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Windy City whiskey bash: 2010 Whisky Fest, Chicago edition

Lincoln Henderson / Suntory
Lincoln Henderson / Suntory

Parker's Heritage Collection "Golden Anniversary"
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On April 23rd 2010, a cool damp Friday evening, the doors leading into the Grand Ballroom of the Hyatt Regency Hotel swung open promptly at 5.30pm to admit a limited number of premium (VIP) ticket holders into a much ballyhooed and anticipated exclusive event. The doors closed just as promptly behind them. For one hour this select group of ticket holders were exposed to and encouraged to taste a variety of premium and rare whiskeys from the United States and around the world, many of which were not  available to the general admission ticket holders (Laphroaig 30yr? Oh yes!). The less crowded atmosphere gave VIP’s the opportunity to meet favorite Master Blenders and Distillers as well as distillery representatives and discuss product and process in a casual and relaxed setting. Exactly one hour later at 6.30pm, the official start time, the ballroom doors opened again to allow general admission ticket holders entry. A sea of whiskey aficionados’ spilled onto the floor and the room was soon filled. This was a sold out event. Malt Advocate Magazine had just kicked off its 10th annual Chicago Whisky Fest, a milestone event, with a resounding bang.

Despite the crowd it was still relatively easy to move around the room and visit the attending distillery booths. Included in the admission price for all ticket holders was a Glencairn nosing glass which made sampling and tasting an enjoyable experience. If that wasn’t enough there was food everywhere, good food, gourmet food, from carving boards to deserts, strategically placed in several locations throughout the room, and yes it was all you can eat. Also on the ticket a variety of lectures and seminars hosted by the industries biggest stars, distillers, and Master Blenders from around the world.

So who and what was there? From approximately 70 plus pouring booths, in Malt advocate’s words, were featured “more than 250 of the world’s finest, rarest, and most expensive, single malt and blended Scotch, Irish, Bourbon, Tennessee, Japanese, Welsh, Canadian, and other whiskeys from around the world. High end rums, tequila, beer and other spirits were represented as well.” A complete pouring list is here. Industry titans included Jeff Arnett of Jack Daniel’s, Fred Noe of Jim Beam, Preston and Julian Van Winkle of J.P. Van Winkle and sons, Jim Rutledge of Four Roses, Jimmy Russell of Wild Turkey, and Kevin Smith of Makers Mark. Guest speakers at some of the seminars included Craig Beam of Heaven Hill, Fritz Maytag of Anchor Distilling, and Lincoln Henderson of Suntory (Japanese). A host of Master Blenders were also on hand from Scotland though Richard Patterson of Whyte and Mackay was absent due to a volcanic eruption in Iceland that closed air space over much of Europe. Up and coming stars from the craft distiller segment included Jess Graber of Stranahans and David Perkins of High West. Notables to keep an eye on are David Pickerell of Whistlepig and the team at Templeton Rye (represented at Whiskey Fest by Michael Killmer) both making exceptional rye whiskeys though in very small quantities and limited distribution. These are just some of the great Whiskey folks that were present at this years Whiskey Fest.

This writer attended two of the seminars. The first, “A Shotgun Marriage - Blending Bourbon, Kentucky Style” presented by Craig Beam, Master Distiller at Heaven Hill. Though blending is typically a Scottish trait, Beam demonstrates that there is some good marrying of whiskey going on in Kentucky. Blending bourbons involves a combination of balancing age and youth, grain and wood, and high and low storage of barrels in the rick houses. The culmination of the seminar involved tasting various Heaven Hill offerings of which the stand outs were Evan Williams Single Barrel bourbon, a 10 year old, deep vanilla, brown sugar, caramel and oak notes and then the blended Parkers Heritage Collection Golden Anniversary Edition which combines 40,30,20,12 and 5 year old whiskeys. Very complex, a myriad of flavors this ended up being a favorite for the evening. The second seminar, “Learn From The Nose” presented by Richard Patterson, Master Blender for Whyte and Mackay was changed up a bit as Patterson was unable to get to Chicago. Whiskey Expert Dawn Lambert substituted for Patterson and gave advice on nosing and tasting whiskeys as well as background and history on Whyte and Mackay. We were introduced to The Dalmore, a single highland malt scotch whisky, and tasted our way through the core expressions which included The 12, Gran Reserva, The 15, The 18, and King Alexander III. Various notes such as fruits, like oranges, berries, pear and citrus. Coffee, almonds, chocolate and fruit cake, and finishes that ran from light to robust.

