Recapping WhiskyFest Chicago (Day Two) – The Main Event

Recapping WhiskyFest Chicago (Day Two) – The Main Event

There was a moment. More than a moment, actually, maybe a full minute. It may even have been two. I stood in the middle of the Hyatt Regency Chicago ballroom at sometime around 7:00 on a Friday night in March, and I was speechless. Overwhelmed, even.  My wife waited patiently for an answer, before she asked again: “what would you like to try next?”  I slowly gazed around the room, the dozens of whiskey makers booths, each one holding bottles and bottles of whiskey.

Some I had tried many times and liked. Some I had not cared for. Some I had just never gotten around to. But this was still in the midst of the VIP hour, so there were many that I had never seen, tried, and probably never would again. My head cleared, my focus sharpened. My head turned, as I watched one of the most impressively surreal acts of normalcy I could imagine.

Julian Van Winkle – pappy of Pappy so to speak – slowly walking by, unapproached and seemingly anonymous, completely absorbed in the consumption of a potsticker.  Now I’m sure Mr. Van Winkle goes about unrecognized on most days – at the gas station, at the 7-11, maybe even the restaurant. What makes this scene so weird is that, as he walks by, contemplating the mysteries of quality pan-Asian buffet, 100 people wait in line at a booth bearing his name for a slight, tasting pour of his whiskey. A whiskey most of them have never had, and many won’t again.

As he dabs the napkin to his mouth, I turn back to my ever-patient wife, who is quite eager to sample the next specialty. “Let’s go try the Michter’s 10 year.”

This is WhiskyFest Chicago 2016.

As I mentioned in my last blog, WhiskyFest, put on by Whiskey Advocate magazine, is the big show. I don’t know if Chicago was the first, but it certainly seems that way. I’ve been to plenty of bourbon specific events in Kentucky and Michigan, but when my wife was able to score us tickets as a surprise Christmas gift (and VIP tickets to boot), I knew it would be bigger than anything I or we’d gone to yet.

WhiskyFest tickets aren’t cheap – if you get them when they go on sale, they are upward of $300. $400 plus for VIP. This year, it’s my understanding all tickets sold out in the first hour, so price isn’t exactly an issue. And by the time you get them from a reseller like StubHub or EBay – look out.  So the expectations are high, and understandably so.

In the months and weeks leading up to the event – March 18th this year – the information begins to trickle out: what brands to expect, what new products will be unveiled, what speakers will be there. But it’s that first one, the whiskey list, that is most anticipated.  I found myself visiting every day, looking to see what would be in the offering.

WhiskyFest is also not limited like the bourbon events I have frequented. Scotch – no favorite of mine – is extremely well represented. Ryes, Irish, Canadian and Japanese whiskey is there too. There are a few whiskey barrel aged beers. Even a rum or two snuck in. In all, hundreds of things to try. Not all in one night, however.

We showed up for VIP registration a half hour early, and found a line of dozens already ahead of us. When registration did start, we were each given a canvas bag with water, swag (pens, coasters), a Glencairn glass and a lanyard. There was a meat and cheese hor d’oeuvres table to snack on. But the snackers were few. Instead, people lined up at the doors.

And by people, I mean men. Unlike the bourbon events or the whiskey tasting the night before, this crowd was almost exclusively male. No judgement here, just noting…

The advantage of a VIP ticket was two-fold: you get to enter the tasting ballroom an hour early, and many brands have special limited pours for the VIP group. WhistlePig, for example, was offering VIPs a taste of their yet unreleased 15 year old rye.

Once the doors flew open the race was on. There was a feeling of the Oklahoma land rush as people made bee lines for any one of the hundred booths showcasing their most sought after tastes. Buffalo Trace filled up quick, with long lines looking for a taste of their VIP offerings: Pappy Van Winkle 23 year, 1792 Port Finish and George T Stagg. We stood back and pontificated for a moment before deciding on a Hibiki 17 year Japanese Whiskey.

Over the course of the next 4 hours, my wife and I wandered around the massive ballroom. First, we tried VIP whisky so, some of which I’ve noted below. When I had my moment of being overwhelmed half an hour in, it was at the realization that we had already sampled 5 impossible to find drinks in 30 minutes.

The room is a large ballroom, where each bourbon maker has a booth – not unusual for a trade show, which is kind of what WhiskeyFest is. Each booth, ranging from as simple as a folding table and sign to large, elaborate setups, with full bars and ornate woodwork, has a few people pouring their wares for the line of Glencairn glass holders.  There are a mixture of reps at each booth, from attractive models who look like they are on loan from an auto show, to more knowledgeable brand reps, to owners like Van Winkle and Master Distillers like Wild Turkey’s Jimmy Russell.  The connoisseurs discuss the brands and selections with the reps as they get their pours, and hopefully get some knowledge about what they are drinking.

