WhiskeyFest Chicago 2014

David McCowan

May 01 2014 - 1:00 PM

WhiskyFest – the annual event put on by Whisky Advocate Magazine which celebrated its 15th year this past Friday– has grown to positively gigantic proportions. It is a place to come and be inundated–by people, by information and of course by whisky. Oh my… the whisky.

I’ve gone several times now, but I still stop and talk with some first-timers. It’s fun to see their wide-eyes roam the room, filled with excitement and wonder as it dawns on them how large and diverse the whisky world really is. And, little may they realize, growing larger and more diverse with each passing year as more new distilleries open and as the old hands push their products into original territory with different distilling, blending and barrel-ageing techniques.

It is impossible to taste even a fraction of what’s available. However, even with only a small slice of the action, a lot of great whisky can be found. Here are our favorite tastes of the night.

Bruichladdich Scottish BarleyThe island of Islay is the part of Scotland most associated with peat-fired, smoke-filled whiskies. These bonfire bombs can often be an all-out assault on the senses… which, admittedly, is sometimes exactly what I’m in the mood for.

But Islay has the potential to offer much more. Nestled by the sea, Scotch there can lap up briny saltiness – like Laphroaig — or balance the smoke with sweetness–like Lagavullin. I think, however, that these classic brands are in for a run from two other fast-moving distilleries on the island.

Bruichladdich distills a variety of single malt styles including the absurdly-peated Ocotomore ($160) and the more traditional moderately-smoky Port Charlotte ($60), both quite good. My favorite of the portfolio, though, is the completely unpeated Scottish Barley/Classic Laddie ($50). Despite clocking in at 100 proof, it is amazingly light and easy-going, perfumed with wild flowers and spring breeze. The lack of smoke sets it apart from other Islay Scotches, yet the whisky still speaks to its sense of place.

Kilchoman Machir BayBruichladdich’s near neighbor is Kilchoman, founded only in 2005. The distillery has been releasing new editions each year showcasing the whisky’s evolution, but they now seem to have settled on a house style they call Machir Bay ($50). This bottle is, in the words of another taster, “exactly what Islay Scotch should taste like.” The peat smoke is there, but restrained and balanced by pleasantly light cereal flavors, and it is aged in a mix of ex-bourbon barrels (complimenting the flavors without hiding them) and ex-sherry barrels (rounding things out with some sweetness). Though young, I think this bottle is an absolute bargain and I’m snagging a bottle of my own the next chance I get. For a small splurge, the 2007 Vintage ($80) is aged exclusively in ex-bourbon barrels and packs a bit more peaty oomph (winning it the Whiskey Advocate Islay of the Year Award), while limited editions like the Impex Exclusive Single Barrel skew in the other direction, finishing with an extra luxurious layer from Pedro Ximenez sherry barrels. Keep an eye on these folks!

“You’re looking up here,” Bernie Lubbers of Heaven Hill says, referring to the top shelves of the liquor store where the expensive and much talked-about hooch resides, “when the good deals are down below.”

Lubbers is preaching the mantra of “Stay Bonded” by showcasing Heaven Hill’s lineup of bottled-in-bond (BIB) whiskeys. This oft unknown and overlooked designation of American whiskey was initially a way to ensure quality in the more lawless days of late 1800’s barkeeping: BIB whiskeys must be 100 proof, be labeled with the distillery where they were made, and be aged at least 4 years … a bar set high enough to ensure a standard of character sight-unseen. While we no longer expect our local bar to be watering down their stock of bourbon (TGI Friday’s excepted), the BIB designator remains an important designator.


But, back to Lubbers initial point… bottled–in-bond whiskeys represent tremendous value! I keep two of Heaven Hill’s BIB offerings in my cabinet at all times – Heaven Hill Gold Label Bourbon BIB ($12) and Rittenhouse Rye BIB ($25) – since they manage to deliver oomph without getting watered down when mixed in cocktails. However, I may soon be adding another staple, Mellow Corn BIB ($15). This 80% corn whiskey is aged in used American oak barrels so it retains some serious corn flavor without letting the vanilla and caramel from aging dominate. It’s really delicious while being unique.

This year, David King, president of Anchor Distilling Company, hosted a seminar titled “The most interesting whisk(e)y portfolio in the world” This is no small claim, but the company wowed the hell out of me. The group distills curiously atypical whiskies like Old Potrero 18th Century Rye ($70) — a 100% malted rye aged in uncharred oak barrels with flavors like cut grass and hay, finished by a spicy tang quite unlike any other rye on the market – but I was even more smitten by their imported offerings.

Nikka_Coffey_Grain_WhiskyI spoke last year of my love for Nikka Japanese whisky, bottles of which were just coming to market. I specifically called out Yoichi 15 single malt ($120) with its light peat and elegant balance, but my new obsession is the Taketsuru 17 ($140). This pure malt mix of whisky from Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries has notes of sweet toffee and nuts; deep, rich wood; and a long, lovely smoldering finish. The Nikka Coffey Grain ($65) is a whole different beast, however. At 10 years it has a subtle complexity, but the 90% corn content and column distillation make it light and smooth. Bourbon lovers will find a lot to love here.

kavalan-solist-vinho-barrique-whiskyAlso new to Anchor’s portfolio is another Asian import, Kavalan. This Taiwanese wunderkind has been taking the world by storm with their quick-aged, but amazingly mature single malts. The core range options – Kavalan Single Malt ($100), Concertmaster ($100) and King Car ($120) – are good, but pricey. However, their Solist line of cask-strength limited editions is where things get mighty interesting. The Kavalan Ex-Bourbon ($160) is bursting with tropical fruit flavors (coconut!) earning it Whiskey Advocate World Whisky of the Year, while their Kavalan Sherry ($190) is as rich and indulgent as any ex-oloroso could be. My personal favorite, though, (which I’m told is also Master Distiller Ian Chang’s), is the Kavalan Vinho ($160) aged in American oak wine barrels that held both red and white wines before being shaved and retoasted. The result is wickedly unusual… bursts of lime, melon, ice cream, berries and spice.

Benriach 17 year old Septendecim Heavily PeatedFinally, Anchor’s Scotch offerings hide some underrated gems. The GlenDronach line is classic Speyside single malt aged in sherry giving a rich, oily and sticky whiskey. King calls it “Thinking Man’s Macallan” and I agree. BenRiach, on the other hand, is anything but classic. Though also located in the Speyside, its forte is experimental whiskies in unusual casks. They boast that no matter what style you like, they make it, but the bottle that did it for me was BenRiach Septendecim 17 year old Heavily Peated ($80). Gorgeously multilayered, it started with lush fruit and ended in a dry smoke.

Did any of you get a chance to experience WhiskyFest? What were your favorites?