A good friend and fellow whisky enthusiast joined me again this year in celebrating WhiskeyFest Chicago, a gathering of nearly every major whisky brand and distillery in one spot for three hours of samples and conversation. With over 275 different spirits on hand this year and three sessions of seminars, there was a lot to take in and we adopted the pinball method of just bouncing from table to table without much plan. If my hazy memory serves me right (and it may not) we were able to smash last year’s record of about 25 pours with an astounding 34 this time around.
We decided to lead off the night with something new to us both and turned to two bottlings from Macallan. The first was the Macallan 17 yr Fine Oak which is a vatting of whisky aged in American oak ex-bourbon, American oak ex-sherry and Spanish oak ex-sherry casks. This was a solid whisky, but one that I found un-remarkable. It was well-rounded and smooth, but there were no stand-out points to it. This is, I admit, a weird qualm to have, but I like a bit more character to my whisky. The second pour was the Macallan 18 yr Sherry Oak. Again this was clean and well balanced, but this time the 100% sherry casking lent a much more resounding note to the whisky and so we both left enjoying this one more. At $125 and $160 apiece, I don’t think I’ll be going out of the way with these, but for those who like the classic style, I understand the appeal.
Our next stop was Bulleit. This brand has had a much lauded bourbon on the market for awhile, but we stopped in to try the new Bulleit Rye (which I haven’t seen in stores yet). Wow! This one surprised us both. The initial wave is flavorful, but not in the usual rye way. It of course has the spicy and peppery notes of most ryes, but there was something else there, that sadly I couldn’t describe at the time and is now lost to me. I need to try this one again! As much as I love the rye style, I liked this precisely for the fact that it was atypical. At the end of the night, both of us pointed to this as one of our stand-out finds of the evening and we expect this to be very affordable when it is released.
Across the aisle, we found Diageo’s Classic Malts line. With ten standard offerings representing all styles of Scotch single malt whisky, we had a lot to choose from, but decided on three. We began with Lagavulin 16 yr, a brilliant smoky Islay dram aged in sherry casks and smoothed to perfection. We’ve both had this one before and both love it, so this was a comfort dram, not an adventurous tasting. Next, we tried the Talisker 175th Anniversary Edition. The standard Talisker 10 is often promoted as an excellent entry Scotch as is has some smokiness to it, but not an overwhelming amount and it’s balanced with a sweetness and pepperiness. This special edition had all those same quantities, but seemed to have been aged a bit longer giving it a smoother quality. Finally, we tasted the Oban 14 yr. This whisky is a classic lightHighland with beautiful and delicate floral notes. I think this would make an excellent easy drinking everyday whisky and I’ve added this to my future purchases queue.
At Anchor Distilling we tried both the curious Junipero Genevieve Gin and the Old Potrero Straight Rye. Genevive is a sweet Dutch style of gin which is made from a rye mash and has been much talked about in the cocktail community. It is considerably more flavorful than mostLondon dries and, really, is so different as to be gin in name only. I had been anxious to try it and now am anxious to get a chance to play with it more in the future. The rye was, like the Bulliet, memorable for several interesting flavors which made it unlike your standard rye.
In the craft distillery corner, we first tried WhistlePig 10 yr Rye and then Angel’s Envy Port-Finished Bourbon. Both have been abuzz with praise on the internet, but while we felt the support was justified in the first case, it was overblown in the second. WhistlePig is a classic rye whiskey, done as well as can be hoped for. It is spicy, peppery and bold, but the age rounds the corners just enough so that there is kick without burn. The Angel’s Envy, on the other hand, has lost its edge. I love port and found the sweet, tawny finish on this to be good (my friend disagreed), but the whole thing was too soft. For those who are tepid about bourbon, this might be up their alley, but it felt too refined-away for us.
Moving from one disappointment to another, we next tried our only Irish entry, the newly rebranded and overpromoted Michael Collins 10 yr Single Malt. Bah! The rebranding was necessary since the whiskey can’t stand on its own. We did not return to try their blend. However, we did reawaken our palates with a fine bourbon. The 1792 Ridgemont Reserve is a great 8 year small batch poised to compete against Woodford Reserve. It had some heat and was just overall an impressive and nice whiskey.
Tuthilltown Spirits makes the Hudson line of craft spirits and recently gained notoriety as the first American craft distiller to be acquired by one of the big boys, William Grant & Sons who also own Glenfiddich and Balvenie. I really enjoyed the New York Corn unaged spirit which is very sweet and wildly different than the subtler Koval unaged spirits I usually think of in this category. We next tried the Baby Bourbon, aged in very small casks. It was incredibly corn-forward (almost too much) giving it a taste a bit different than most bourbons. I liked it, though I think I’d need another deeper taste before I’d consider buying it.
After the fest closed, we took our victory lap with one more round at Bar on Buena where I satisfied my Springbank craving (we just missed the final pour there) by trying their 15 yr Marsala Finish. This is a Campbeltown single malt Scotch with beautiful salty and slightly smoky flavors. I want to keep diving into the Springbank line to find more of their great stuff.
So many good whiskies! So many more bottles added to the “to-buy” list! So many more to go!