Each booth has water available – keeping hydrated and rinsing out glasses is definitely encouraged here – as well as a bucket to catch the pour outs.  Like a wine tasting, the concept is that a whiskey is tasted in a small one ounce quantity, then spit out into the bucket.  This rarely happens, however. As the night went on, I saw almost no-one (including myself) waste the drink…although a few of the drinkers certainly got wasted.

Along with hydration, WhiskyFest goers are also encouraged to eat and eat well.  There are four main walking buffet areas, with two sets of diverse food, from vegetables and au gratin potatoes to sushi and roast beef.  It’s a nice spread, and the easy access allows for nibbling throughout the night.

At 7:30, the general admission doors opened, and the crowd number jumped exponentially.  Very few of the booths had lines over 5 minutes (with the exception of the Van Winkles), which was nice.  I had tried 9 whiskeys at that point, and by night’s end at 9:30, was at 26.

I won’t review the whiskeys here – for those I was particularly fond, I added a few notes below, and will follow up with a more detailed review later.  I also left the bourbon and rye comfort zone and tried a few others, to mixed results.

I had a fantastic time at WhiskyFest.  People were mostly very nice.  My wife and I talked with two different couples – one that had been married for many years, and one that was still in their relationship infancy, but both were having a great time.  We met a man from Michigan enjoying his third trip there, with whom we commiserated about local liquor stores.  And there were a couple of women who had won the tickets, and were having a great time introducing themselves to whiskey we spent some time talking and walking with.  For the whiskey nut, this is almost a bucket list item.  Even for the casual drinker, I would think the variety alone would make it a worthwhile trip.  There are a number of other things going on here as well – speakers from Whiskey makers, and tasting flights.  THis year, they seemed to be Scotch-centric, so I stuck to the main room myself.

Below are a few notes on a couple drinks that impressed me the most.  They should ideally each have a detailed review in the next 6 months.  There is a good chance I will return next year and take it in again, but for now…

WhistlePig 15 Year and 12 Year Old World – If you like the acclaimed 10 year rye, this should be for you. Personally, i  respect the 10 year, but it’s a little gruff for me, and the 15 year only heightens that. Much more pleasing to my palate is the Old World 12 Year, finished in different wine barrels, including Madera. The finishing puts the slightest sweetness on the rye, adding whole new complexities beyond the spiciness.

Jack Daniels Single Barrel, Barrel Proof (131.0 tried) – Cliched? Yup. Late to the trend? You bet. But man, did I find this version of the veritable favorite delicious. Jack Daniels is a classic, and this hints at how great it is in its purest form. It’s hot, but still has all the good Jack Daniels traits, namely

New Holland Zeppelin Bend and Zeppelin Bend Reserve – I have long been a fan of the Zeppelin Bend whisky, even if it is a little young, because of it’s remarkable smoothness. The new, longer aged Zeppelin Bend was even smoother, and when it hits the market later this summer, I look forward to grabbing a bottle.

High West Yippee Ki-Yay Rye was unique and befitting the High West brand – rye whiskey finished in wine barrels (catching a trend?) that takes that respected High West rye and adds a sweetness that wins in nose and finish.

The list (of whiskeys I sampled):

Hibiki 17 Year

WhistlePig 15 year Rye

Jefferson’s Groth Reserve Bourbon

New Holland Zeppelin Bend Reserve

New Holland Pitchfork Wheat

Russell’s Reserve 10 year Bourbon

Michter’s 10 Year Bourbon

1792 Small Batch Bourbon

High West Yippee Ki-Yay Rye

Elijah Craig 18 Year Single Barrel

Elijah Craig 23 Year Single Barrel

The Pogues Irish Whiskey

West Cork 10 Year Single Malt

Parker’s Heritage Malt Whiskey

Old Forester 1897 BiB

Jack Daniels Single Barrel Barrel Proof (131.8 proof)

Stagg Jr. (127.3 proof)

Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye

Jameson Black Barrel

Jameson Caskmates

Hudson Four Grain Bourbon

WhistlePig 12 Year “Old World”

Bookers “Oven Buster” Bourbon

E. H. Taylor Single Barrel

Maker’s Mark Cask Strength

Bernheim Original Wheat Whiskey

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Recapping WhiskyFest Chicago (Day One) – The Whiskey Affair at Untitled

Recapping WhiskyFest Chicago (Day One) – The Whiskey Affair at Untitled

I have been fortunate enough to attend some really great whiskey, particularly bourbon related events in the past.  I’ve been to two Pappy For Your Pappy tasting dinners with the Van Winkle family at Buffalo Trace, two Bourbon Classics in Louisville, and the The Great Kentucky Bourbon Tasting & Gala™at the Kentucky Bourbon Festival, among other great events.  But, as a Christmas gift from my wife, this was the year we went for the granddaddy of them all – WhiskyFest in Chicago.

WhiskyFest is sponsored by the Whisky Advocate magazine, and boasts a staggering number of brands and makes.  Because it includes not only Bourbon and Rye but also Scotch, Irish, Japanese, Flavored and Tennessee (as well as a few beers, wines, gins and rums), it has a far wider range than those Bourbon only events.  This year there were 133 Brands, with 355 individual bottlings.

