The Whisky Exchange Whisky Show 2021

I’d been looking forward to The Whisky Exchange Whisky Show (hereafter just TWEWS) for a long time. I’ve been to every physical one so far, and some standholders have the partial deafness to prove it!

For those that don’t know, TWEWS is the best whisky show in the UK. It’s one of the best in the world. It’s a hall filled with wonderful whiskies and more wonderful people, where you can learn more about your passion whilst sampling some of it. It all happens at Old Billingsgate Market in the City of London, over a three day period.

There were some obvious questions about how different TWEWS would be from previous years given that we are still at the tail end of The Event. The Whisky Exchange ensured that everyone was either vaccinated or had a negative test recently, and everyone - visitor, staff or exhibitor alike - was then tagged with a bright green wristband. No wristband, no access. That really helped allay people’s fears, and is just one of the many reasons to thank all the people who worked hard to put on the show.

This year the queueing moved from the front of the building to the rear, more due to the London Marathon than anything else, but it was a welcome change to see the sunshine occasionally and have a view of the Thames as we waited. I hope they can keep that arrangement for the future!

As is traditional I was early to the queue each day, so that I could chat with people from distant lands and maximise my time at the show by being one of the first in. Here is the first of two negative notes - the absence of some friends. It was perfectly understandable given the events that have been happening. Some weren’t here because it wasn’t certain that they’d be able to get into the country, and tickets sold out by the time that was solved. Others chose to stay away because they were sheltering vulnerable family members. Both are excellent reasons, but the list of people I’m hoping to see next year is longer than I’d like it to be. Then again, I’d like it to be empty!

The other negative note is the bottle buyers, who were early to the queue so that they could dash in and buy the expensive and rare bottles. I understand that this is good business sense, but it still sits uneasily with me that my hobby is also - for a minority - a cutthroat business. Much discussion each day amongst the drinkers was around what could be done at the show to fix this, and three main suggestions met with approval:

  • Token the bottles, with the shop giving the stands tokens for each day’s stock before opening. The tokens are only to be given after a sample has been tried. Upside - each buyer will have to pick one bottle. Downside - small administrative overhead for the shop.
  • An assault course between the doors and the shop. If you didn’t go through the course, you can’t buy bottles. Upside - free entertainment for other visitors. Downside - disabled accessibility will be an issue.
  • The buyer must take on The Whisky Exchange’s champion in single combat, preferably on a rotating plate with spikes as seen in Flash Gordon. A number of Champions are available, going up in difficulty as the bottles get more desirable. Dare you defeat Dawn for a Dalmore? Can you beat Billy for a Ben Nevis? Who shall assault Alex for an Ardnamurchan? Upsides - entertainment, entertainment, entertainment. Downsides - may not pass Health and Safety checks.

All three suggestions will be passed on to the organisers, so here’s hoping that next year we’ll see an improvement.

Sadly there may not be space next year for that rotating plate, as this year there was a little more room between stands and a few traditional exhibitors were missing. Mostly they were the smaller businesses, who could not afford to lose staff should the worst happen. It was rather a disappointment, but completely understandable. Their return next year will be the only reason I’d accept for a lack of a rotating spiked plate and an angry Ollie wielding a jagged broken bottle of Oc1...

And there was plenty of good stuff on the stands that were there. As usual it was a great selection of different spirits. Not just in terms of the whiskies available, but also the approaches to selling them. From fancy flash stands fully manned and flaunting freebies, down to plain and simple stands that want to let the whisky do the talking, it’s all there. And the exhibitors are always gracious, generous, knowledgeable and delightful. Even when you’re travelling the stands alone you’re never truly alone, as a good chat is never far away.

This year was three days instead of the usual two, and that still wasn’t enough time to do all the stands. You really have to just accept that it’s not possible if you also want to spend quality time talking about the whiskies and set your expectations accordingly.

There are of course the things we can’t possibly write about. The secret samples behind some stalls. The things that happen in the queue. And apparently at least one idiot had enough whisky samples to open his own stall! These people simply must be stopped...

So what about the whisky? It feels odd to do a review about a whisky show without talking about a single whisky, but as I thought about my favourite of the show I realised it was for the right reasons. My favourite was Benromach Organic. It wasn’t the best whisky I had at the show, it was just a very good whisky. I definitely had better other whiskies that were better than it. But I picked it for the memories it brought back. It transported me through time to a birthday party long ago, surrounded by friends, around a table filled with bottles of whisky we were yet to discover. Sometimes the impact of a whisky is more than mere flavours, and much more important than any flavours could ever be.

After a year of not having in-person whisky events, TWEWS 2021 was a welcome chance to make more such memories with friends both old and new.

See you all in 2022. To make more memories.