Back out on the floor the tasting continued. It is absolutely impossible to taste all 250 whiskeys so choices had to be made. While American whiskeys are the usual focus of this column it was time to step out of the box a bit and sample offerings from across the pond. Seeking out the unusual turned up some pleasant surprises. From Scotland, Compass Box Whisky Company, artisan scotch whisky makers since 2000 they procure there distillates from the best distilleries in Scotland and create masterful products. They brought with them to Chicago five of their creations. Asyla, Oak Cross, The Peat Monster, The Spice Tree, and Hedonism, a 100% grain whisky. The stand out was The Peat Monster, a blend of Islay single malts, a big whisky, full flavored with huge smokiness and the earthiness of the peat commingling with the malt, and fruitiness in the finish. This will definitely be sought for purchase. From Japan, the Suntory Company, makers of Yamazaki single malt whisky brought to Chicago their 12 and 18 year single malts. The casual whiskey drinker may be quite unfamiliar with Japanese whisky though they are well established now in America and can be found almost anywhere. Fear not, if you enjoy scotch you will enjoy Yamazaki single malt whiskies. Made to exacting standards (as is everything Japanese) and following Scottish tradition and methods for whisky making, Yamazaki is produced using six separate pot stills and is aged in 3 different types of barrels. The stand out was the 18 year old. In a blind tasting you would consider this to be a scotch. Very fruity in the beginning, apples, leading into spice and pepper and then some caramel notes. Leather and tobacco appear at the finish. A great whisky and another favorite of the evening.

Returning now to American soil but veering slightly away from Kentucky and Tennessee a good number of the pouring booths were occupied by a new segment of the whiskey market known as the Craft Distillers. Many are small operations supplying only local markets but some like High West from Park City, Utah, Stranahans from Denver, Colorado, and Anchor Distilling from San Francisco, California are finding national audiences for there products. Others with names like Roughstock, Cedar Ridge, Grand Traverse, and Koval are on the cusp of breaking out. Some are producing excellent whiskeys while others seem edgy and young. Two standouts in The Craft Distiller section at Whiskey Fest are Rye whiskey makers. Whistlepig from Shoreham, Vermont, and Templeton Rye from Templeton, Iowa. Whistlepig is new. This years Whiskey Fest was their unveiling according to front man and Master Distiller David Pickerell. With only 1000 cases of there first bottling of Straight Rye Whiskey, Pickerell is still weighing his options for distribution. The Rye is good. It’s young but tastes big and older. Thick and oily, a preference for this writer, lots of spice flavors, typical of rye grass, charred oak provides the smoke and caramel notes, dry finish though not overly so. A good start for a first offering. Templeton Rye has been around longer and may actually have a legitimate history more reminiscent of Kentucky Distillers. Master Distiller Meryl KerkHoff even looks the part. Now distilled in Indiana, the claim is this Rye is a family recipe which was originally made since prohibition times, at one time illegally but now legal, staying true to the original recipe which was always known as “the good stuff”. It is definitely “good stuff”. Matching many of the tasting notes above, it comes across as a little more mature and even luxurious compared to the Whistlepig Rye. This Rye will stand up against  the big name distillers. Currently only available in Iowa and Illinois. We can only hope that Templeton Rye will see wider distribution in the near future.

All said, a very enjoyable evening of whiskey tasting. There were no hitches, everything started when it was supposed to start and everything finished when it was supposed to finish. The food was good, the whiskey was better, and the company was great. If you would like to attend but missed this event, Malt Advocate Magazine will host two more Whisky Fests in 2010. San Francisco on October 8th, and New York on November 9th. Information and tickets here. Nashville area whiskey and bourbon enthusiasts don’t forget to mark your events calendar for the Beer, Bourbon & BBQ Festival happening on November 6th, 2010. Tickets and information here. If you attended this years Chicago Whisky Fest please let us know what you thought by leaving a comment. Thanks to Malt Advocate’s John Hansell, Amy Westlake, Lew Bryson, and Joan McGinley for the access and a great evening.

Comments

  • Mary Myers 4 years ago

    This sounds fantastic. My husband is putting the dates on his calendar. Chris Dunne, it is a joy to read your articles. Thank you

  • Jezza "HR" Holden 3 years ago

    Whats happened to Mr Dunne's inciteful bourbon and whisky articles?

    I too was raised in Oz and home grown bourbon and whiskies are few and far between. Therefore I look to guys like Chris Dunne to provide the inside goss on whats good in that area.

    Get this guy back. We want him and his writing again.

    Thanks Jezza.
    31 May 2011.