One less place to find rare bourbons…for now

For those in the know, Facebook has become one of the best places to buy, sell and trade rare bottles of bourbon and other whiskeys around.  More reliable than Craigslist (thanks to well-manicured member lists), and without geographical limitations, a number of Facebook groups give users the change to deal in all manners of hard to find whiskey, from Van Winkles to BTAC, the newest Orphan Barrels to dusty bottles from prohibition.  As more and more retailers begin marking products up to match prices of the secondary markets, they provided both relief (in offering other means to find your holy grail) and frustration (an increasing number of ‘flippers,’ sometimes posting pictures while still in the store and soliciting higher prices).

These are no more.

As whiskey writer Fred Minnick details here, Facebook shut down many of the sites last night (including at least three of which I was a member of).  So far, the reason has not come forward, but that doesn’t stop the interwebs from speculating.  Whether it was because of direct pressure from companies, or even governments (remember, selling liquor without a license is illegal in many states), the exchanges have been driven further underground.  The bottom line is Facebook is still a free service, and they don’t have to give a reason if they don’t want to.

Read Minnick’s post for more details.  My money says that within days, they will be back up – albeit a little leaner – and it will be business as usual.

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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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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