WhiskyFest (2011) Chicago Recap

What’s not to like about 250+ (probably close to 300 really) pours of whiskey in one place on one evening? Add to that a gourmet “spread” of food in one of the great cities in America, and you have the recipe for a good time.

The above was a reality for me last Friday (April 15) at WhiskyFest (WF) at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Chicago. John Hansell, Publisher and Editor of Malt Advocate, and his devoted team did a mighty fine job of hosting this years event. It’s not cheap to attend, but whether you are a newcomer to whiskey or an experienced vet with a 1000 bottle “bunker”, WF has something for everyone. It’s a great place to try many whiskeys from around the globe at one convenient location.

Now that I’m a back to reality I thought it might be helpful to do a little recap of what I enjoyed about the event. Of course there were also some new whiskeys being poured, which always warrants a discussion.

There wasn’t much NOT represented at WF, whether from Ireland, Scotland, Canada, and of course the U.S. If you pay the up-charge ($185 instead of the regular $135) you are able to enter 1 hour earlier (5:30pm-9:30pm instead of 6:30pm-9:30pm) on a VIP ticket. The distillers bring some pretty rare and expensive bottles to pour during the hour prior to regular admission. For me, it’s worth the head start.

Right off the top, I was really impressed with the shear number and quality of whiskeys many companies brought to WF. Buffalo Trace for example brought practically their entire family of whiskeys, including of course their namesake bourbon. Julian and Preston Van Winkle (Buffalo Trace connection) were pouring the Van Winkle 12 and Pappy 15/20/23. Even a bottle of BT’s new E.H. Taylor was tilted frequently during the VIP hour. BT also poured their entire 2010 Antique Collection throughout the evening. Pretty damn stellar.

Heaven Hill also brought practically every bottle in their lineup as well. This included two Parker’s Heritage Collection bottles (Golden Anniversary and 10yr Wheated Bourbon). Others with a great quantity of the “good stuff” inlcluded High West, Four Roses, Jefferson’s, Ardbeg, Koval, and Samaroli, and independent bottler (with some damn fine stuff), to name a few.

So what stood out? Please keep in mind there are very few “new” and mainstays in American Whiskey that I’ve not tried. By no means were these the only great whiskeys represented at WF, but they stood out in a big way for me:

Angel’s Envy Barrel Strength: This one might have been the best whiskey of the show. The port influence noted in my review from two weeks ago was not in any way compromised. In fact, the intensity was greater due to a much more syrupy and viscous texture. While a bit less easy drinking due to the proof, the chewy dried fruits, sweet, rounded flavors and spice was dialed up in ample measure. If pressed a bit, I’d say it pushes close to 9.3-9.4 territory. Look for this one maybe towards the end of this year.

Four Roses Limited Edition Single Barrel: This one was really unique with a blast of honeysuckle right off the top. I went back twice just to get all I could of this one. The fruitiness is scaled down a bit in favor of the floral, herbal aromas and flavors, but it’s a winner. One cool note; Four Roses, in an effort to make sure other pours didn’t throw off your tasting glass, washed out each glass with a splash of their yellow label. How’s that for thorough? This one comes out in May – be ready for it.

Redbreast 15 Year: My favorite Irish Whiskey has always been Red Breast 12. I think the 15 just knocked it off the top for me. The 12 is a refined beauty with lush fruit, honey, syrupy sweetness and well integrated oak. Well the 15 is a bit of a bully with a darker, denser, richer center, and a wonderful spicy mid palate on through to the finish. It’s a little more like The Pogues to the 12’s Chieftains (bad Irish Music reference). To me it’s less sweet, drier, and more intense. I loved it! It’s available now.

Thomas H. Handy Rye (Buffalo Trace Antique Collection): Sadly I did not get an opportunity to taste this one fully with the 2010 release. I will be picking up a bottle ASAP. While the Sazerac 18 is a beautiful rye with an elegant balance to it, the Handy is another bold bully like the Redbreast 15 above. The rye flavor pops with with spicy zest anchored by fruit and sweetness. What’s also cool is you can actually find this BTAC release – imagine that!

There were many other great whiskeys I tasted, but these stood out to me. Give them a try and let me know what you think.

Finally, one of my observations about whiskey lovers is they are almost always people worth getting to know. WF did not disappoint in the people department. I was fortunate enough to interact with some folks that comment regularly on this blog or that I interact with on Twitter and other sites. That was honestly the highlight for me. I also appreciated the time that John Glaser, Jim Rutledge, Jimmy Russell, Lincoln and Wes Henderson, Craig Beam, Julian Van Winkle, David Perkins, and many other industry folks spent just shootin’ the breeze. Not necessarily pushing their wares, but rather talking shop, the industry, barrel making, distilling, and a great whiskey at the end of a long day (however you like to drink it).

Well that’s a wrap on Chicago WhiskyFest for me. As you can probably tell, I had a great time. Hopefully I didn’t sound like a ad for WF – it’s expensive and may not be for everyone. But if you have an opportunity and would like to attend check out WhiskyFest online. The San Francisco and New York events are later this year.

Drink your Whiskey!