But that is all for part two.

One of the great things about WhiskyFest is the large number of whiskey-related events that take place all over Chicago the week of.  There are tastings, ‘Meet the Distiller’ events, brand unveilings and many others.  We decided to head to Chicago a day early and take in one of the events – the 4th Annual Whiskey Affair at Untitled.  We were not disappointed.

Untitled Whiskey Affair

Untitled is a “Supper Club” in Chicago’s Near North Side with the “speakeasy” vibe that is very much in trend these days.  Their website encourages a rather formal dress code (no jeans, no athletic shoes), but that was no problem.  Upon entering and going down the main staircase (underneath a particularly impressive liquor collection), we checked in with our pre-purchased tickets.  The event was $50 each – certainly not a bad price – and we were there before the tasting opened, so we took in the sights and sounds of the rather expansive place.  The lighting was dim and there was music overhead, but most notable were the intimate booths and benches around.  It has a very cool atmosphere – but this is a bourbon blog, not a Yelp review, so I will move on.

When we checked in, we were given Glencairn glasses, a lanyard and (I believe) 20 tickets.  The instructions were given as well – each ticket is for a tasting, hand it to the pourer upon your sample.  At 7:00 the doors to several more rooms opened, and we headed in.

The list of whiskies at the Whiskey Affair was impressive.  The major players were there with nicely set up booths – Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, Bulleit, Jack Daniels and so on – but there were also many whiskey makers not represented at WhiskyFest proper the next night like Journeyman, Belle Meade and Dad’s Hat.  Smooth Ambler was there, although not at WhiskyFest, and offered tastes of their new Contradiction (a blend of wheat and rye bourbons) which proved very interesting and enjoyable.

We moved from booth to booth, trying new items and old favorites.  To be honest, the only booth requiring us to drop in our tickets was Maker’s Mark, who were offering pours of their regular, 46 and Cask Strength bourbons.  The rest were happy to pour away, and talk about their product.

We spent several hours moving around and talking to brand reps while weaving in and out of the diverse and often very well-dressed crowd (there were more women drinking whiskey at the much much smaller Whiskey Affair than the entire WhiskyFest the next night).  The drinks were almost exclusively bourbon and rye – there were a few scotches and irish whiskeys, but they were in the minority – and when the event ended, there were a few that had peaked my interest, namely:

  • WhistlePig Old World, a 12 year rye that has been finished in assorted wine casks, giving it a nice smooth roundness
  • Smooth Ambler Contradiction, the aforementioned wheat and rye blend, that had both opening sweetness and a peppery finish
  • Jack Daniels Single Barrel, Barrel Proof, yes, JD has put out a barrel proof and I thought it was fantastic

When the Whiskey Affair ended, Untitled had an aerialist/burlesque show that we probably would have stuck around and enjoyed thoroughly.  But after sampling a couple dozen whiskies, and with the big event the next day, we headed back to the hotel to recharge our batteries for WhiskyFest itself.  Kudo’s to Untitled, they threw a fantastic event, and I am very much looking forward to stopping in for dinner when I am in Chicago next!

…and that will come in part two!

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Old Forester 1870 Original Batch Bourbon

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Old Forester 1870 Original Batch Bourbon

Next week is an exciting first for me – Jen and I will be attending the WhiskeyFest 2016 in Chicago!  Hosted by Whiskey Advocate magazine, this is the biggest and baddest of the Whiskey festivals.  Already there are dozens – dozens – of bourbon, scotch, malt, wheat and every other kind of whiskey imaginable distillers RSVP’ed.  I have spent the last couple months whittling down the list of what I absolutely must try, and have prepared for a truly great event.

But before all of that excitement, there are newer things to try closer to home, and that’s where I found myself this week, at a new speakeasy-inspired bar in Grosse Pointe called “The Whiskey Six.”  Named after the supposed engine of choice among Detroit River traversing bootleggers, the bar/restaurant boasts an impressive list of whiskies (if mostly from the usual suspects – Wild Turkey, Jim Beam, Four Roses, Heaven Hill and, for today’s choice, Brown-Forman).  Indeed, it is from the Brown-Forman catalog that we try Old Forester 1870 Original Batch Bourbon, our taste of the week.

Dan's Bourbon of the Week: Old Forester 1870 Original Batch Bourbon
Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Old Forester 1870 Original Batch Bourbon

On the surface, Brown-Forman hype this newer Old Forester release as closer in spirit (if not taste) to the the original methods used by Old Forester founder George Garvin Brown in 1870.  Theoretically, that is true, but the truth is that Mr. Brown basically blended whiskies from three different distilling sources for maximum consistency from batch to batch.  If this sounds familiar, it should, because it’s basically what any non-Single Barrel release does today.  Hardly revolutionary.

Still, it is always nice to recall history, and the idea of blending of barrels from three different warehouses is a nice throwback.  The only problem is that, to my palette, it doesn’t work.

