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!

The incomparable Ernie Banks

I, along with so many others, was saddened this weekend to learn about the passing of Ernie Banks.  Banks, “Mr. Cub,” passed away on Friday at the age of 83.  Growing up, I loved the stories of Banks and his absolute love of the game. He was undoubtedly one of the greatest of all times, and as so many have said, he will be missed.

It’s a great day for baseball.
Let’s play two!

http://www.npr.org/v2/?i=381529306&m=381529307&t=audio

Ernie Banks - Mr. Cub
Ernie Banks – Mr. Cub

My write up of a trip to Wrigley Field here.

Ballpark of the Week: Wrigley Field (Home of the Chicago Cubs)

Ballpark of the Week: Wrigley Field (Home of the Chicago Cubs)

This year was the 100th anniversary of the opening of Wrigley Field, Chicago’s little baseball wonderland nestled in the middle of a true neighborhood and much heralded both for its authentic, old-time baseball feel, as well as the extraordinary amount of …um…losing… that has happened there.

In 2008, just one month after I had kicked off my “visit all of the ballparks” mission, my then-girlfriend-now-wife Jen surprised me with a trip to Chicago to see the Cubs play at Wrigley Field.  Not only had she gotten the location, she had also (1) purchased bleacher seats (I had said I wanted to experience the park in the bleachers with the ‘bums’), (2) against their rivals the St. Louis Cardinals, and (3) in a pennant winning year, no less!  This was a home run of a surprise, no pun intended.  So in September of 2008, we loaded up the car and drove to Chicago to take in some baseball.

For those who don’t know, Wrigley Stadium is in the middle of a real Chicago neighborhood (Wrigleyville), so one of the first things to know is that parking is extremely hard to find and at a premium.  Luckily, the ever prepared Jen was aware of this, and had not only gotten us a hotel a distance away, but plotted out the train lines so that we could get there bright and early.  Which we did – wise decision, as it turns out people line up EARLY for the bleachers and day games.  We joined a line full of reveling Cubs fans, and I don’t think it’s going to shock that many of them had begun the day’s drinking well before they got there.  It was a party atmosphere and, when they finally opened the gates and we came pouring in, it stayed that way.

Immediately, Wrigley Field transports you into a different time (Fenway does this even more so, a point for another post).  It feels incredibly small and comfy, and not overwhelming like many modern stadiums do.  Most importantly, a sense of history just seems to seem out of every crack and crevise.  The feeling that it’s bigger – bigger than you and me – and smaller at the same time.  It’s just a game, just a sporting event.  Grown men running around a grassy field.  But it has meant so much to so many.  I know I’m sounding like Terence Mann, James Earl Jones’ character from Field of Dreams, but as hokey as it seems, Wrigley makes you feel this way.  There really is something to be said for standing in the same place to get a beer and hot dog where generations of fans have done the same thing.

That said, one of the first things you’ll notice is a small group of vendors and concessionaires than you are used to.  It’s not that there aren’t plenty, but the concourse doesn’t seem like a shopping mall, like it does in most stadiums.  We made our way to our seats, and stopped for the right food and drink for the experience: Chicago style dogs and Old Style beer.  Wrigley has it’s share of specialty foods now, and micro-brews, but we were going for the fully authentic experience.  Dogs and suds in hand, we wandered down to our seats.

Now, plenty has been said about the Bleacher Bum’s rowdiness and sometime lac of manners, but we did not experience any of that this day.  The people around us were pleasant and cheerful, and pretty damn knowledgeable about their baseball!  Not many other stadiums in America have their outfields fill up an hour before game time, but this one does.  The temperature was just right – mid 70s – and there was a slight haze over the field.  We watched the prep and marveled on the famous outfield ivy and the magnificent old scoreboard.  While I admit, the Chicago dog was not my cup of tea, my wife still swears that it was the best dog she ever had.

The game itself was a bit of a sleeper.  The Cubs clinched their division the night before, so they put in their “B” lineup this day.  To be honest, I only knew a couple players on the Cubs roster that day (Kosuke Fukudome, Ryan Dempster), and the Cardinals roster wasn’t much better, although they had left in Albert Pujols.  But it didn’t matter.  For nine innings (that only took 2 1/2 hours), we soaked in the sun (it ended up reaching the mid-80s), enjoyed some of baseball’s best fans and ate a few too many Chicago Dogs.

