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!

-Jason

Bourbon Review Comparison: W.L. Weller and Van Winkle Family Reserve 12 Year

W.L. Weller 12 Year Bourbon, $25, 45%abv (90 Proof)

Color: Deep Amber/Copper

Nose: Caramel and Butterscotch, ripe banana, candied almonds, flint, and toasted oak.

Flavor: Buttery, rich, and sweet. Butterscotch, vanilla custard, baking spices, and oak resin breaks up the sweetness

Finish: Toffee and warm, soft cinnamon spice.

Overall: An excellent wheated bourbon at an even better price. Soft, sweet, and rich with enough oak and spice to keep things from becoming too syrupy. This is a big big step up from W.L. Weller 7 year 107 Proof. Highly recommended.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 8.8 (Outstanding/Superb)

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Van Winkle Family Reserve 12 Year Old Bourbon (Lot B), $50, 45.2%abv (90.4 Proof)

Color: Deep Amber/Copper

Nose: Butterscotch, banana pudding, toasted pecans, and buttered cinnamon toast with a rising wave of oak.

Flavor: Absolutely stunning mouth feel – silky and velvety. Tastes of puddle of butterscotch sauce over vanilla ice cream. It’s sweet and concentrated and then quickly cut with pretty strong dry cinnamon spice and some oaky astringency that interplays wonderfully with the sweetness.

Finish: Butterscotch, cinnamon candy, and some bitter char remain on the finish.

Overall: A seriously great bourbon whiskey. Like the Weller 12 it’s sweet, buttery, and rich, but this one ramps up interest significantly with more spice and barrel. Is it worth the price increase? Well that’s for you to decide, but it’s an outstanding pour. Highly recommended.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 9.2 (Outstanding/Superb)

Buffalo Trace Bourbon Review


Buffalo Trace Bourbon, 45% abv (90 Proof), $20

Buffalo Trace doesn’t need much introduction. It is a very popular, top selling bourbon whiskey at a great price. The folks at BT are responsible for producing some of the finest American Whiskey on the market today, including a wide array of bourbon brands as well as rye whiskey. Buffalo Trace has 2 primary bourbon mash bills (grain recipes) not including their wheated bourbon and rye recipes. Mash Bill #1 is the recipe of choice for George T. Stagg, Eagle Rare, Old Charter and others. Mash Bill #2 has a higher percentage of rye and is used for Elmer T. Lee, Blanton’s, and Rock Hill Farm to name a few. While it’s not certain what the exact percentages of corn and rye are, having a number of different mash bills affords Buffalo Trace a great deal of flexibility. Let’s not forget about their namesake product (mash #1), Buffalo Trace……….

Color: Light Amber/Deep Golden

Nose: A complex arrangement in spite of the price. Bright corn graininess, vanilla, golden dried fruits, and tobacco are lifted with a hint of rye, oak, and mint.

Palate: Sharp and lively. The front entry is sweet corn, vanilla, a prickle of rye spice, and a crackle of burnt sugar. The sip moves swiftly toward drying from mid palate on to the finish, with a fantastic toasted oak flavor. There’s a gentle bitterness as well that adds interest. This is not a cloyingly sweet, thick, syrupy whiskey, but rather quite elegant in it’s delivery.

Finish: The finish is more of what started mid-sip; moderate length with bitter char, toasty oak, licorice, and mint.

Overall: I have to remind myself I am drinking $20.00 whiskey when I drink this stuff. It just tastes much pricier. I consider it one of the finest values in whiskey because of that. It’s not ridiculously sweet and flabby like other less expensive bourbons typically are. What I enjoyed most about it was the sharp, bright, graininess without tasting rough and raw. It’s pretty refined stuff and very well made. Highly recommended.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 8.5 (Very Good/Excellent)

Where does Pappy Van Winkle come from?

There’s no hiding that I’m a big Pappy Van Winkle fan. I realize as someone that does whiskey reviews that’s not exactly the right thing to say. However, I’m a fan of whiskey first and foremost. That’s why I do what I do – I love whiskey. And for me the Pappy Van Winkle 15 year old is a bourbon masterclass – intensely rich, complex, and walking the line between the elegance of age while still possessing the power and vigor of youth.

Julian Van Winkle is the president of the Old Rip Van Winkle (ORVW) distillery. He is a busy guy and a part of a two man operation. I’ve been trying to hook up an interview with him but have been unsuccessful thus far. For those that don’t know, Old Rip Van Winkle entered into a partnership with Buffalo Trace years and years ago to begin producing their whiskey. This was in preparation for all of the older Pappy Van Winkle stock from Stitzel-Weller running out. The Stitzel-Weller distillery produced the Old Rip Van Winkle line up as well as a number of other great bourbons. It closed its doors long ago, and only the reserves remained in order to fortify the Van Winkle line up.

