Dramfest 2023 Review – Chapter 1

Event Overview

A very happy, well-oiled crowd.

That was Dramfest 2023, New Zealand’s largest whisky event.

NZ whisky enthusiasts have been waiting for three years to get back to Dramfest.  The last festival, in 2020, took place on the weekend before NZ’s first Covid lock-down, when Dave Broom got “kept in” in NZ and had to receive care packages of whisky to keep him going!.

And then came Dramfest 2022.  Sort of.

We had all our entry tickets sorted.  Airfares and beds were booked, and we were eagerly awaiting the exciting range of Dramfest Sessions to come up for grabs.

Then, just as the starting gun was about to fire, the rug was brutally snatched from under our collective feet by yet another bloody lock-down!

It all seemed a diabolical plot, like someone telling a 5-year-old that Santa Claus doesn’t exist!

Patience gets its Reward, though: Dramfest 2023 (2022.5?).  And it has been well worth waiting for!

Putting whisky aside for a moment (just a moment), what a magnificent venue Christchurch’s new Te Pae Convention Centre is.

The Te Pai Convention Centre

And the Whisky Galore team added a mouth-watering 68 stands, with over 70 brands of whisky and rum on offer this year.  Happiness and smiles all around.

My very rough count of this year’s assembly was 324 drams available to sample, plus those at the Sessions and a few “under the table” ones that I missed in the reckoning.

Dramfest 30 minutes BC (Before Customers)

My Dramfest Highlights (View from the Chair)

Travelling in Style

Compared with previous Dramfests, my intake of alcohol at this year’s event was minute.  Maybe something to do with drink-driving.

Instead of tasting everything available, I took the opportunity to spend my time introducing myself to the owners of New Zealand distilleries.  I had previously met quite a few of them by email or telephone but not in person.  It was great to meet them, introduce myself and shake a hand or two.

I was delighted to get a warm welcome from everyone I spoke with.  As a result, I am looking forward to being able to provide this Blog with many more articles on NZ distilleries and the local whisky scene.

I did weaken a bit during the tripping around and took the chance to test-drive a few NZ-produced drams.  Here are my views:

Lammermore Distillery, The Jack Scott Single Malt, 46%

Nose: Sweet and floral.  A slight tinge of sweaty shearing shed.
Palette: Tongue bite at first, but that drops away quickly.  Young and plenty of alcohol heat, vinous from the Pinot Noir barrels.
Finish: The tongue sting stays.  The taste sours at the end (again, the influence of the pinot noir barrel?), but then again so do a lot of whiskies.
Score: 8.1

Cardrona whisky Pinot Noir, 52% ABV

Nose: Vanilla custard with dried stone fruit.  The pinot noir barrel gives the expected vinous note.
Palette: Sharp, and not too alcohol hot.  Under the sharpness the whisky is smooth and even, with pip fruit on the tongue.
Finish: A heat stays on the tongue, roof and walls of the mouth.  The vanilla custard note remains.
Comment:  This is the second iteration of Cardrona to be matured in pinot casks.  We reviewed the first “Just Hatched” Pinot Noir-matured whisky is Dec 2019.  This second one is way better.  I have tried this before Dramfest, and I was just as impressed then.
Score: 8.7

Waiheke Whisky, Peat and Port, 46%, 5-yrear-old, 40ppm peat.  Dramfest bottling.

Nose: Marine, like rock pools.  Citrus peel with vanilla
Palette: Rich and sweet.  Slightly “sheepy”, but not in a bad way.
Finish: The sweetness stays.
Comment: This is capital N Nice!  Actually, a whole lot better than nice.
Further comment:  Although the 40ppm of phenols is accurate, if you are expecting this to be like one of Islay’s more heathen expressions you will be disappointed.  In all the New Zealand peated whiskies I have tasted from Waiheke Whisky the peat notes are there, but they are way more subtle than Scottish peated drams – with Waiheke whiskies I really have had to look to find to find them.
Score: 7.9

And then I spent Sunday working on the Black Tot Rum stand.  For an ardent (and sober) people watcher, manning the stand is so much fun.

Graeme’s Dramfest Sessions

Email traffic in Wellington prior to Dramfest, getting tickets to the sessions was a bit of a  keyboard lottery.  Some punters won Powerball, others were left bemoaning their poor fortune.

Graeme got particularly lucky.  He scored entry both the Arran and the Glen Scotia mini sessions.  He then followed that streak by getting into Sunday’s Top Shelf session, led by Dave Broom and Michael Fraser Milne.

Graeme has kindly provided his tasting notes from those events.

The Arran mini-session

Arran 17yo rare batch Calvados cask 52.5% ABV.

Matured for full 17 years in second fill casks previously used to mature Calvados.

Nose and palette: Both apples and pears dominate, spiciness.
Finish: Medium-long with flavour persisting.
Score: 8.5

Lagg release one ex-bourbon  50% ABV. 

Matured in bourbon cask, peating at 50 ppm.

Nose: light peat.
Palette: more pronounced peat, otherwise undistinguished.
Finish: long, peat dominant.
Comment: In no way measures up to the Arran Fingal’s Cut tasted at last Dramfest.
Score:  6.5

The Glen Scotia mini –session

Glen Scotia 25yo, refill ex-bourbon casks, but finished in first fill ex-bourbon.  48.8% ABV 

Nose:  Standard vanilla.
Palette:  Chocolate, vanilla, sweetness.
Finish:  Medium-long with flavour lasting well.
Comment:  This won whisky of the year at the 2021 San Francisco spirits forum.
Score: 8.5

Glen Scotia 9yo first fill ex-bourbon  Cask no 9.  56.7% ABV

Distilled 2013.  Specially selected for Dramfest, six  bottles only taken straight from the cask still sitting in the warehouse.

Nose:  Standard vanilla.
Palette:  Oily, salty, fruity.
Finish:  Long flavour persistence.
Comment:  Watch out for the release of this one.
Score:  9.0

The Top Shelf

The theme of the Top Shelf tasting was reviewing the traditions of whisky-making.

Daftmill 15yo first fill American oak  55.7% ABV cask strength

A Lowlands distiller, Daftmill is from the traditional farmer distiller, making whisky in his spare time from on-farm materials.

Nose:  Oaky, vanilla, spice.  Palette: buttery, mouth-filling, well integrated flavours.
Finish:  Everlasting flavour.  So long that it was necessary to drink some water before moving on to the next whisky!
Score: 9.8

Glenturret 30yo matured in ex-sherry cask  42% ABV. 

One of 750 bottles from this Highlands distillery.

Nose:  Sherry, spice, geranium (the last Dave Broom’s comment).
Palette:  Soft, floral, sherry, dark fruit and dates.
Finish:  Long and subtle flavours (but not as long as the Daftmill).
Comment: A light whisky, well-integrated and soft.
Score:  9.0

Springbank 22yo from Adelphi, 46.3% ABV.

One of 239 bottles.  Easily the oldest Springbank anywhere in Dramfest.

Nose:  Sherry, new-made bread.
Palette:  Sherry, low-level peat evident.
Finish: Medium-long, fades more rapidly than first two.
Comment: Slightly disappointing after the first two.
Score: 8.0

Caol Ila 40 yo Director’s Special bottled by Whisky Exchange. 49.1% ABV.

Nose:  Fruity, grapefruit, very light peat in the background.
Palette:  Fruit, salty, peat remain light and in the background.
Finish: Long, with lasting flavours, peat finally becoming more evident but beautifully integrated.
Comment:  the bottler loves tropical fruit whiskies.
Score:  9.5

Overall Tasting Comment: Fully lived up to very high expectations.


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