"It's a whiskey tasting, not a water tasting": WhiskyFest 2013

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The official WhiskyFest tasting glass
Just minutes into last Friday's WhiskyFest I was waiting in line next to a man who'd just poured some water in his tasting glass to rinse it out and was looking for a place to dump it. I suggested that he just drink the water, and he declined in no uncertain terms, pointing out that "It's a whiskey tasting, not a water tasting."

It was only a few minutes later that I caught a whiff of wood smoke wafting off of someone walking by, which normally would make me think that the person had been near a campfire recently. Here, it seemed more likely that he'd just tasted an extremely peaty whiskey* and exhaled while walking by. (The malt for many Scotch whiskeys is dried over burning peat, which imparts a strong smoky flavor and aroma.)

*It's spelled "whisky" in the UK; "whiskey" in the U.S.—hence the various spellings here.

Malt Advocate magazine's annual WhiskyFest, which is also held in New York and San Francisco, is now in its 14th year in Chicago. It's gotten increasingly popular over the years, and this time around VIP tickets, at $200 apiece, sold out in just a few hours; regular-admission tickets, $155, lasted less than a week (those are early-bird specials; if tickets had lasted longer they would have increased in price by about $25).

I'm not exactly a whiskey expert. I like it, I've tasted quite a few of them, and I'm always trying to learn more (especially since "learning" is usually code for "tasting"). But my vocabulary for describing them is more likely to include words like "smoky," "sweet," or "good" than "rubber," "sea spray," "white chocolate," or "lilac"—all of which I've seen in actual reviews. I'm unlikely to describe anything as tasting like "sherbet spice," as the press release for the Balvenie 17-year DoubleWood does. I don't even know what sherbet spice is. My tasting notes for that one list vanilla and oak, which also turn up in the official description (along with dried fruits, toasted almonds and cinnamon, and "a richness of creamy toffee notes"). I didn't write "really good," but that would have been accurate too.

In fact, pretty much everything I tried at WhiskyFest was really good—and I didn't even begin to make a dent in the offerings, which included more than 300 whiskeys, plus a few other spirits and a bit of beer. I started out at the Old Rip Van Winkle table because I'd never tried any of the Pappy Van Winkle whiskeys and always wanted to. The 15-year had a sharp alcoholic burn (turns out it's 107 proof, so no wonder) that mellowed when I added a little water to the glass; the 20- and 23-year were much milder and sweeter, with pronounced caramel and vanilla flavors. They were similar to each other but the 23-year seemed more complex.

In the Pappy Van Winkle line I made friends with a few guys who recommended that I try the Balvenie 17-year DoubleWood, which turned out to be one of my favorites of the night. I wandered around with them for a while, tasting the Nikka Yoichi 15-year single malt, a lightly peaty, very smooth Japanese whiskey, and the Lagavulin Distillers' Edition, another excellent one. I wrote "mossy, peaty" for the Lagavulin but I suspect I stole that from one of the guys, because I don't think I've ever described anything except rocks and logs as mossy.

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I ended up in the Craft Distillers corner, where there were several local (Koval, Few) and sort-of-local (Journeyman, Mississippi River, Templeton Rye, New Holland, Grand Traverse) distilleries. I tried Journeyman's Kissing Cousins, which is finished in cabernet sauvignon barrels from a nearby winery and tastes slightly oaky and sweet, with flavors of blackberries and other dark fruits. This was also the point where I mostly stopped taking notes, which sort of didn't matter because my notes hadn't been particularly good anyway.

I decided instead to go to one of the seminars: "Grain to Glass: Craft Distilling in the Heartland," which featured Ryan Burchett of Mississippi River Distilling Company in LeClaire, Iowa; Paul Hletko of Few Spirits in Evanston; Robert Birnecker of Koval Distillery in Ravenswood; and Bill Welter of Journeyman Distillery in Three Oaks, Michigan. Each distiller talked a little about his business and introduced the audience to one of his whiskeys. Hletko began with Few's rye whiskey, which he said was made with corn to sweeten it up and a yeast that imparted notes of grape, plum, and pear. It tasted mostly of rye, which I guess is a good thing. Burchett had Mississippi's Cody Road bourbon, made mostly from local corn with a little wheat and unmalted barley thrown in; it's very fruity—grapey, almost—with a light sweetness.

Journeyman's Silver Cross four-grain whiskey, Welter said, was made with local rye, wheat, corn, and barley. Sweet and a little spicy, it tasted like vanilla caramel, almost creamy. Birnecker said that Koval's millet whiskey is their best-seller in New York; it's not a grain most people associate with whiskey but has a natural sweetness and adds almost tropical notes. It was sort of similar to the Silver Cross—I got the same sweet vanilla and caramel—but softer, a bit less spicy.

After the seminar I stopped by the buffet to try to soak up some of the alcohol, and realized I'd had about enough whiskey for one evening. I tried a complex, easily sippable barrel-aged gin from Journeyman, and then talked to a couple guys who pointed out that there was still some Tomatin 30-year single malt left. I headed over there, got the last pour of it, and then walked out the door, making the last few drops of the spicy, complex whiskey last all the way to the train.

Julia Thiel writes about booze every Wednesday.

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