Deflowered – again

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IJmuiden. City at the edge of the globe – when you’re shortsighted and don’t know there is a whole world beyond that small pond we like to call the North Sea. Roads end, fish in all shapes and sizes are brought ashore and a large steel industry covers the city in a thick layer of smoke. Once you have found out there is a harbour docking a ferry crossing the North Sea to Newcastle and drive towards the whisky-Mecca of the world: Scotland, you may understand why we have a preset destination in our sat-nav. At a four hours drive from Newcastle, you can already be more than halfway to the Speyside region or have stretched your legs and sipped a dram at Loch Fyne Whisky in Inveraray. Four hours. That is about the time it took us to drive from what we call home to IJmuiden, what should have been far less than one hour, according to said sat-nav. A narrow-minded drawbridge (yes, some Dutch highways are equipped with those) decided not to close anymore, blocking the (somewhat im-)patiently waiting traffic for long stretches. Illegally turning cars, people backing up on the emergency lanes or taking off-road tracks, getting angry at each other about nothing, honking and shouting, while the roaring plane engines from the nearby Schiphol airport were coming in close over our heads giving it all a zombie-apocalyptic feeling. For a short while, the Dutch world looked to have gone mad over a stuck drawbridge. A good thing our car closes from the inside, we had enough petrol in the tank to leave the engine running, set the airco at a comfortable temperature and have the radio blaring our favourite tunes. Imagine all of this, and then, you have to pee. A lot…

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picture nicked
from Facebook

Our purpose of the trip was the Whisky & Rum aan Zee festival on top of the Holiday Inn hotel in IJmuiden, organised by Richard and Esther Blesgraaf of the local liquor shop Zeewijck, where whisky and rum producers and distributors are blended among 40-odd tables, adding some cigars, tropical tunes, spirit driven magazines and artists, meat smokers and fine (sea)food into the mix while overlooking the harbour where the aforementioned ferry to Newcastle departs. The last couple of years (click, click) we have attended the very relaxed festival as visitors, where we enjoyed many of the masterclasses, including a BBQ workshop making our own pulled pork. Richard contacted us shortly before this year’s festival and inquired if we were to attend again. Sadly, we had to politely tell him we are currently saving some of our income since one of us is still looking for a job, and money is short lately. He then asked if he could put us on the list of volunteers to help him out behind one of the still unoccupied tables and in return we could still enjoy some of the festivities and meet the people we have come to know and love (well, some of them at least) over the past couple of years. We have visited many festivals, immediately were positive we could do this, and decided it was going to be fun having our “behind the table” cherry popped in a pleasant and familiar environment, join the ambassadors for one day and tell a little something about the handful of whiskies we would be finding on our table sharing a little of our passion.

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our spot for the (Brand New) Day

But… to get there we first had to leave the mayhem of the road behind us, and after a long wait, directed by the police, we had found a detour using the meanwhile disused on-ramp as an off-ramp through a maze of orange cones, stopped at an IKEA for the meanwhile very urgent pit-stop and continued our new route through the beautiful city of Haarlem including a handful of other detours due to planned roadworks. Arriving around lunch, not even an hour before the beginning of the first of two sessions, we each quickly stuffed a sandwich in their intended orifices and went looking for our table, finding it already perfectly organised for us by the other volunteers, leaving us to only uncork the bottles, de-stress, actually chew the sandwiches and have a walkabout through the venue to chat with the ambassadors before the gates opened and the visitors came flooding in. Some of the ambassadors came in during this flooding because of the traffic-infarct, but with their experience, most were set up and on pouring speed in no time.

Getting used to the opposite side of the table came easier as we had expected. No nervously trembling hands, skipping voices, red spots creeping up in our necks or concerned looks from Richard. We knew we had been slotted in at a table with an array of peated whiskies (Laphroaig, Ardmore, Connemara and Bowmore), so we expected not to pour any drinks in the first hour or so, but lo and behold, the first bottle was already opened in the first five minutes. From there, no stopping the visitors or ourselves. We were just being who we are, tried to make eye contact and greet people who were eager to learn about what we were pouring them. Some of them wanted to know what came next in the lineup and what they would like even better. We tried to capture their interest and ignite the flame, have another, more exclusive dram and see them continue their path a little happier. It gave us energy to see smiles appear on another face when a “match” was found with a dram and see the next face start to glow of pure enjoyment. We can imagine why an ambassador’s job can be so rewarding and fun. It wouldn’t be something we would pursue doing full time – unless we could do it together, but to try it out in this way was great, and we would love doing it again. A pleasing experience for us in between people we know on a first name basis, but at the same time we were the new kids on the block, curiously stepping into their world for a moment.

The respect for the protectors of the trade, with their proud passion engraved in their hearts (and in one instance on skin – on a very private location under his kilt), has grown with this very tiring but rewarding experience. Most of them do this day in – day out between villages, cities, countries and planets. Whenever you meet them, treat them with the respect they deserve, they are not just selling you their booze, they are first and foremost trying to get you to understand their passion and share their story. For us, it took us one long, exciting and fantastic day of standing on our feet and mimicking what they have been doing for years to get us to realise this fully.

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On a side-note, the last couple of years we have had a lot of fun going to the Whisky & Rum aan Zee festival and strengthen our love for rums, merely because of the presence of the product. Similarly, we were first properly introduced to rum and many other different spirits at the pot still festival, and while we have treated ourselves to an overload of whisky-only festivals, it is refreshing to see that more and more ambassadors, distributors and festival organisers nowadays have a fair amount of different spirits available to share like gins, malt wines and jenevers. Maybe it is time for other organisations to follow this example, expand their horizons end attract a larger and foremost different crowd. Just a thought.

Slàinte Mhath

Thomas & Ansgar
Copyright notice: Photo glasses and stand by WhiskySpeller

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