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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Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Corner Creek Reserve Bourbon Whiskey

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Corner Creek Reserve Bourbon Whiskey

It is beginning to really feel like autumn.  The front yard is covered in leaves, the furnace has been turned on for the year, and Daylight Savings Time is over, shortening our days.  This weekend certainly felt like fall – winds blowing, football on TV and a fire in the fireplace.

I am not a bourbon enthusiast that dwells on packaging – sure, a nice looking bottle is always welcome, but it certainly isn’t what I use to define what I’ll be drinking. That said, this week’s selection Corner Creek is unique because it looks like a plain and simple wine bottle.  Not a looker, necessarily, but not a bad bourbon either.

Dan's Bourbon of the Week: Corner Creek Reserve Bourbon Whiskey
Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Corner Creek Reserve Bourbon Whiskey

Corner Creek comes to us from… well, no-one on the internet seems to be sure.  Many signs point to it being a Willett product, but I haven’t seen that confirmed.  Where-ever it is from, it is a blended bourbon, and one whose unremarkable bottle belies a unique, if not amazing, quality drink.

My take: The nose is earthy. It smells of grain, floral, and a slight hint of sweetness, like vanilla.  Upon a little air, the different grains are more obvious – rye and wheat especially.  Finally, the oak is definitely present as well.

The taste has one unique characteristic that sets it apart from most bourbons I’ve tried: it was very dry.  Almost like a red wine dry.  The taste was soft, and had notes of vanilla, oak, with a touch of nut and leather.  It wasn’t unpleasant, but each sip left me wanting a little more flavor.  The finish was equally smooth, and Jen and I agreed this was a pretty good, if unspectacular, bourbon.

Then, we added the ice chip.  Ice opens some bourbons up and closes others – this falls into the former category.  While the taste stayed dry, we could get a touch more of the citrus peel and caramel in the  flavor.

This is not the bourbon I would drink for something unique, but I would recommend it to a first-time bourbon drinker, or someone for whom harsher bourbons left a bad impression.  And the price point ($25 in Michigan) was reasonable.

Dan scale (1-10): 7.4

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Smugglers’ Notch Straight Bourbon Whiskey

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Smugglers’ Notch Straight Bourbon Whiskey

A few months back, my wife and my good friend Ben Johnson came in to visit from Vermont.  His company would have been gift enough, but he did us one better: he brought with him a Vermont bourbon named Smuggler’s Notch.  Jen and I sampled it then, but now that the blog is up and running, we went back and tried it again, to see if our initial feelings were the same.  They were – it is great!

Dan's Bourbon of the Week: Smugglers' Notch Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Smugglers’ Notch Straight Bourbon Whiskey

Smugglers Notch looks a little lighter than most in color, and to be honest, it is a little lighter.  But something about it is so fresh and clean tasting, it is truly unique.

The nose is sweet and has notes of vanilla, corn, grains and nuts.  The taste, Smooth (with a capital “S”), with a bit of spice but more notably, vanilla, chocolate, even a tiny bit of mint.  The finish is relatively short, but with something this smooth, I say just pour another.

Smugglers Notch moves into my top 5.  Delicious.

Dan scale (1-10): 8.8

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Elijah Craig 12 Year Small Batch

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Elijah Craig 12 Year Small Batch

Well, a new NFL football season is upon us, and I’m an unrepentant Detroit Lion’s fan, so who knows what this year holds in store.  The team hasn’t looked great in preseason, but adding Reggie Bush in the offseason can’t help but make us better, and we still have Stafford, Suh and Megatron, so I suppose hope springs eternal!

For this week’s bourbon, I tapped a local resource.  A few years back, when I decided to take my bourbon fandom up a notch, my family jumped in to help me try to find some good selections.  In her endless calling around, my mother stumbled upon a store in Birmingham, MI called Kakos Market.  The people at Kakos were wonderful, talking with her for long periods of time and making recommendations for other bourbons that might fit her son’s flavor profile. They pointed her toward some absolute winners, which I will reference at another time.

I dropped into Kakos myself last week, looking for a few specialty bottles, and while in the store, they showed their own small batch barrel of Elijah Craig 12 year. I had a taste in the store, and took a bottle home for myself, to try today.

Dan's Bourbon of the Week: Elijah Craig 12 Year Small Batch
Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Elijah Craig 12 Year Small Batch

Every once in a while it happens where I can taste a good bourbon, know it’s a good bourbon, but just not feel it myself.  This is exactly what happened here.

My take: This is a spicy bourbon.  The nose was full of autumnal scents – apple, corn, nutmeg – a lot of fruit and nuts. And wood, lets of wood.

The taste carried this over.  The flavor popped with spicy oak, corn and fruit.  It fills the mouth, and has a pleasant taste, but as you may know by now, I like sweeter bourbons, and this one has some burn.  It’s dry, and has a long, strong finish.

I know it’s a quality bourbon, but (and maybe it was just my mood that day) it was too harsh for me.

Dan scale (1-10): 7.0

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Woodford Reserve Double Oaked

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Woodford Reserve Double Oaked

So as I mentioned last week, one of the highlights of this summer has been my visit to some of Kentucky’s finest bourbon distilleries: Woodford Reserve and Buffalo Trace.  I cannot say enough about the beauty and enjoyment we experienced at Woodford Reserve – from the copper kettles to the shaded storehouses, it was a great time.

One of the extra bonuses we got by serendipity was the opportunity to meet Woodford Reserve Master Distiller Chris Morris.  We chatted with him for a few minutes in the gift shop about Woodford’s history, and the unique Master’s selections Woodford puts out yearly (more on that in the future).   The Woodford Reserve Distillery gift shop also engraves bottles on site so, after purchasing some gifts for good friends, my wife and I chose a bottle of the Woodford Reserve Double Oaked for ourselves and had it engraved to remember the trip.  Mr. Morris signed it as well!

Woodford Reserve Double Oaked
Woodford Reserve Double Oaked, engraved, and signed by Master Distiller Chris Morris

What makes the Double Oaked unique is the finishing process.  At it’s heart, it’s Woodford Reserve, distilled in copper kettles and with the same sour mash recipe.  But after it spends its time in the charred oak barrel, it is transferred to a second, more toasted but less charred barrel, for 9 months.  This allows for a whole new set of flavors to come out, and it shows in both the sweetness of the nose and first taste, as well as the bitterness on the finish.

My take: From a nose perspective, this is a winner for me right from the get go.  The sweet sticky smells of toffee, molasses and butterscotch are evident, as well as wiffs of…vanilla.

The first taste belies that sweetness, as I tasted cinnamon, allspice and clove – a spicier blend than I anticipated.  Then, the warm bitterness of oak took over, through the finish. Other reviewers noted the sweetness came back in the finish, but I didn’t experience that.

My flavor profile is sweet, where as my wife Jen veers toward the spicy,  and that was exactly how this played out. I loved the nose, but was not crazy about the woodiness and spice of the sip, where as Jen loved all the above.  A very unique try, and with some rich characteristics, but not cracking my top five.

Dan scale (1-10): 8.3