A whisky festival, but on a ship. One that sails out to international waters, and no one can leave until the next day. I spent 20 hours on what at first seemed like the daftest idea ever, but I quickly realised it was something else entirely …
Sweden’s Viking Line Cinderella Whisky cruise, “the world’s largest floating whisky fair”, has become a much-anticipated event for whisky enthusiasts from all over the world. The annual cruise, founded in 2008, takes place on board the Cinderella cruise ship and offers an opportunity to sample the kind of whiskies and participate in masterclasses that you’d find at a quality whisky festival on land, but with the unique twist of being at sea.
I approached this trip with a little trepidation, to be honest. All that whisky, all those people – surely a recipe for a disaster (albeit a tasty one), and I lacked the imagination to envisage how the car deck could be converted into a slick whisky venue. I was soon proven wrong.
This year’s Cinderella whisky cruise kicked off as usual – initially docked in Stockholm attendees were treated to over 500 different whiskies from 38 producers – renowned distilleries you’ve heard of, to smaller producers that you should, such as Copenhagen Distillery, the Helsinki Distilling Co, and Spirit of Hven – so not just scotch (thought there is a skinful of that), but Danish, English, Finnish, French, Irish, and American whisky. From the deeply smoky, to the smooth and fruity, there was a whisky to suit every palate, and a whisky fan to talk about it with – more on this in a minute. All of this is available in a lively, colourful hall that has little hint of its usual purpose. After the main tastings have concluded, the ship quietly slips anchor.
In addition to sampling whiskies, guests had the opportunity to participate in a variety of masterclasses and tastings throughout the evening and morning. I sat in on two:
- The first was led by Paul Malone from Ardbeg. He was a massive dollop of home to me, like a whole Glasgow pub turned up but just in one rambunctious man. Paul’s bombastic, honest, and raw style clearly delighted the scotch-loving crowd, as did the extremely rare expressions he poured, including a single cask. Much of his session was unprintable, and hilarious.
- Another delight was Kaitlyn Tsai from Taiwan’s Kavalan. You could not have had a greater contrast – with her quiet presentation she gently filled us with beautiful images of Taiwan, her superb knowledge, and lots of cask strength whisky! I will always think now of Kavalan spirit being naturally shaken to maturity in the casks by volcanic activity.
It was clear this was no ordinary show – all the producers brought something special and the crowd devoured it. This brings me to the really enjoyable part of the experience – it was about more than just the whisky. For many it was the opportunity to meet and mingle with like-minded individuals who share a passion for the spirit. Attendees, mostly from the Nordics, but some from Scotland and elsewhere, met with camaraderie and a sense of community that developed over the course of the voyage. In a country not famed for spontaneous conversation with strangers, this ship had some magic that enabled it.
I reflected that in any other country a ship full of squiffy people macerating together on the seas would likely eventually lead to fights, someone lost overboard, someone trying to take over the ship “for the laffs,”, and while I waited for this, it never came. The energy was positive throughout – even in the morning, when with heads full of whisky, we emerged for the second part of the festival (yes, 11am is an acceptable time for drinking at sea). The producers understand the unique energy too, as Marcus Christensson from Copenhagen Distillery told me:
“It is a truly unique experience as a producer. You don’t just see people once, you meet them again and again, in the fair and at the bars. I really value that.”
The most interesting drams for me (not necessarily just on taste).
- Copenhagen Distillery’s Rare Edition Batch 3, distilled with a rather unique malted emmer wheat. Emmer was one of the first cereals to be domesticated in the old world, cultivated from around 9700 BC.
- Helsinki Distilling Co, a new one to me, has a huge focus on rye, claiming that as Finland has the best rye in the world then that is what they should distil. I tried the Rye Malt (a 70/30 split of malted rye and barley, and the 100% Rye Malt. Both were exceptional, with the 100% rye being one the best I’ve ever tasted. A tribute to their long fermentation times.
- Celtic Whisky Distillerie from Brittany (that I must admit I had not heard of) served up a punchy peated expression, Kornog. They draw a lot from the cognac tradition, with classic direct-fire copper stills and, more recently, an ex-cognac distiller at the helm.
- Cotswolds Distillery’s Single Malt. I have been following this distillery since the start. Once you’ve smelled the beautiful tropical fruit and over-ripe banana notes from their stills you just crave more of it and I was delighted to taste their single malt after some years starved of it (thanks Brexit) to find that the banana note is even more present – in the most wonderful way.
- Iain Forteath, Master Blender for Angus Dundee Distillers, gave me a great catch up on both Tomintoul and Glencadam. I loved the Tomintoul 14-year-old finished in a white port cask (took me back to summertimes spent in South London hipster joints). He also had available a whole ton of sublime single casks.
- Honourable mention to Hanh Bui, Trade Marketing Manager for Hans Just, the firm that represents the William Grant portfolio out here for giving the most competent presentation on the Glenfiddich range that I have received in 10 years of whisky writing.
With all this geekiness on offer you can still come and sample the core range expressions from many distilleries too. This is not just a festival; it is a chance to snap up bottles at a fairer price than in Sweden’s monopoly Systembolaget and it was fun to watch guests load up trolleys with bottles they would enjoy back home for many months to come.
With so many fans together in one place I was delighted to see High Coast’s Sara Larsson onboard promoting “Let’s open up over whisky”, the inclusivity initiative she co-founded. Its vision is to usher in an equal and inclusive whisky world through education and training while inspiring respectful conversations and encouraging responsible community. This is an important grassroots initiative that is being supported by producers across Sweden, and I hope soon globally.
Overall, Viking Line’s Cinderella Whisky Fair is a unique and unforgettable experience. Beyond the festival itself the cabin was just right, the food significantly better than I anticipated (with such a captive audience they could have skimped, but didn’t), and every member of staff that I spoke to was helpful and charming – no mean feat when you’ve already dealt with 1000 tipsy people that day.
So, from the incredible selection of whiskies to the expert-led masterclasses and the opportunity to connect with fellow whisky enthusiasts, this event has something for everyone. It’s a celebration of all things whisky and a must-attend event for anyone who loves this spirit.
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