Autumn isn't only a time for the changing of leaves and for breaking out the cool-weather clothes. It's also when spirits-loving palates shift from lighter flavors of rum-based or gin-based concoctions, to the deeper, richer, more brooding flavors of dark spirits such as aged rum, brandy and, especially, whiskey.
My tastes tend to run in this pattern, and fortunately for me, last weekend was Whiskyfest San Francisco, an event created by Malt Advocate magazine, one of the top events in the whiskey-loving world.
This was only the second year for the event to take place in San Francisco (Whiskyfest New York takes place November 11; those in the Midwest have to wait until April 1 for Whiskyfest Chicago), and having brought the Wall Street Journal aboard as a sponsor this year, the event promised to be bigger and better than last year's.
I wasn't disappointed. More than 200 whiskeys were poured during the event, including some of the rarest and oldest specimens around. Being particularly fond of American whiskeys, I was eager to try a few bottlings I'd never had before, some of which were debuted at Whiskyfest. Here were a few of the highlights for me:
Parker's Heritage Collection 2nd edition: This is only the second year for this whiskey to come out, and this edition is an amazing 27-years old. Bottled from barrels stored on the lower floors of the warehouse, this wheated bourbon is amazingly mellow and smooth, and not overly oaked as you might expect from the age. To make the tasting experience complete, my sample was poured by Parker Beam himself, the longtime Master Distiller at Heaven Hill.
High West Rendezvous Rye: A relative newcomer on the whiskey stage, High West is a Utah-based operation that purchases barrels of aged rye whiskey from distillers back East, and blends them for a custom style. High West uses barrels of six year-old rye with a very high proportion of rye to other grains, and mixes that with a smaller amount of a 16 year-old rye with a similarly high rye content. This is a very richly flavored whiskey, with rye's characteristic spiciness but without the astringent mustiness that can be found in whiskeys with a similarly high proportion of rye in the mashbill. And from Utah--who knew?
Four Roses Single Barrel Bourbon: For years Four Roses was a bourbon that could be found primarily overseas. Built for the international market, it was rare to come across a bottle close to home. Now, Four Roses is starting to aggressively market their bourbons in the U.S., and it's high time. The single barrel bourbon is 8 years old, with a high rye content which gives the bourbon an impressive spicy kick. Bottled at 100 proof, this is a brisk and vivacious bourbon, with plenty of spark in its flavor.
Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey: Okay, I've actually tried this one before, and to be completely honest I wasn't that taken with it at last year's Whiskyfest. Having tried it a few more times over the past year, I decided to give it the full tasting treatment again, and y'know, this stuff has grown on me.
This is a truly independent whiskey, produced in the style of a single-malt using only barley in the mash, but with distillation methods more in line with classic American bourbons and ryes. The flavor evokes that hybrid nature - it has the woody austerity of a single malt, but is brighter around the edges like other American whiskeys; needless to say it also lacks the smokiness found in single-malt scotch, but that only leaves more room for the full flavor of the malt to express itself. I came away from Whiskyfest a Stranahan's convert.
Willett 25-year-old Straight Rye Whiskey: For years Willett has been one of the best-kept (or worst-kept, depending on your perspective) secrets in American whiskey. Until recently, most Willett bottlings were available almost exclusively in California; now, they're starting to creep out into the world, and some styles can be found at larger online retailers. This 25-year-old monster is cask strength, a whopping 136 proof, but as with all the Willett whiskeys I've tried, it's almost dangerously smooth and gentle on the palate--deeply but not exaggeratedly oaked, with a flavor full of brown sugar and apples, but with rye's characteristic spicy dryness. This is what I'll be looking for in my stocking on Christmas morning.
There were plenty of other whiskeys on my tasting list, including a fair number of scotches, but for me these were some of the high points of the annual whiskey harvest. There are plenty of styles and special editions coming onto the market right now, from all the major whiskey-producing regions. If you're a whiskey drinker, what bottlings are you most looking forward to this year?
About the author: Paul Clarke blogs about cocktails at The Cocktail Chronicles and writes regularly on spirits and cocktails for Imbibe magazine. He lives in Seattle, where he works as a writer and magazine editor.