For me, there is no better way to usher in the holiday season than the annual WhiskyFest tasting at the start of November. It’s better than that first bite of good pumpkin pie, wearing a favorite sweater, or even that extra hour of sleep when Daylight Saving Time ends. Organized by Whisky Advocate (formerly Malt Advocate) publisher John Hansell, it’s a representation of nearly every whisk(e)y made in all corners of the Earth - Scotch, Bourbon, rye, white dog, old dog, blended, single barrel, small batch, big batch, independent and old guard - all in one place.
I still feel a giddy thrill the moment the doors are finally propped open at the start of VIP hour. “Pure Imagination” from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory seems to immediately start playing in my internal soundtrack, except instead of chocolate rivers and lollipop trees, what awaits is a high-ceilinged ballroom filled with an array of limited editions, older vintages and top marks I could never afford to taste otherwise. This being my fifth WhiskyFest, where pacing (and hydration) is the key to survival, I have learned to simply nod at Johnnie Walker Blue, bat my lashes at Highland Park 25 Year, bow respectfully to Yamazki 1984 and head straight for the new and rare.
One of the first stops was Bruichladdich, the mad scientist of Scotch. They’re known for some far out experiments with near-caustic peat levels and upscale wood finishes. Recently, they’ve reined it in with some of more focused expressions. This year, it’s all about Black Art 2, conceived by master distiller Jim McEwan in the “stygian darkness of Warehouse No. 12, a dark sensuous spirit...with the balance of a ballerina.” Indeed, this 21-year-old malt is a dark beauty, at once salty, sweet and earthy, with a hint of smoky spice. Up until this point, I thought a handful of M&M’s, pretzels and popcorn with smoked salt was the way to go when I wanted all those flavors together. I am forever ruined! Also at the Bruichladdich table is their Botanist Islay gin, which is an excellent dry and citrusy spirit with a chai spice finish. It’s a sippable gin any whisky lover could and should make peace with, but also has great cocktail potential.
One of the newer entries is Koval, an independent organic distillery in Chicago, which offers a selection of white and aged whiskies as well as eaux de vie and vodka. What sets them apart from other boutique operations are some of the grains they focus on - oat, spelt, wheat and millet. There is a distinct house flavor that unites these whiskies, usually tropical notes of bananas and coconut. I’m partial to their oat releases, the Lion’s Pride Dark Oat and the American Oat white whisky. Each has more of a cereal flavor cutting through, elbowing out those tropical notes and allowing for deeper layers to develop.
Keeping with the renegade grain whiskies was the Pacific Northwest’s Dry Fly Washington 100% Wheat Whiskey. The grains used for production are locally sourced and organic. It has a pleasant light flavor, with a sweet, nearly nutty finish. Most impressive, this is a new whiskey that doesn’t taste too hot and impatient as many do, but instead is more assertive and refined. Would love to try this in a cocktail with Italian Amaro, or in something with muddled berries.
I look forward each year to Heaven Hill’s annual Parker’s Heritage, which are limited editions honoring Master Distiller Parker Beam. This year, they chose a more subdued 10-Year-Old American Whiskey aged in former Frapin Cognac casks. As I was nosing this, a fan behind me remarked at how some younger whiskies are showing better than casks aged for two or more decades. I couldn’t agree more. Even at 10 years, Parker’s Heritage shows maturity and distinction.
One of the big surprises of the night was Samaroli, an independent Scotch bottler and rum distiller out of Italy. The labeling is gorgeous, with Art Deco details and retro lettering. They offer well-aged releases of casks purchased from the likes of Tomintoul, Linkwood, Glenburgie (which is rarely seen), Caol Ila, Bunnahabhain and others, as well as their own Evolution blend. These are impressive. The chosen barrel finishes set the whiskies off superbly. At cask strength, they don’t feel too hot or oaky. This is clearly a company that has great respect for what they’re working with, honoring heritage and tradition while contributing their own voice.
One of my drams of the night was Springbank 14-Year-Old Manzanilla Cask. Springbank is a pretty Scotch, delicately floral (chamomile), with light fruity notes and bitter marmalade as punctuation. The dry sherry finish here enhances these flavors, adding a little saltiness. I also tasted Marcona almonds, which is never a bad thing.
Another standout is Benriach 15-Year-Old Dark Rum Finish. Rum casks are tricky, like wearing perfume. Too much can easily overpower Scotch, leaving just sticky, dark molasses with overcompensated smoke. This one is well poised between both worlds, adding a gingersnap and fig background to the whisky, which remains firmly upfront with a sweet, subtle, almost meaty smokiness.
Sensing a theme? As the night progressed and my palate showed signs of fatigue, I realized I was continually enjoying the whiskies the most when I could still taste them for what they were. Too many big brand expressions are hiding behind fancy wood finishes or are looking for something new to wear even though they’re at their best au naturel. Other young whiskies are too cavalier when they could use a little more discipline and maturity before a public appearance. But overall, WhiskyFest 2011 lived up to expectations, with some stellar newcomers alongside grand old drams still full of vigor. Welcome, November!