My take:

There are a lot of things going on in a glass of Old Forester 1870.  Upon nosing the glass, I found it exceptionally hot, and with eyes closed, I wouldn’t have guessed it the 90 proof it is, but probably more like cask strength.  Upon letting it sit for a minute, it began to open, slowly, but what was revealed was scattered and still very hot.  Notes of clove began to waft, as did a medicinal scent, suggesting lavender and even a touch of juniper.  I did not denote any soft sugar, but rather, a spicy rye.

I found the taste burned as well.  On the front, there was a suggestion of bitter cherries with a touch of molasses.  Also forward was a hint of cinnamon, a bit of toffee and a course black pepper.  I found there to be several tastes going on at once, and none of them complimentary.

The finish was long and hinted at dried fruit and dry spiciness.

I admit, I have never been a huge fan of Brown-Forman products, save Jack Daniels.  Woodford Reserve does nothing for me, and I still say Early Times 354 was the worst bourbon I’ve ever tasted.  That said, I respect that their products are usually dependable, if not exemplary.  Old Forester 1870 fits into that pattern.  It’s a fine bourbon for a shot or two, and a good mixer for a bitter cocktail.  But at the price a bottle is usually found ($50+), I just think you can get better.

Dan’s Rating: 7.3

Exploring the 2015 Bourbon Classic

Exploring the 2015 Bourbon Classic

When Jen and I travelled down to Louisville last year for the Bourbon Classic, it was our first real foray into the larger bourbon culture, and the largesse of those involved (recap parts one and two here).  The blog was only a few months old, and our participation and education about bourbon had come from distillery visits, reading books by Cowdery and Minnick, and personal consumption.

We were blown away by the awesomeness – of the event, of the people, of the culture as a whole.  It kicked off a wonderful year where we made frequent trips to Kentucky: touring Four Roses, Wild Turkey, Buffalo Trace (again), Willett; visiting Louisville, Bardstown, Frankfort, Lexington; and eating and drinking at fantastic establishments.  For the Bourbon Classic 2015, there wasn’t a moment’s hesitation – we were going again.

This year the Classic was a little later – the end of February (instead of the end of January), and we hoped that would lead to some good weather.  On that end we weren’t so lucky, and we drove into a Louisville that had been hit pretty hard by a snow storm earlier in the week.  We checked in to the 21c Museum Hotel – who have the most fantastic staff of any place we’ve stayed – and geared up for a wonderful weekend.

The first night of the Classic centers around a cocktail and small plate tasting.  Nine bourbon labels are represented – Barton’s 1792, Buffalo Trace, Blanton’s, Four Roses, Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, Michter’s, Wild Turkey and Woodford Reserve.  Each brand selected a mixologist and chef to prepare the tastings.  We were pleased to see some of our favorite’s from last year returning, including Issac Fox of Volare and our favorite Louisville chef (and all around awesome guy), Levon Wallace of Proof on Main.

The setup is simple: attendees stroll the lobby of the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts, where participating brands, chefs and master bartenders are set up against the walls, and sample to their heart’s content.

Setting up the judging area, Bourbon Classic 2015
Setting up the judging area, Bourbon Classic 2015

That’s right – you stroll the rooms, picking up cocktails and chef-prepared small plates as you go.  It’s beautiful in it’s simplicity.  Personally, I am more of a three-fingers-of-whiskey-neat guy, but these cocktails are so expertly made (and often unique), that I was happy to try many…and many more!  Of particular note was the Tallulah (a peanut tasting bourbon drink), a bourbon mimosa and a bourbon/beet juice/dill cocktail.  The first two I found fantastic, the last…well, it was certainly inventive.  Almost every dish was fantastic.

I avoided two mistakes I made last year as well.  First of all, I didn’t try to chronicle every dish and drink.  There is just an abundance of great stuff, and trying to write it all down is too much.  Secondly, I kept my imbibing to a slower pace, to more fully enjoy the flavors of the evening.

We were happy to run into some friends we had made from the last Bourbon Classic.  Greg and Chris from Virginia were in attendance again, and this time they brought more of their fellow alumni with them, making it a real college reunion of sorts.   We got to spend some time with Wallace (who is leaving Louisville for Nashville very soon), and I also met Eric Byford, who founded Beard Force Films and was there shooting some final footage for a documentary on Kentucky Bourbon (and it’s impact on the local culture) he has been working on.  He showed me a trailer and I am certainly looking forward to it.

Jen and I sampled dish after dish and drink after drink, and if the Bourbon Classic was limited to the Friday night event, it would be plenty enough reason to head down.  But the event gets even bigger on day two.

Admittedly, we skipped the first “Bourbon Classic University” session of the day to do a bit of bourbon hunting and get a good brunch (Toast on Market!).  The goal was to get good seating in the auditorium for the second session: The Bourbon Masters General Session.  The list of distillers that would be present was impressive, and it was MC’ed by Fred Minnick.

