Wednesday, November 10, 2010

WhiskyFest No. 4: Lessons Were Learned

That time of year again? Why yes, as the leaves turned, the wind grew crisper and our daylight savings ran out, we knew this had to be coming. For just as every year the fourth Thursday in November is Thanksgiving, the annual event known as WhiskyFest falls on the second Tuesday of the month. And here we were. Again.

The fact that I am able to write this with a clear head the morning after just proves lessons have been learned.

Lesson 1: Hydrate. Yesterday I drank enough water to drown a small village.

Lesson 2: Eat. Prefest anchor steak lunch at Les Halles with Stephanie, Rob and his Idle Hands partner Mark. (Lesson 2 1/2: that iPhone Catpaint app just keeps on giving).

Lesson 3: A VIP ticket is totally worth it!

So glad I threw down. After dealing with the still-clunky registration process and getting my wristband and swag bag (if you can call a free issue of a magazine I already have a subscription to and a mini bottle of crappy blended Scotch "swag") I had a whole hour to taste things the rest of the crowd wouldn't, plus more space in which to do it. Within that hour, I had great face time with my pal Kenny Ng at Michters, who gave me some lovely, smooth and rich Michters 25 Year Bourbon to try. A quick hello to Parker Beam and the delicious Parker's Heritage wheated 10 Year old Bourbon (close contender for dram of the night), which I had originally tasted at the Char No. 4 Heaven Hill dinner back in September. A warm greeting from Dave Harper of Buffalo Trace and the new Weller Antique, which was perfectly nutty and rich with just a little heat. The Glenmorangie Finealta, Glenrothes Vintage 1975 and Vintage 1979 (the warmer and more flavorful of the two), the delightful High West Rocky Mountain Rye 21 Yr old and their fab Bourye (bourbon + rye) hybrid. There was just ten minutes left before the big crowds would charge through those doors and I knew I had to make this count. So Rob and I elbowed our way in to taste Johnnie Walker Blue, which, believe it or not, was my first time. Stephanie had been saying how ironic it is that all these manly men prize that dram, being that it's so soft, floral and feminine in character. And she's right. But I get it. There are no hard edges. All flavor notes are distinguished and it's very easy to drink. I'll gladly let someone buy a $40 dram for me any day.

 Lesson 3: No matter how rare that cup of liquid gold, don't drink the whole thing if you plan to taste more things.

This is a painful lesson, but one that three past years of training has taught me well. Yes, each and every one of those whiskies I just mentioned only lasted one or two sips, (OK, the Johnnie Blue I had like 5 sips of). If I don't want my palate totally shot and plan to stay standing for nearly four hours, one has to do this in moderation.

Lesson 4: Even though you love it, forgo the old favorites. It's the only way to try new things. And this year, I mostly stuck with American independent craft distillers once the regular tastings commenced. I was most impressed with Roughstock Montana Whiskey, which had a nice banana bread appeal that reminded me of a much younger version of the now extinct Woodford Reserve Sweet Mash (aliva shalom) as well as Chicago's own Lion's Pride, which offer a white rye (less rough than most new white dogs on the market) and two expressions of oat whisky, which are toasty and comforting. I was impressed that most people with white spirits stayed away from using the term "moonshine" which, I'll say again, is just wrong. Unless you are selling your product illegally, under cover of night and have gangsters chasing after you and at least one roll over, a mean dog, a crying baby and a bum leg, it ain't moonshine, it's just un-aged spirit. Jenni and Marko at Charbay also had some fun offerings, like Double and Twisted IPA, French Oak Barrel IPA, barrel samples of vanilla rum and the new hop whisky, though sadly, no brandy as promised.

But this rule meant I didn't drink any Pappy Van Winkle this time, or Jefferson's or any of the other big boy Scotches like Compass Box, Springbank, Glenfiddich, Auchentoshan, Ardbeg or Laphroaig, though I couldn't resist saying hi to Martin at the Macallan table and taking a sip of cask strength. 

Lesson 5: Sit down, take a load off, attend a seminar!

Stephanie had the brilliant idea of attending the Yamazaki seminar halfway through the night and so glad I did. It was a good chance to regroup, have some water (see Lesson 1) and let things settle a bit, plus learn something new. I enjoyed the presentation (Lesson 5 1/2: According to the Japanese, Spaniards apparently will cheat you on sherry casks unless you pay close attention to your product) and it was interesting to taste through the expressions and get to spit without vying for the bucket. But I'm gonna say it, after a second taste (the first during VIP hour), not a fan of the prized Hibiki 1984. The cinnamon notes totally overpower the spirit.

Back down for another forty-five minutes. We decide to head to the Bruichladdich table to see what our pal from Friday night, distiller Jim McEwan was up to. He immediately reached out and pulled us behind the table as we tasted a 42 Yr Lonach.

Now with only a few minutes to go before the heavily enforced last call at 9:15, I go back to Buffalo Trace to taste the Sazerac 18 (a little hot, but settles well with a little water) and the Thomas Handy.

Lesson 6: End on a good note. If you're gonna have a last dram, have a last DRAM.

This year I wanted something slightly sweet and easy, so after making a few quick circles, went for the Dalmore King Alexander III. Perfect choice.

Lesson 7: Just go home.

As tempting as it was, I didn't attend the after party at Ward III that my roving gang and many of our favorite presenters were attending. I did get a fun subway ride on the C train with Steph, Rob, Elana and Abigail. But I had to bid the adieu as they exited at Chambers street into the beyond. I'd had enough. Already.

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