat of Bangalore. Whisky from Glenturret, a distillery just shy of 250 years old and 18,500 kilometres distant. And whisky from Divergence, launched the day before, from Christchurch.

DramFest is a biennial whisky festival, run by Christchurch’s legendary Whisky Galore shop, which was founded the year after the Second World War ended. In 2020 it returned to the (very pretty, Warren and Mahoney-designed) Christchurch Town Hall after some years away, and saw 2500 single malt obsessives gather over two sessions this past weekend to taste more than 350 different whiskies (and largely ignore the guest spirit, rum, which had a few slightly forlorn exhibitors scattered throughout).

Waiting for the doors to open (Photo: Duncan Greive)

On Sunday the crowd gathered well ahead of the 1pm opening, with a group that was not exactly diverse. Pākehā men of a certain age were the largest part of the audience throughout, yet the dominance was less pronounced as the afternoon wore on, perhaps suggesting we’re simply the most thirsty audience at DramFest, but far from the only one.

The event is spread across three main areas, with dozens of mostly very rudimentary stalls pressed hard up against one another, pouring a mixture of familiar and much rarer whiskies. You wear a Glencairn glass on a strap around your neck, which seems (and is) enjoyably uncivilised – but it does leave your hands free to make your nerdy notes and be washed much more than usual. 

At first blush DramFest is not dissimilar to one of the dozens of food and drink festivals large and small that happen around the country. But it has a number of singular qualities that make it the most fun event of its type I’ve been to.

An artist’s impression of Duncan Greive having a lovely time at DramFest (Original photo: Getty Images)

After you’re in, it’s free

The business model of many large hospitality events seems to be to charge everyone for everything. You pay to get in, you pay while you’re in, and exhibitors pay to sell things to you. And while I don’t begrudge them their business, it can feel like an exercise in figuring out the maximum possible revenue you can extract from an attendee. 

DramFest is very different. You pay $74 upfront, but once you’re in, that’s it – aside from food, and a bottle or two at the end, you can’t really buy anything. It leads to a totally different feel – relaxed, convivial, curious. You can easily try 25 different whiskies, and thus can be far more adventurous than you might otherwise be. And before you start doing the math on volume – it’s no more than 10ml per pour, and often less. Which leads me to…

Whisky gets you mellow, but not drunk

I’m not sure what the science of this is, but somehow, despite your ticket essentially buying you unlimited access to hard liquor (some very hard – there were young spirits and cask strength whisky north of 60% ABV), no one appeared drunk. Across the day I saw two minor stumbles, and heard one glass drop – a pretty minor haul for north of 1000 people drinking solidly for more than four hours. Something about the staging of it, and the substance itself, seemed to press you toward peaking at a warm glow, rather than anything more volatile.

Photo: Duncan Greive

The NZ contingent is getting more numerous and better, but no bigger

A few years ago I went out and saw the people at Thomson, who had recently moved into a drafty shed out around Kumeu, nestled behind the Hallertau brewery. At the time they seemed to be the only people seriously attempting to make single malt in New Zealand. 

In 2020, that number is growing. There were at least four at DramFest, with three of them showing off very young whiskies that were among the most fun I drank the whole day. The best might have been a single bourbon cask from the Cardrona Distillery, which was fiery but somehow still controlled. Thomson had a “four” single cask, which was nearly as good, and continues their exceptional progress. The more established pair were joined by Divergence. “Yesterday was the first time anyone outside the distillery had ever tasted these whiskies,” said owner Anthony Michalak. They were matured in tiny 10- or 20-litre casks, and the port-matured barrel was very intriguing.

Scottish accents and culture are intensely loveable

Alan Winchester has headed, by his count, 14 distilleries for French giant Pernod Ricard. He’s a schoolmate of Whisky Galore’s bekilted leader Michael Fraser-Milne, and was here on his first trip out. Winchester led a tasting of a trio of Glenlivet whiskies that were, in truth, indifferent by DramFest’s exultant standards. Yet the real value was an hour listening to his glorious lilt, relating stories and passing the time in a way that directly and obliquely revealed much about the culture of the country that gave the world single malt.

He reserved his greatest one-liners for the marketing department of his organisation. “It’s amazing the amount of stuff we’ve written on there,” he marvelled, gazing at the text on the back of the bottles. When asked why the third whisky was subtitled ‘rare cask’, he replied: “Rare cask? Jesus. It’s one of six million rare casks.”

It was the kind of statement that would never be allowed at a more controlled festival. Both those pouring and those sipping felt like true believers, embracing an event that lacks some of the slickness of the big corporate food and beverage festivals, but more than makes up for it with a hopeless devotion to the spirit at its heart.

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