The Legends of Bourbon
The Legends of Bourbon: (left to right) Fred Minnick, Mark Coffman (Alltech), Wes Henderson (Angel’s Envy), Chip Tate (Tate & Co/Balcones), Ken Pierce (1792), Fred Noe (Jim Beam), Harlen Wheatley (Buffalo Trace), Jim Rutledge (Four Roses), Denny Potter (Heaven Hill), Nicole Austin (King’s Country), Joe Magliocco (Michter’s), Jimmy Russell (Wild Turkey).

Last year, the Master’s session was a genial celebration of bourbon’s rise in popularity.  Anytime you get many of the more long-time distillers around each other – Russell, Noe, Rutledge and even Wheatley and Henderson – you are going to get funny anecdotes and good natured ribbing.  While the mood and spirits stayed high this year, however, Minnick asked a little more probing questions.

Right off the bat, a highlight was the presence of Texan Chip Tate.  Last year, Tate seemed to be the talk of the whiskey world, as he fought with investors over the future of the distillery he founded – Balcones.  The debate about craft versus investment swirled around the proceedings, while headline grabbing words like ‘gunplay’ and ‘banished’ abounded.  Since then Tate has left Balcones and started a new distillery, and this was the first time he spoke to the public.

Settlement agreement in place, there wasn’t a whole lot of detail Tate could go into regarding the saga, and he downplayed the media accounts. That said, he did talk about the difficulties with reconciling the spirit of craftsmanship with the drive of commerce, as well as say that many of the facts that he was accused of by the Balcones board simply were not true.  He is looking forward to producing brandy, and after the non-compete agreement expires, whiskey, under his new name of Tate and Co.

A few other edgy topics were discussed.  Henderson and Magliocco were asked about ongoing lawsuits against ‘sourced’ whiskeys and label information (Magliocco refused to comment, but Henderson spoke openly about how he finds them frivolous and unethical, equating the lawyers involved as whiskey ambulance chasers).

The popularity of flavored whiskey was talked about.  Russell was proud to say that when he pushed Wild Turkey to start offering flavored drinks in the 70s/80s, he was well ahead of his time.  Wheatley – who’s Buffalo Trace is owned by Sazerac, makers of Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey – pointed out that it was made from Canadian whiskies (not bourbon), and those sales helped him finance Buffalo Trace experimental offerings.  Rutledge said Four Roses wouldn’t offer flavored whiskey as long as he is the master distiller, and Magliocco warned that flavoring whiskeys could lead down the path taken by vodka in the last 15 years, where flavors and gimmicks made the spirit itself lose credibility.

Other topics included the “whiskey shortage” (consensus opinion – if you are a distiller, there is none.  If you are sourcing, good luck!), new products, and the rise of women in bourbon demographics.  This last one was a bit sticky – Nicole Austin, from King’s County Distillery in Brooklyn, New York, was the only woman on the panel, and her…annoyance…with being asked about being a ‘woman’ in whiskey (rather than a person in whiskey) was funny and well received.  Further questions got a little more tense, as they discussed marketing whiskeys to women, and it became harder to tell if Austin, whose distillery is the first post-prohibition distillery in Brooklyn, was seriously upset or just sarcastically funny.

Bourbon Icons: Jim Rutledge (Four Roses), Fred Noe (Jim Beam), Freddie Johnson (Buffalo Trace) and Jimmy Russell (Wild Turkey)
Bourbon Icons: Jim Rutledge (Four Roses), Fred Noe (Jim Beam), Freddie Johnson (Buffalo Trace) and Jimmy Russell (Wild Turkey)

Either way, the session ended jovially, and we kept our seats for the second session, a “Bourbon Icons” discussion with Noe, Russell, Rutledge and Freddie Johnson, tour guide extraordinaire of Buffalo Trace, who told of his family’s three-generation deep involvement in the Kentucky Bourbon industry.  It was a captivating hour with four true legends – all of whom shared stories, and a few jokes.

Finally, the main event.  Tables upon tables of fine bourbon – neat, on the rocks or with a splash of water.  Again, there were again small plates as well as a buffet style presentation and, while a bluegrass band played from atop the stairs, the goal was to stroll and sample.

A Bourbon Classic ice sculpture representing the host city, Louisville
A Bourbon Classic ice sculpture representing the host city, Louisville

…and sample we did.  Saturday has more varieties than Friday, with Jefferson’s Reserve, Old Forester, King County, Bulleit, Copper and Kings, Angel’s Envy and others joining the festivities.  The distillers were mingling as well – I spoke with Jim Rutledge for quite some time about the difficulties resuscitating the Four Roses name in the Untied States after Seagrams had almost destroyed it.  Jen spent some time laughing with Wes Henderson about his irreverent sense of humor (always a point winner with my wife).

Chatting with Jim Rutledge of Four Roses
Chatting with Jim Rutledge of Four Roses

When Greg and Chris let us know Heaven Hill was pouring its Parker’s Heritage Wheat Whiskey, we made a beeline there, and each enjoyed sips of one of our favorite drinks of 2014.  Many more drinks followed, and by the time we retired at 9:30, another fantastic Bourbon Classic was put to bed.  Let the countdown to 2016 begin!

