Enter the glowing over-amped heart of Times Square; slice and dice your way through the tourist throngs; and make your way to the Marriott Marquis hotel. Take the great glass elevators to the sixth floor, and join the grain-and-wood enthusiasts gathered for WhiskyFest, the annual spirits show put on by Whisky Advocate magazine.
I arrived in the Broadway Ballroom and meandered through the sixth floor lobby to find the line into the ballroom. The PR materials promised a buffet, and I was dismayed to see that it consisted some crudité, cheese, and bread. Of course, what I didn't realize was that the veggie buffet outside was only a preview of what I'd find in the ballroom. You see, I've come to look for certain things when I go to booze events. There's the booze, of course, but there's also water and there's food. I've made the mistake of going to tastings and cocktail competitions and low-balling the amount of food and water I need to consume. I stumble home to my family at the end of those nights, feeling like a total jerk, and I regret it the next day.
Since I knew I'd be tasting everything I could touch, I wanted to make sure I was hydrated and fed. Luckily, WhiskyFest takes care of you on that front. Very well, in fact, but more on that later. First, the whisky.
The line started moving into the ballroom a couple of minutes before the 5:30 VIP tasting hour. One mark of a well-organized event is when security lets you in the door right on time, or in this case a little early. And once security opened the doors, they didn't open just one, but several, avoiding a bottleneck at the entryways. The first hour featured several special tastings, products that were available to sip only from 5:30 to 6:30, and I wanted to make sure to get some of that action.
My first stop was the Four Roses booth, where master distiller Jim Rutledge was pouring the 2013 release of their Limited Edition Small Batch. I look forward to this release every year. I guess I'm a poor whiskey geek: I can't always afford to buy Pappy AND the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (more on which in a moment) AND the Four Roses limiteds AND Old Fitzgerald Birthday Bourbon AND and and and and etc. But I've put all or most of my money on the Four Roses for a few years, and I'm never disappointed.
Andrew Strenio reviewed this release for us about a month ago, and he was quite impressed. I'll let his tasting notes speak for the both of us: "Bottled at 110 proof, it's simply a masterpiece. Vanilla and oak scents come through strong, with a hint of smoke and cherry. It offers a perfectly balanced body, managing to be creamy and rich yet dry and not syrupy. There's dried apricot, buttery maple, and a honeyed grain sweetness, culminating in a dry tobacco and sweet spice finish that lingers for minutes."
Another highlight was hitting the Bruichladdich table and tasting through several of their bottlings. One thing that impresses me about Laddie is their dedication to producing several different styles of Scotch. Like a peated? You'll want the Port Charlotte or the Octomore, to be sure. Want something that tastes of port and plums and Christmas spices? The Black Art is the way to go. Need something unpeated that tastes of barley malt and a hint of the sea? Try the Laddie Ten.
Speaking of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (BTAC) releases, I ran into a friend who told me, "Quick! Get over to the Buffalo Trace table and try the Weller!" I tend to listen to women who know whiskey, so I went immediately. I've recently become a huge fan of the 12-year-old Weller, and the William Larue Weller was very well reviewed last year, so I was eager to try the 2013. It's an impressive bourbon, but at 136.2 proof (68/1% ABV), it probably needed a little water to open it up. While I was at the table, I also tasted the 18-year-old Sazerac and the George T. Stagg. If I can afford a BTAC bottle in any given year, I normally go for the Stagg. This year won't be an exception. The Sazerac and the Stagg are both amazing whiskeys, but the Stagg won out by a nose.
Of the other special pours I tried, three stood out. The first was the Midleton Barry Crockett Legacy, named for Midleton's newly retired master distiller. Crockett oversaw Jameson, Midleton, and Red Breast Irish whiskeys, and this Legacy release is a well-curated blend of the best barrels he could find in his stock. The Legacy is complex, mildly malty, and subtly fruity, with the richness you expect from an Irish whiskey, but none of the cloying sweetness you find in some Irish drams.
Compass Box was pouring the 10th anniversary edition of its Peat Monster, and if you like a smoky Scotch, it's fabulous. The 10th differs from the regular Monster in that it's older; the whiskies in the blend have more age on them. The blend of whiskies in this release is proprietary, but apparently John Glaser spilled the beans to David Driscoll of California's K&L Wines, who reports that it's a blend of various Laphroaig whiskies, some peated Ardmore, Caol Ila, Ledaig, and Clynelish. I'm hoping Santa remembers it for my stocking this year.
I also quite liked a couple of Canadian whiskies. I'll admit, Canadians are a bit of a blind spot for me; it's hard to find much at most liquor stores that isn't dreck, and I can't usually be bothered to sift through the dreck when it's easy to find stellar bourbons, Irish releases, and a raft of excellent Scotch. Apparently, the Canadians keep the best for themselves, though, because I tried a couple of releases sold only in the maple country. Danfield's offers a couple of excellent bottlings: the Danfield's Limited Edition 21 Year and the Danfield's Private Reserve 10 Year. I enjoyed them very much. They tasted of rye and butterscotch with a hint of citrus and wood. The 10 year is more accessible for the average drinker, probably, a little sweeter and fruitier, but both were excellent sips, and if I were closer to the border, I'd probably slip across sometimes and grab a bottle or two.
One thing that fascinated me: at one point in the evening, I had a ten-minute stretch in which I had tasted a Scotch, an Irish, a bourbon, and a rye, with only some sips of water in between. As my palate adjusted from each style to the next, I was impressed with how different they all truly are, and with the diversity of expression within the whisk(e)y industry.
With that in mind, though, I was disappointed by how Western-centric the show was. I went out of my way to taste bottlings from Taiwan and Japan, but Asian whiskies were sadly underrepresented. I don't recall even seeing anything from India, for example, although I might have just missed the table.
A Few Tips, Should You Attend
Go with a strategy. I had made plans to try several of the VIP-only tastings. I was able to hit the ones I was most interested in, but I missed out on a few. So plan to seek out the stuff that interests you most. That might be a favorite Scotch with a new expression, or it may be a producer whose stuff you've never tried before. Sip these, and swallow them if you want, but keep in mind there's always a spit bucket available. It makes sense to prioritize favorites and new bottlings you haven't tried before, and only switch to a table-to-table sampling strategy after that. After your first selective round, you're likely to be tired and mildly buzzed, and your palate isn't quite in top-notch condition.
Eat and drink (water). There are buffet tables throughout the ballroom, laden with meats and starchy foods. Short ribs, dumplings, seafood paella, potato croquettes, deep-fried mac 'n' cheese. It's not a great buffet for vegetarians or (especially) vegans, but if you're an omnivore, take advantage; the food is tasty and plentiful. You'll be drinking a lot, and you need the base of food to soak it up. There are water coolers around the tasting room, and it's irresponsible not to stay hydrated, too.
Did I Miss Out?
If any of you attended WhiskyFest, what whiskies did you enjoy the most?
Did You Miss Out?
Couldn't make it this year? Next year's WhiskyFest events will be held in Chicago on Friday, April 25, 2014; in San Francisco on Friday, October 3, 2014; and in New York on Friday and Saturday, October 10 and 11, 2014. Tickets go on sale in November.