Wrigley Field is a baseball Mecca, and a trip that any true fan of the game’s history should undertake if they can.  As we left, Cubs “W” flag for win being hoisted high, I got the amazing feeling one does when they know they just crossed an item off of their ‘bucket list,’ and it didn’t disappoint.  If you can, go soon, while they are still rebuilding.  This isn’t a cheap park to visit when they are winning, but it’s a little better now.  With

Dan’s scale (1-10): 9.1

Below are my stats.  I’ll post them for every park I’ve visited.  I include the big details, as well as who I visited with.  Lastly, I am a huge fan of throwback jerseys, and for every stadium I visit, I buy one of a player from that organization I admired as a kid, from watching them or reading about them.  So for every one, I will also list the throwbacks I’ve added to my collection for each.

Wrigley Field – September 21, 2008.  St. Louis Cardinals at Chicago Cubs

Date: Sunday, September 21, 2008, 1:24PM

Seat: BLCHR, GA, Seat 1462

Ticket Cost: N/A

Went with: Jen Weaver

Attendance: 40,551

Time of Game: 2:26

Linescore:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9   R H  E
Cardinals  1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0   1 7   1
Cubs          0 0 1 1 0 2 1 0 X  5 10 0

Winning Pitcher: Ryan Dempster (17-6)

Losing Pitcher: Braden Looper (12-14)

Save:

Jerseys: Ernie Banks (1968) and Ryne Sandberg (1984)

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Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel, Warehouse Liquor (Chicago, IL)

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel, Warehouse Liquor (Chicago, IL)

This week’s bourbon and circumstances are pretty special.  I am in Chicago to celebrate my first wedding anniversary to my wife Jen.  We’re here for a long weekend, and living it up – hotel in the loop, meals at great restaurants like Everest and the Signature Room. Perhaps most fantastic, we’ve gone to two days of Riot Fest, an outdoor music festival at Chicago’s Humboldt Park featuring some of my all-time favorite bands, including (most importantly), the first American concert by The Replacements since 1991.

On Friday, we went to US Cellular Field and saw a White Sox-Indians game, which I will detail further in the future.  Then, it was to Everest, where I knew we were going to have a wonderful meal when the drink list included my all-time favorite bourbon, Jefferson Reserve 18 Year.  Saturday, it was all day at Riot Fest, where we took in Mephiskaphales, X, The Selecter, Dinosaur Jr, Guided By Voices, Blondie, Rancid and The Violent Femmes.  Set after set, we had a fantastic time on a uncloudy, beautiful day.  Jen was particularly fond of DeVotchka, a great gypsy-latin-eastern-european band that put on a particularly wonderful performance.  It’s not everyday you get to see the hora danced at a punk rock festival!  We closed the night on a Ferris Wheel, watching the Femmes perform their first album in it’s entirety.  It was a wonderful day.

Day three was wet. Wet and rainy.  We had a delicious brunch at the Signature Room, then we headed to Warehouse Liquors, which Yelp had advised us was one of the best bourbon shops in Chicago.  Yelp told no lies – this store is truly fantastic.  Their selection of liquors – not just bourbons – was amazing, and with so many new sights and bottles to choose from, it was hard to pick one.  After chatting with the man at the counter for at least one half hour, we settled on a bottle of Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel, selected by and bottled for the store.

Back to Riot Fest, and the rain.  Bob Mould has been one of my favorite musicians for many many years – since his days in Husker Du and Sugar – so it was well worth getting a little wet to see a personal legend play. Best Coast was another new band I wanted to see and despite the cold and rain, they did not disappoint with their reverb drenched surfer songs.  Then, back to a rollicking set by Rocket From The Crypt.  We decided to stay at the Replacements stage to guarantee a good vantage point, so we watched the goth-punky AFI before the rain stopped, and The Replacements utterly rocked our world.  They played a set drawn from their whole repertoire, old to new. So many of my favorites were played I couldn’t have been more pleased, from “Bastards of Young” to “Achin To Be,” “Hold My Life,” and “Takin A Ride.”  And all of it with my beautiful wife by my side.  It couldn’t have been better.

Dan's Bourbon of the Week: Elmer T. Glee Single Barrel, Warehouse Liquor (Chicago, IL)
Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel, Warehouse Liquor (Chicago, IL)

Now, for the bourbon – the nose on this bourbon is full of rich, aromatic spices. Cinnamon, allspice, apples, it has it all.

The taste follows this with a spicy punch.  Tasty, and clean, this is a great bourbon. Pepper, oak char, that cinnamon, and a bit of vanilla helps with a long finish to boot.  This is the kind of bourbon my wife particularly likes.  We did notice one unique thing though, neither of us liked the changes adding ice chips made to it.  Instead of mellowing it a bit, it made the pepper pop more, and lost some of the sweeter notes.  Still, an absolute winner.

Dan scale (1-10): 8.3