Bluegrass music from the top of the stairs
Bluegrass music from the top of the stairs
Old Forester making a presence
Old Forester making a presence
Blanton's: always a favorite
Blanton’s: always a favorite
Michter's at work
Michter’s at work

A Trip To the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience

A Trip To the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience

So as I mentioned before, Jen and I had an amazing time at the second annual Bourbon Classic last year (for a recap of 2014, please read Part One and Part Two here), and decided to return to Downtown Louisville for the event again last week.  Tickets were purchased, hotel reservations were made, and last Friday, we made the drive down from Detroit.

We arrived midday and, since the Classic doesn’t begin until 7pm, looked to enjoy a little more bourbon culture prior to the main event.  We were staying at the 21c Museum Hotel close to the event, so we decided to stay close and check out the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience that opened in 2013 right on Main Street.

No, it's not real bourbon - the lobby of the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience
No, it’s not real bourbon – the lobby of the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience

The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience is part of the official “Kentucky Bourbon Trail,” but it is not a distillery.  Rather, it’s a sort of museum dedicated to the history of Evan Williams Bourbon – and whiskey in general – in Louisville.

A tour of the EWBE starts with a short film.  Wall sized projection video is a very big part of the EWBE, and it starts with a bit of background about the bourbon namesake, Evan Williams, himself.  Williams, as the legend goes, was the first commercial whiskey producer in Kentucky, settling in Louisville and starting there.  Like so many of the ‘facts’ around the history of bourbon, the details of William’s life are less than clear, and they are presented in a less than canonical way.

Rather, the show sets the stage for a walk through ‘Louisville past.”  The short film explaining the importance of Louisville as a port (and stopping point on the Ohio River) leads to a room showing what the small town of Louisville might have looked like in 1800, when the whiskey business was just starting in earnest.

This is the ‘experience” part alluded to in the title – Evan Williams Bourbon is actually made at Heaven Hill distillery nearby, before being bottled in Bardstown, KY.  It is not actually made at this location – the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience is more of a beginner’s guide to bourbon.

That said they have created a very small micro distillery, that illustrates the wall-scale, step-by-step “How Bourbon is Made” multi media presentation.  Approximately one barrel of whiskey is created there a day, and tour participants are encouraged to sign  the guest book to be alerted when the whiskey of their visit day is matured.

The Heaven Hill Experience Micro-Distillery
The Heaven Hill Experience Micro-Distillery

Subsequent floors (exhibits) show the 1800’s distilling equipment and methods, which serve as a good intro primer to how bourbon is made.

The upper floors focus on Louisville, and Bourbon, through the eras.  A nineteenth century saloon is recreated.  The third floor showcases the “Bottled-In-Bond” Act and it’s importance at the time.  Some Prohibition-era bottles are displayed, along with some recreated era-appropriate storefronts.

Finally, the tour resolves in a tasting of different Heaven Hill products – we had Evan Williams, Evan Williams Single Barrel, and the wheated bourbon Larceny – in the recreation of a 1960’s bar where we learned about the history of Heaven Hill, and by proxy, the Evan Williams brand.  We exited through a gift shop, and our time at the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience was done.

All in all, it was a pleasant way to spend an hour – the cost wasn’t prohibitive, and it was fun.  It certainly wasn’t as in-depth as an actual distillery tour, but in fairness, it didn’t claim to be.  What it certainly did do was serve as the perfect primer for the main event – The Bourbon Classic!

scrooge
A text exchange between myself and friend/bourbon enthusiast Josh McAllister…

 

A trip to the Kentucky Bourbon Festival – Tasting and Gala

This year, I have been fortunate enough to head down to Kentucky for three separate bourbon related events.  In February, my wife and I went to Louisville to take in the second ever Bourbon Classic, a fantastic celebration of bourbon and its culture.  In June, we headed back to tour some distilleries and attend the “Pappy For your Pappy” tasting dinner with the Van Winkle family at Buffalo Trace Distillery.  And last week, we headed down for the The Great Kentucky Bourbon Tasting & Gala.

The Kentucky Bourbon Festival is a yearly event in Bardstown, Kentucky in the heart of bourbon country.  It started small in 1992, and has grown every year, as a week long full celebration of all things bourbon.  There are barrel making exhibitions, events for families, kids, tours of Bardstown, mixology lessons, cooking demonstrations – this is a full scale celebration!  As the week goes on, there are nightly events for the bourbon faithful – dinners and dancing, country and bluegrass concerts, all culminating in the big event, the Gala – a black tie affair.  It was for this event my wife surprised me with tickets, and for this event we headed down.