That later part is important because it’s shrouded in mystery. Many enthusiasts, even ones that are “in the know” have trouble figuring out which ORVW products are produced by Buffalo Trace, and which are still from Stitzel-Weller stock.

Well, some of that mystery might have been solved with the latest podcast from David Driscoll at K&L Wines Spirit Journal. David’s guest this week is Buffalo Trace Master Distiller, Harlen Wheatley. Harlen is very young reletive to his Master Distiller peers, but he’s worked at Buffalo Trace for 15-16 years before taking over in 2005 as MD. In this podcast below, Harlen is extremely transparent, which I certainly appreciate. He quickly points out that he doesn’t have the numbers in front of him and is speaking off the cuff a little bit, but it’s still coming from a very informed position. Please check out the entire podcast because it’s a great listen. The discussion around Pappy and ORVW begins around the 20 minute mark.

Here are few of the nuggets Harlen discusses about Pappy:

-The ORVW 10 year old and Van Winkle Family Reserve 12 year old (Lot b) is Buffalo Trace product, not Stitzel-Weller I think this has been commonly known and reported by many, but I’m not aware of either Julian Van Winkle, Harlen, or anyone else that close to the situation confirming this before. So from that stand point, we can check that off the list.

-The 20 year old and 23 year old Pappy Van Winkle Bourbons are still all Stitzel-Weller stock. The rumors of 20 year old being close to dry was not addressed but Harlen mentions “being close” in terms of having product around that age. So hopefully we’ll see things continue to churn without much, if any, interuption.

-The 15 year old wasn’t talked about in absolutes but Harlen says he believes it to be a mix of stock between Buffalo Trace and Stitzel-Weller. This was the interesting one to me because I was thinking it was still all S-W reserves. Very cool to hear.

And that about sums it up. It’s just nice to get some understanding of exactly what is what with the ORVW/Pappy whiskey. Please check out the podcast in its entirety here. David does an excellent job.

Don’t fret, more Pappy is on the way.

If you haven’t seen my review of Pappy Van Winkle 15 please take a look. It’s a fantastic bourbon and I dare say about as complete as whiskey gets to my tastes. The sad part is the allocation is so sparse that it takes a lot of effort to locate bottles. Believe me, it’s worth the trouble, but a pain in the rear nonetheless.

Well, a little relief isn’t too far off if you can wait a few months. I’ve just been informed by Julian Van Winkle that the next allocation of products will go out in March/April time frame. No specifics yet on a firm date, but this will hopefully give you a shot at securing some bottles if you missed this most recent batch of product.

I’d recommend not waiting until then. If your reading this and want to ensure you get a bottle or 4, I’d suggest calling 2-3 local liquor shops in your area. Ask them if they typically get allocated Pappy Van Winkle products. If they do, make them aware of this allocation news so they can be informed. Also tell them to put your name on a bottle.

I’d recommend the 15 above all given it’s price to quality ratio is extremely high. Beyond that, I’d also recommend securing some Old Rip Van Winkle 90 or 107 proof and/or the Van Winkle Family Reserve 12 Year “Lot B”. I did a review of the 90 proof version of ORVW here. You cannot go wrong with any of them, but you know my feelings on the 15.

Yep, it’s silly when we have to plan 3+ months for a Bourbon purchase, but folks, there’s just not a lot of the stuff to put out there. And when the product is this high quality, a little planning is worth it. Good luck to you!

Drink your Bourbon!

-Jason

Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Year Bourbon Review (90 Proof)

Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Year Bourbon, 45% abv (90 Proof), $35/bottle

Color: Deep Amber/Gold

Nose: Ripe banana, vanilla, toffee, rum, dried dark fruits, backed with reasonably significant toasted oak aromas.

Palate: Again, a solid oak backbone presents itself. Big, rich mouth feel reveals toffee, vanilla, sweetened coffee, roasted nuts, and burned sugar/caramel. Sweet, rich, and everything a “wheater” should be.

Finish: Excellent length in comparison to other wheated whiskeys in the 10 year and under range. Burned sugar, toast, cinnamon, and barrel flavors remain.

Overall: ORVW 10 is a wheated recipe, a little brother to Pappy Van Winkle 15. Essentially the same recipe just 5 years junior. For those that cannot get a hold of Pappy 15, give this one a try! It’s an outstanding whiskey, and one of the richest wheated bourbons under 12 years I’ve had. The 107 proof packs more whallop, but this 90 proof offering is no slouch. I highly recommend it.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 8.8 (Superb/Outstanding)