I haven’t posted my thoughts on whisky in awhile, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been drinking. A friend and I went last Friday to WhiskyFest Chicago. The event is a celebration of all things grain and we spent 3 hours sampling tons and tons of delicious distillates. In all we tried over 20 different whiskies, a flight of cognacs and a curious, curious rum while gorging ourselves on a top notch buffet of food and deserts. We met a few master distillers along the way and generally had a great time.
In an effort to make the most of our time, we spread ourselves around and tried to hit new and strange things. Here are the highlights.
When I think unaged whisky, I usually think moonshine. Clear, strong, wild… we are always taught that some time in a barrel is needed to round off the sharp corners. Now I’m not arguing against this – I love me some smoothness – but we encountered a few young grain spirits that would command a nice spot in any collection.
From the relatively new Chicago distillery Koval, we tried the rye and millet boutique whiskies. The distillery has aged whiskies in the works, but these things take time and so they have developed a very successful clear spirits program. Both my friend and I immediately went wide eyed on first taste with astonishment. It was not rough or brash, but instead surprisingly balanced. There was a ton of flavor, but the flavor was clear and pleasing. They have done something magical with this stuff. The unexpected profile got us thinking about what kind of cocktails might use such a young and exciting spirit and I thought about making an Un-Manhattan with Koval rye, dry vermouth and orange bitters. It fits the strict definition of a Manhattan, but would be completely clear. Someone out there with more disposable income should try this out and let me know. (The Koval line runs about $40 a bottle.)
Also in the boutique arena, we stumbled across New Holland, known primarily for their brewery and especially their Mad Hatter beer. (As an aside, I’ll mention that I received one at a bar when I ordered a Manhattan. I did not complain since we were only there for a quick stop and it was very good anyway.) These guys have a full fledged whisky out in their Zeppelin Bend (which we did not get to taste) and a hopped wheat whisky called Brewer’s (which we did taste and very much liked), but they also have a strange little concoction in their Hopquila. This is a 100% barley-based unaged spirit that has been steeped with hops yielding a drink which is reminiscent of tequila. Quite strange. Quite good.
Scotch and bourbon are legally regulated and other categories like Irish and Canadian whiskeys have deep traditional roots, so these whiskies all fit into neat categories with universal characteristics. Sometimes though, a distillery breaks the rules or has no rules to follow from the start and we’re left with black sheep whiskies which fall outside these categories.
At WhiskyFest, we tasted India’s newest offering in Amrut Fusion and a positively flooring Japanese slate from Suntory. Fusion has been getting a lot of buzz lately and recently became available in the US for the first time. The whisky has a lot going on in it, but it is balanced well and very smooth. I regret now not staying there longer and hitting the full Amrut array (which includes a peated and a cask strength version). From Suntory, we tried the Yamazaki 12 and 18 year olds and the Hibiki 12 year. I have said before and continue to maintain that Yamazaki 12 year is an absolutely insanely good buy at $38. It is complex, but as smooth as a whisky twice its age. The 18 year is clearly of the same stock and also incredibly smooth and delicious, but even at a relatively affordable $80, I still would probably buy 2 bottles of the 12 year.
As for American outsiders, Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey is neither bourbon nor rye and it ain’t really like any foreign whisky either. It is something else completely and all around delicious.
Cognac and Rum
I know this was WhiskyFest, but we did try a few of the non-whisky offerings.
Zacapa is a fabulous Guatemalan rum made in the Solera tradition where new spirit is continually added and blended with older spirits to make a complex mix. It was clearly rum, but had a wow factor (particularly around the middle of the taste) that was different and intriguing. This will probably be the next sipping rum I pick up.
After the rum, we stopped by to sample Pierre Ferrand Cognac. The offerings included a 10 year (definitely lacking, especially in the mid-taste which I described as a “hole”), a 20 year (better, but still not quite there), a 30 year (That’s it! That’s what I wanted in the first two!) and 30 year-aged vintages from 1976 and 1977 stocks (great). We also got to try a bit of the unaged spirit which goes into the casks. It was remarkably like pisco (which is made of grapes and often unaged, so this should not be surprising) and my friend called it “fun” due to the great amount of stuff going on in it. All these cognacs had lovely, lovely noses and one of the tenders and my friend agreed that there should be a line of cognac-scented air fresheners.
As fun as these odder bottlings are, there’s a reason the classic categories have survived.
I was very pleased with Tyconnel and Greenore 8 year, both from Cooley Distillery and both quintessential Irish whiskeys. I’ve been seriously loving on the sweet smoothness that Irish provides and now I have two more options to look for.
We didn’t hit many Scotches, but I was quite in love with Highland Park’s offerings. I felt the 15 year was “lovely” with very light flavor and a hint of floral, though my friend was unimpressed. We both felt the 18 year was exquisite though and represented a great Highland single malt. We tried Arbeg Corryvreckan, but a long wait in line and incredible hype left us both underwhelmed. It was by no means a bad whisky. I’d just like to taste it again under better circumstances.
We only snagged one rye, the boutique bottling from Whistle Pig, and we actually had to sneak that one after last call. It was very nice and different than the Rittenhouse bottling I’m used to.
And then there was bourbon. We probably had more bourbon than anything else. We met Jim Rutledge, master distiller of Four Roses and tried his single barrel and small batch varieties, both good and different from each other. He explained that they use several different yeasts at the distillery to make all these different nuances. I had never thought of that. The Buffalo Trace booth was bumping so we stopped by just to try the Elmer T. Stagg, a barrel strength at the higher priced end of the bourbon line that was surprisingly easy to drink without cutting with water despite the proof. Wild Turkey had a few nice varieties, though we were put off by the frat boy paddle displayed at the front of the table and the frat boy-reminiscent whiskey dispenser. Even the woman pouring looked like the type who would frequent frat boy parties. I guess the brand is trying to keep a particular image. Speaking of bourbon’s with an image, we also hit up Jim Beam Black Label. Based on the crazy barrage of great whisky I’d had all night, this didn’t stick out much, but I’d like to give it another more serious go since it’s often named as a best buy. Pappy Van Winkle (with a father and son team of actual Van Winkles pouring) offered us a great 12 year and a sadly off (though highly rated) 15 year. We watched the last drops of the 20 year get poured to someone else, so I don’t know if the 15 is the trend or the exception.
I don’t know what else to add to this. I had fun, I learned a lot, I ate and drank to my fill and my head has been filled we dreams of drams ever since.