We stayed in Louisville, in the 21c Museum Hotel, which had treated us so well during the Bourbon Classic.  On Friday night, we had dinner at Proof on Main to celebrate our 2nd Anniversary, and the food (and drink) was outstanding!  One of the greatest parts was their offering of bourbon tasting flights:

Proof on Main Bourbon Flight Menu
Proof on Main Bourbon Flight Menu

I went with the KY Bourbon Distillers Flight, as it offered three products I cannot find in Michigan, the Johnny Drum Private Stock, the Rowan’s Creek and Noah’s Mill.

KY Bourbon Distillers Flight
KY Bourbon Distillers Flight

We’ve sampled the good from Chef Levon Wallace‘s kitchen before, and this time was every bit as fantastic and delectable as expected.  Dining in Louisville is an exceptional experience, and Proof on Main may be the best of the bunch!

Saturday, we did some exploring of the stores between Louisville and Bardstown, looking for new, limited or fun bourbons that we can’t attain in Michigan, and finding a few of note.  Particularly wonderful were the people of Old Town Wine and Spirits – they had a fantastic collection of spirits, particularly bourbon.  After some perusal, I noticed they had two different store choice barrel strength Four Roses selections.  I asked a gentleman about the differences, and he was wonderful enough to not only walk me through it, but to taste each.  And by taste…I mean he poured me a glass of each.  That is hospitality!  With some new bourbon’s purchased, it was back to the hotel to get gussied up for the big Gala event.

Now, I will be the first to admit, wearing a tuxedo is not exactly a point of comfort for me. By my count, I have worn one five times in my life: senior prom, standing up in three friend’s weddings, and now the bourbon tasting and gala.
Dressed in my best James Bond impression, and with my wife looking stunning in a new dress, we headed to Bardstown.

Jen and I at the Bourbon Tasting and Gala
Jen and I at the Bourbon Tasting and Gala

The first surprise was the location. Having not been to the festival, it came as a bit of a shock when we pulled into the parking lot of what appeared to be a massive distribution or warehouse facility. There was no doubt, however, that it was the right place to be, as the parking lot was full of shuttle and tour buses, and elegantly dressed people got out of cars to line up for the event. We took our place in line and soon enough the doors opened.

A welcoming site outside the Bourbon Tasting and Gala
A welcoming site outside the Bourbon Tasting and Gala

Inside the first massive room we went into lay a bourbon lovers delight. Each of the major represented distilleries had bar setups around the outside walls. Each one was unique and different. Upon entry, each attendant was given a bag – this would be where we would stash our collected goodies as the night unfolded.

A room full of beautiful people and beautiful bourbon!
A room full of beautiful people and beautiful bourbon!

Each distillery had a full selection of their products available to drink. Most would serve your drink of choice in a glass specially made for the occasion, which you were to keep (by storing in the aforementioned bag). Most of these individual bars would also have a choice of mixed drink cocktail, ice, water, or to have the drink neat.

In the center of the room was a long spread of hors d’oeuvres.

Bourbon Festival ice sculpture
Bourbon Festival ice sculpture

Our first stop was the Blanton’s bar. Always a favorite of mine, it seemed a great way to get the night started! We sipped our drinks, and moved around. Wild Turkey had a backdrop for guests to have their red carpet style photo taken. They also had perhaps the most ornate bar, practically a saloon set up there where I was short to procure a glass of the Russell’s Reserve I love so much.

In addition to a wonderful set of cocktails and a beautiful display, Makers Mark had an ice luge, where I enjoyed a glass of Makers 46, chilled in this most fun way possible.

Maker's 46 from an ice luge
Maker’s 46 from an ice luge

After some food, & a wonderful conversation with former Maker’s Mark and now Bardstown Bourbon Company master distiller and Kentucky Bourbon Festival Hall of Fame member Steve Nally and his lovely wife, we made our way over to the Heaven Hill set up, where Jen enjoyed a Ezra Brooks smoothie , and I indulged in a pour of Evan Williams Single Barrel.

Cheers!
Cheers!

Buffalo Trace had the most elegant glasses of the evening, with a raised Buffalo etched in the side. Ridgemont Reserve 1792 served a bourbon orange cream drink that would certainly fit as a dessert on any fine menu.

Ridgemont Reserve 1792
Ridgemont Reserve 1792

By the time I wandered up to the Jim Beam bar, we had only been there for about an hour and a half. I asked the bartender for a glass of my favorite Jim Beam product, the Jim Beam Black 8 Year. When he asked if I wanted a single or double, I laughed and said the night was so young I better keep it a single. He quickly responded that the night was so young, it was early enough for a double!

Bulleit had their 10 year bourbon available, and I spoke with one of their representatives about the recent reopening of the Stitzel-Weller distillery under the name that had occurred that week. It is certainly on the short list of places I want to visit soon.

The line at Four Roses was intimidating – they were also offering photographs – so I visited Michter’s and grabbed a few more munchies just as the lights flashed to usher us into the main room where dinner was about to be served.

They have a bag check so we wouldn’t carry around the impressive number of glasses we had collected during the evening, and we entered the large room for dinner.