  1. Great work, still can’t believe I missed you in Chicago…Do you attend any other midwest whisky events you’d reccomend?

  2. Me too man, not sure how that happened. But I look forward to the next time. I really wouldn’t have many other to recommend sadly. The Beer Bourbon and BBQ festival in Nashville and other parts across the country are solid, but several several notches below WF.

  3. sam k says:

    I’d have to agree with you on the Angel’s Barrel Strength. Great stuff! Also liked the Four Roses LE and Redbreast 15. The only BTAC I purchased this year was the Handy, and it’s everything you say it is.

    WhiskyFest Chicago is the best of the three. I’ve never been to San Francisco, but have attended WFNY. Even the rest of the staff likes Chicago the best. It’s just less frenetic. Very diverse crowd, too, which is a good sign for the future of whiskey. WF does a great job of promoting the “sport.”

    Great meeting you, Jason! I’m really glad we got to spend some quality time together. Looking forward to when our paths cross again.

  4. Sam it was great hanging out with you man. Cheers!

  5. Andy E says:

    Looking forward to catching a WF in the future.

  6. AaronWF says:

    It’s interesting that I keep hearing people rave about the Angel’s Envy barrel strength. I tasted it before I tried the currently available, more diluted stuff, and I had a different reaction. I really felt that the port barreling buried the bourbon almost completely. I tried the current product right afterwards and found the bourbon tickle that I missed in the barrel strength stuff. I caught the table right towards the end of the VIP hour and it was the dregs of the barrel proof I sampled (complete with a little bit of sediment), so it’s possible that I got some juice that was more heavily concentrated with the influence of the port barrel. In fact, now that I think of it, I’m almost sure that must be the case.

    I mostly tried to use the Fest as an opportunity to explore more in the world of scotch; it’s much harder to get to know scotch on a budget than it is to get to know bourbon and rye here in the U.S. Unfortunately, as a scotch novice, it was easy for me to get buried and turned around by all the Glens and aighs; I can’t for the life of me remember what I liked! Though to my surprise, in general, I preferred the rougher, more peat-influenced scotch than I previously thought was to my liking.

    That Handy rye remains unsurpassed in its category, in my book. Did you get to sample High West’s 21 year-old Rye? It’s not as complex as the Sazerac 18, but it’s some of the most pleasing and voluptuous whiskey I’ve ever tasted. Their Boureye also stood out to me, if only for it’s unique hybrid offering. I’m not sure of its place in my liquor cabinet, but in a sea of bourbons and ryes, it struck me as brilliantly avant-garde.

    I had an awesome awesome time at WF. Just a sociable, relaxed and stimulating vibe all around, and I found immense pleasure in talking about the whiskey with those representing it there. I’m glad I got to meet you Jason, albeit briefly!

  7. sam k says:

    Aaron, I’m with you as regards scotch. I use WhiskyFest to broaden my perspective, and that’s not hard to do at one of these events…there’s plenty to experience. Rachel Barrie’s Arbeg session was a peat lover’s dream!

    I have the same memory problem at times. I guess it would be smart to write some of this stuff down!

  8. Andy E: Likewise man – one day.

    Aaron: You have a great palate and you know what you like. It’s more likely it didn’t resonate as well with you – whiskey is a subjective thing indeed. That bottle was pulled straight from the barrel, clearly unfiltered. It had the charcoal in it as you mention. Now it’s possible the sediment threw things off texturally for you, but in terms of flavor it still should have been a good representation. I tasted it with maybe 2 inches at the bottom. I too enjoyed sipping some of the various scotches represented there. One of my faves ironically was the Octomore Orpheus by Bruichladdich. It’s the most heavily peated whisky in the world. I say “ironically” because heavy peated Islay whiskeys are not my favorite for the most part. As I’ve drank more whiskey I find these so overdone many times. So it’s interesting the Orpheus tasted so great to me. That goes to show you – never generalize – always try! I’ve had the 21yr High West and I agree immensely. Their 16 year was even better for me, but they’ve ran out of stock. I think their best straight rye whiskey is one they didn’t have enough to bring with them – the 12 year old. I did a review of it. And finally, the Handy was stellar stuff – loved it.

  9. Austin Dodson says:


    It was great getting to talk to you quite a bit at WF Chicago. I was with my father-in-law, and flew in from San Antonio to attend…maybe you remember. Hopefully we will bump into each other again sometime. We have pretty much decided it will be tradition to go from here on out. It was a great time!


  10. Austin, it was great meeting you and your father in law also. Sounds like you have a great guys weekend planned from here on out. I’m sure I’ll run into you again.

  11. We served up Angel’s Envy at hubbie’s birthday party this weekend. I like it….depth of flavor and enjoy that little bit of “burn” at the finish.

    Redbreast 15 was not my cup of tea…errr liquor. It smells wonderful…but I just did not care for it straight. Might be okay in a cocktail.

  12. Joyce, thanks for the comment. The Angel’s Envy is a nice easy sipper isn’t it? I really enjoyed it. As for Redbreast 15, I can certainly see that. The 15 is much bolder and brasher than the 12 year. But I enjoyed its wild side. Cheers Joyce!