I've fully recovered from this weekend's distinguished event (read: debauchery). After many years buying and selling spirits, I finally made to the Shangri-la of whisky. I have to say, Mr. Hansell does it right. Obviously, the reason we attend WhiskyFest is to taste the incredible variety of products, both old and new, but I have to say the most exciting thing for me was just experiencing the scene. You've got producers, distributors, aficionado, restaurateurs, retailers all together in one space discussing their trade/obsession/true love. While I was excited to try as much new stuff as possible, the real experience was being with all these amazing enthusiastic professional whisky types.
I had an amazing chat with Ross from BB&R, which if you didn't know is about the classiest place to buy booze in all of Europe. Berry Brothers & Rudd is Britain's oldest wine & spirits merchant. They've been supplying the royal family since the 1700s. Contrasting our own stifling regulatory structure, British wine merchants like BB&R can both sell spirits, as well as own and export spirits brands. They own Glenrothes, a number of other spirits brands, a superb independent bottling operation, as well as one of Britain's most succesful en primeur services. Ross, and his lovely coworker Natalie, kindly poured a few of the nights finest whiskies including the austere and unforgettable 1975 Vintage and the extremely limited John Ramsay bottling.
Of course for David and I, the St George table was the truly special one. Not only was the whiskey they've made totally outrageous, but it also has our names on it! It's still a working label, so let's all pray the TTB loves the label as much as we did. The whiskey itself was familiar, though totally unique. In some ways it reminded me of the Charbay Whiskey which we also had chance to try. It is not like the Double & Twisted, which has this spicy grain and barnyard gnarliness, but much more like the Charbay Whiskey Release II with its forward American oak nose and opulent cocoa finish. St George's 12 Year Old Single Malt is rich and intense. The cocoa finish struck me as distinctly similar to Charbay's super premium Whiskey. All of this for an affordable price at cask strength? This single barrel can't last long. For some reason, I sense a California Single Malt style emerging here. Hopefully, we'll continue to see some older American barley based whiskies coming from the independent distilleries.
I think the overall theme of WhiskyFest was innovation. I don't just mean regarding production methods, but in terms of what's being accepted by the public. The Yamazaki table had to be one of the most popular stations throughout evening. Even after they'd finished pouring the 1984 during the VIP hour, they had a constant line stretching across the room. Maybe this is a NorCal thing, but there certainly isn't the same enthusiasm for these whiskies down south. My only personal problem wih the Japanese whisky is how little they bother to export. As we've seen recently on www.whatdoesjohnknow.com, the Japanese make some incredible whisky that we never see stateside. While the distilleries in Japan struggle to convince a younger generation of Japanese to drink whisky, we sit hear watering at the mouth. I've sent a number of emails to the various Japanese producers of whisky (Nikka, Kirin, Suntory) letting them know that we are very interested in selling their whisky. I've never heard back, I assume that's due to the language barrier rather than rudeness, as I've never known the Japanese to give up an opportunity to talk about their whisky. Anyway, could someone please get on this?
Along, with the some of more successful independent distilleries, WhiskyFest brings out all the big guns from every whisky region. While the top single malts are always a draw, we don't expect to see a whole lot of new stuff unveiled at this sort of venue. That's why it's refreshing to have the independent bottlers also represented. In particular, I really enjoyed the Duncan Taylor malts, as well as the interesting selections from A.D. Rattray who have brought some exceptional barrels over for us.
Of course our dear friends from Kentucky didn't disappoint. Buffalo Trace brought out the big guns, offering the entire 2010 Antique Collection, which was a treat as always. I think the Williams Larue Weller is tasting better than ever and the Stagg is as in your face as ever although I found it a touch shut down before a solid 15 minutes in the glass. Tasting the Van Winkle line up was incredible as expected. A good reminder for why these bourbons are so freakin' loved by everyone! Four Rose's brought some lovely bourbon including the Limited Edition, which did not last long. Unfortunately, they did not have our K&L Cask Strength OBSO exclusive, which as Mr. Driscoll has pointed out, is top notch.
One of my favorite moments of the entire evening was meeting the legendary Parker Beam. Mr. Beam is not only a legend in the industry, he is a legendary gentleman. I'm not sure they make 'em like this anymore, but I've never met such a stand up guy. I told him about my own family history in Kentucky, as my great grandmother was from Louisville and my grandfather and his father were part owners in a distillery in Bardstown. While I have very little information about exactly which distillery they had invested in, Mr. Beam was kind enough to listen to my family history and struggle to put a distillery to the one brand that I could recall my grandfather producing. Apparently, the "Old Fiddle" bourbon was memorable enough -probably due to its distinctive bottle shape- because Parker recalled that the Willett Distillery might have produced this whiskey. In addition, he noted that their big brand back in the day was "Old Bardstown," which is how my grandfather used to refer to the distillery. Now Heaven Hill owns this brand. It was an incredible interaction with one of my personal heroes. I have to thank Mr. Hansell giving me the opportunity to finally meet Parker Beam, not to mention getting to try his wonderful whiskies again.
There were many other interesting products featured -Compass Box's Flaming Heart, Mackillops Choice, Whistle Pig, Michter's 25 year, etc. - but honestly I'm just scratching the surface. As WhiskyFest wrapped up, I retired with Driscoll to watch a disappointing final few innings of the Giants game. Cheer up, what could be more disappointing than the Dodgers? A few cocktails with friends at Annabell's to wrap up the evening and a short walk home to my hotel would have been the perfect evening.
Unfortunately, the walk back to my hotel took me by another place. Who do I see in the window, but the illustrious Maurice Chevalier from Preiss Imports. He was sampling the Old Raj Gin with an incredibly beautiful bartender and our dear friends from Springbank and Duncan Taylor. Needless to say, only the creme de la creme is still standing at this point in the evening. I spent quality time learning some Campbell town history, as well as watching my new Duncan Taylor rep make lots of new friends thanks to his kilt. We ended up closing out the bar. Had a couple of top notch cocktails from a bartender who showed only mild distain for my existence. All in all it was amazing time. Standing on the curb outside the RICKHOUSE, I realized that these are the moments that really count. While I want to say it's all about the whisky, in the end it's all about the people. I'm not implying that I'm somehow against enjoying whisky by myself, but whisky is not an automaton. Being with the people who actually create the products that we love brings the complexity of whisky into great focus. Whisky is an expression of a collective intent, sometimes by just a few people in a warehouse somewhere and sometimes by a multinational corporation. This collective force allows for the incredible diversity that we see in the category. For that, I thank the people, personalities, and professionals that made this weekend and make my life so amazing.