The dining room part of the evening...
The dining room part of the evening…

As you might imagine, a room sitting what I estimated to have been seven or eight hundred people for dinner would be massive. And it was. There was a stage set up on the far side of the room, where the toast and a few short speeches would be given. Later in the evening, this would also be the bandstand for the dancing part of the night. We found our table, to the far side from the stage and took seats.

We were seated with two lovely groups. One group of four had come in from Atlanta, Georgia. One of the groups gentleman was celebrating his 50th birthday, to celebrate at the Bourbon Festival. What a fantastic idea! There was also a young couple from Cincinnati, Ohio at our table as well. With a bottle of Ridgemont Reserve at each table to toast with, we enjoyed talking to our fellow tablemates while eating our salads. I was particularly overjoyed to find out our new Georgian friends where sports fanatics as well! We talked about baseball at length, as well as SEC football. To my dismay, my Missouri Tigers fell that afternoon to the Indiana Hoosiers, a rather embarrassing loss.

By this point, we all had noticed the lack of climate control in the facility. The temperature outside hovered around 85, and inside the lack of air flow had begun to take its toll. Many a brow was sweaty, and for the men, our tight collars and ties became slightly oppressive.

As the toasts and short speeches began, we found we were too far on the other side of the room to be able to discern what was being said. The sound system was not clear enough for us to here the toast itself, or any of the comments of Wild Turkey master distiller Jimmy Russell who had showed up and made some comments of his own. Unfortunately, all we could hear was a sound more similar to the teacher from a Charlie Brown cartoon.

By the time the delicious dinner was served, we dug in. A band playing Motown and classic soul favorites struck up, and some revelers, including ourselves, went to dance for a bit.

Time to dance!
Time to dance!

The gala goes on until 1 in the morning, but by 11, the heat had taken its toll and Jen and I were ready to retreat the distance back to Louisville. We bid our new friends farewell and safe travels, and beat the path back to Louisville, for a good night’s sleep.

Overall, the bourbon tasting and Gala is a fantastic event, and one I believe we will return to in the future. Next time, we would like to take in more of the entire Bourbon Festival. And hopefully it’s a few degrees cooler…

 

Dan’s Bourbon Review of the Week – Jefferson’s Ocean II: Aged At Sea

Dan’s Bourbon Review of the Week – Jefferson’s Ocean II: Aged At Sea

We are here in Kentucky, for the third time this year, for a bourbon event.  Today, we will visit the Kentucky Bourbon Festival in Bardstown for a bit, before returning to Louisville and gussying ourselves up for a the The Great Kentucky Bourbon Tasting & Gala tonight.  MY wife has a lovely dress picked out, and I will actually be in black tie – an event slightly less rare than Haley’s Comet.  I’ll be posting more about it tomorrow, but for today, it’s the review of a bourbon I wanted to try for a while – the Jefferson’s Ocean II: Aged At Sea.

Dan's Bourbon Review of the Week - Jefferson's Ocean: Aged at Sea
Dan’s Bourbon Review of the Week – Jefferson’s Ocean: Aged at Sea

Now, the story of the Jefferson’s Ocean is as interesting as anything.  A few years ago, Jefferson master blender Trey Zoeller put a limited number of aged barrels on a ship, and let it sail around the world.  Upon it’s return, they sampled and bottled it, and Jefferson’s Ocean was born.  The reviews were good – some pointed out that the temperature fluctuations and rolling motion of being on a ship gave it a truly unique taste, while some even pointed out an almost briny salt water taste deep within.

With that success, Zoeller dispatched 60+ more barrels of bourbon for a 6-month trip on a container ship.  The bourbon is reportedly 6-8 years old, and details of it’s source or blend aren’t known.  As the ship (and stored barrels) crossed the equator four times and stopped on four continents, the whiskey rolled in the barrels, increasing it’s contact time with the wood and slightly agitating not unlike a washing machine.  The process is pretty cool, but the question is – “Is the bourbon any good?”

My answer is absolutely yes.

The nose was one of the sweetest I’ve ever experienced in a bourbon.  Rich caramel, vanilla, brown sugar and a hint of what almost reminded me of banana creme wafted from the top.  Oak woodiness around the edges, but the smell of this liquor made me anticipate a rum like sweetness.

Two things struck me immediately at first sip: (1) this bourbon is far sweeter than I had expected, and so very smooth; and (2) the very thick mouth feel.  This bourbon has an almost creamy, sweet feel, and rolls almost like a liqueur across the tongue.  Again, caramel, vanilla, a touch of maple syrup blends with a touch of non-bitter spices and the oakiness of a well aged bourbon.  Others have noted a salt or brine touch on this drink – I did not get that at all.  I did get a good dose of dried or candied fruit, particularly citrus.

The finish was very smooth, and the longer it sat in the glass, the more sweet it smelled.  I don’t want to give the wrong impression – it’s not sweet like a rum or soda.  But it definitely is for the sweeter palate, and that’s perfectly fine with me.  I found it to be delicious.

Dan’s Rating: 9.0