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
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