Whatever your taste, pour a glass neat, on the rocks, a Manhattan, a Mint Julep or your drink of choice and raise a glass to the best whiskey in the world – bourbon!
“Virgil Caine is the name, and I served on the Danville train…” So begins one of the most legendary songs in the rock lexicon, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” The song tells the story of the surrender of the Confederacy from the viewpoint of a southerner. Written by The Band, released in 1969 and sung by Levon Helm, the American, southern drummer and singer in a band of Canadians who understood Americana as good as anyone. This week is the fourth anniversary of Helm’s passing, so let’s raise today’s glass to him. The fact it’s named Virgil Kaine makes it all the more appropriate.
Virgil Kaine (with a “K”) is also the name of a whiskey maker from South Carolina. Founded by two acclaimed chefs, the idea was to take the concepts of molecular gastronomy and apply it to whiskey making. While there are many examples of this today – Jefferson’s Chef Collaboration, for instance – the idea was more novel in 2011 when David Szlam and Ryan Meany decided to take a love of whiskey and culinary experimentation and start the company.
Their most recognizable product is the Bourbon and Ginger. The process is unique: they start with a young sourced bourbon, heavy in rye (60-36-4 corn/rye/barley) and then infuse locally grown yellow hawaiian ginger. Different sources mention the addition of other ingredients, including (potentially) cinnamon and vanilla. After maceration, the bourbon is distilled a second time for refinement before being bottled and sold. But how does it taste?
The nose is a cool customer. There is obviously ginger, but not nearly as strong as I expected. Similarly, there is light cinnamon, vanilla and a touch of baking spice. What there isn’t is oak or strong bourbon presence. The fact this is a young pour shows in the nose. Still, it is a pleasant softness, that slightly reminded me of a glass of Vernors.
The taste is more aggressive with its ginger – it comes in right from the get go. It has a freshness to it, along with a soft sweetness. There is vanilla, and the light pop on the back of the tongue of cinnamon. The vanilla is soft, and like in the nose, the rye bourbon is not harsh in the least. I can understand why they are choosing to use a young bourbon – the taste retains the corn sweetness, but doesn’t overpower the gentle ginger notes with oak and burn. It tastes like a cocktail, and a well mixed one at that. I am curious how a wheated variation may taste…
Jen pointed out the same thing. When we added soda water, it deadened the flavor too much. The best way to enjoy it was neat or with a few rocks. Straight, it drinks like a nice – albeit potent – cocktail. If you like your whiskey with a touch of ginger, you cannot go wrong with this one.
This product does not seem to be available in Michigan, or many northern or western states yet. I grabbed my bottles while in Atlanta and Asheville a few weeks back. Hopefully, distribution will expand further as well. It’s a fun addition to the liquor cabinet.
Dan’s Rating: 8.2
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.
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
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 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!
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.
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.
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
Well hello, and happy 2016! It has been a while, hasn’t it? I’d like to say my absence wasn’t deliberate, but that wouldn’t entirely be true. But the hiatus is over, I’m happy to say – I’m back from sabbatical – with a fresh mindset and some thirsty taste buds.
Before I dive back into reviewing whiskies, I would like to take a few minutes and speak to what it was that caused my blog vacation. See, as I’ve written before, my love of bourbon was born of simple tastes. I always liked whiskey, and as my tastes developed, I found bourbon whiskey to be my favorite. The more bourbon I tried, the more I found I enjoyed differentiating the tastes that made each bottle so different, and so special.
I eventually found myself immersed in Bourbon culture too – and at just the right time, because the last ten years have really been a ‘Golden Age,’ so to speak, for bourbon. The major distillers have created more and more unique, interesting products. Masters like Harlan Wheatley and Jim Rutledge were crafting new and experimental brands with worlds of difference between them. Bottlers bought up vast quantities of aging spirits, from storages as simple as MGP, and as complex as the various Stitzel-Weller and Bernheim reserves, creating new brands (some worth their weight in gold, like a JPS 17, and others simple as a 2-year-old, barely barrelled pour). And micro-distillers began popping up, with innovative styles, aging techniques and recipes. The Kings, Wigle’s, Grand Traverse’s, Detroit City’s…so many new things to try.
But with success like this comes growing pains. No sooner did I come around to bourbon than the Pappy Van Winkle craze took off, and then all of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. If you are reading this blog, you probably already know where it went from there.
I did my best to keep up, without resorting to asking for samples from the makers themselves. As the number of bourbon-buyers expanded, it got more and more difficult. Store owners would tell me stories of people calling them in the summer, to offer hundreds and even thousands of dollars over retail prices for the most limited bottles. The list of hard-to-find bottles expanded too. By spring of last year, I had accumulated a list of almost 100 bourbon or rye whiskies that we on my ‘near-impossible’ list. There were the usual suspects, but the list had grown to include names like Elmer T. Lee, Old Weller Antique, EH Taylor Barrel Proof and Rock Hill Farms. Where I had gotten used to putting hours into searching out PVW or an Orphan Barrel release, I was now putting equal energy into finding anything not named ‘Beam’ or ‘Makers.’
As time went on, I also moved from the occasional Craigslist purchase to joining a number of Facebook “exchanges” where members sell or trade hard to find bottles among themselves. Again, I watched as the posts went from people offering ‘an extra bottle’ to those who were buying the bottles strictly to “flip,” or make a quick (and often astronomical) profit. More and more pictures were of bottles on a passenger seat, with the purchase having been made moments earlier. Or even worse, still on the store shelf, while the flipper tries to determine enough of an interest to buy at all. The final step was when the groups were taken over by raffles, mostly dictated by buying numbers in that weeks PowerBall drawing. Suddenly, a $79 bottle that was already being ‘flipped’ for $200 was instead being raffled for over $300 in $10 increments.
Two things began to happen to me at the same time: I became obsessive about finding the hard to find bottles at all costs, at the same time as I started to loathe what popularity had done to the bourbon culture I had enjoyed. By last summer, I was having trouble bringing myself to open a bottle to try and review because I was worried I would be unable to replace it if I liked it. Sure, the err in logic is quite obvious, but that didn’t stop the anxiety from building up.
So I took a step back. I spent the fall and winter enjoying bottles I had opened, and not worrying about reviews, or where I would find the next rare bottle. I talked to some local shop keepers without caring if they were going to offer me a bottle of Pappy (they didn’t) or sell me EC 23 at cost (nope). I pulled down some of the fall releases, missed out on others, and even spent a relaxing day at the Makers Mark Distillery with my wife.
Most importantly, I came to my senses. As I spent the holidays visiting friends and relatives and enjoying bourbon, I missed writing about it all. So I’m back, and I will be writing about the whiskies I can find, rather than worrying about those I cannot. And I hope you stay with me, dear readers. I did peek at the analytics – plenty of people are still visiting. So let’s settle in, and pour a glass. I’ll see you soon.