Making the most out of WhiskeyFest
October 27, 2014 9:19 AM   Subscribe

Hey! After years of amateur scotch/bourbon/rye drinking, I decided to take the plunge and bought a ticket to this year's WhiskeyFest. The challenge - there are over 400 bottles to sample (I know, poor me). But with a limited amount of time (and sobriety), what should I make a bee-line for?

I'm interested in checking out the most interesting, delicious bottles that I would never be able to justify buying a bottle of just for curiosity's sake, such as:

Awesome: What's a must-taste?

Curious: Which limited edition bottles or new distilleries are worth the time?
Also, I know nothing about Japanese whiskeys. What's a good introduction, and what's fantastic?

What I like: Fyi, I'm a relative novice, but here's why I've enjoyed over the years:
Scotch: Oban, Aberlour, Compass Box Eleuthera (blended)
Whiskey: Kings County...
Rye: Wild Turkey 101, Rittenhouse, Hancock's President's Reserve
posted by ericbop to Food & Drink (10 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know if anyone has done a cross-reference yet, but determining who sources from MGP and then excluding them outright might be your best chance.

Here's a site which purports to track craft whiskey producers which actually do their own distillation.
posted by tomierna at 9:27 AM on October 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I've been to this event many times, as well as many other high-end beer, spirits, and food events. This advice applies for any such event.

Simply asking the Internet "whats' good" will produce a list that looks a lot like the event itself. Too many to taste. The problem is that nearly all whisky (aside from most blends and some leviathan brands) is good...real good. It boils down to taste and rarity.

Serious aficionados at the event will be flocking to rarities, because they're (duh) the hardest to find, and the biggest bang for their entrance fee buck. If you want to go this route, I'd suggest you follow the rule of thumb of disregarding any brand you've ever heard of, AND any brand without a queue. Obscure-sounding brands with queues are what you're looking for.

But if you know little about whisky (i.e. haven't tasted widely), you may as well take the opportunity to learn about the theme rather than seek out esoteric variations. Walk around the room, and mostly SMELL whiskies. Drink almost nothing. In rare circumstances when the smell both pleases and intrigues you, take the tiniest sip. No more...even if it's fabulous. And take careful notes. You can check out a few dozen this way without getting staggery, and in so doing, attain a pretty wide range of experience in a couple hours...well worth the entrance fee. This is not a hedonistic approach, but if you go to an event like this for hedonistic reasons, you're missing the point. You attend to learn - to discover what you like (by tasting a range). Then, in the future, you can be as hedonistic as you'd like with THAT stuff. If you drink more than a 1/2 teaspoon of any of these whiskies, you're wasting the opportunity.

If you really want guidance, find the most studious, note-taking group of nerds you can, and ask them for advice. Be polite, humble, and very terse so they can get on with their chores. Don't expect overviews or running tutorials; just ask for quick pointers on a couple to try. If you make yourself super low-maintanence - periodically returning for new tips, then getting the heck away from them as soon as you're pointed onward - you'll find that they'll be incredibly helpful (and may even generously offer some tutorial/overview).

But bear in mind that these guys will point you to the rare/esoteric stuff, which is all they care about....because they've tried everything else long ago. So if you have never had a broad survey, you really don't need help (from these guys or from posters here). Follow my advice, above, and do wide swings of the room, smelling a lot and hardly drinking. Figure out what you like. And next year, find some nerds (like me) at the event and ask them to hip you to something fabulous and phenolic, or heathery, or super-long, or etc.

Two things about doing lots of smelling (or "nosing", as the pros call it). The alcohol can really singe your nose, so be aware of sniffing too deep and too long and too close. Even with this, you must pace yourself. And if you hit a point where your nose is confused or overwhelmed, here's an old Italian winemaker trick: smell your own forearm. It resets your olfactory baseline.

If you do choose to go the survey route, it would be very helpful to get at least a quick overview - even a Wikipedia overview - of the various regions of single malts. That will help ensure you survey them all, rather than find yourself checking out a couple dozen nearly identical drinks.
posted by Quisp Lover at 10:05 AM on October 27, 2014 [11 favorites]

Best answer: One more thing. A lot of people will be tasting very scientifically - unnaturally, in a way; so analytically that they unhinge from the way folks actually enjoy stuff. And a room full of that can be contagious.

My advice is that you try to remain conscious about maintaining some connection to your intuitive, emotional, pleasure brain, even as you perform the highly unnatural action of repeatedly smelling and micro-slurping dozens of drinks while standing in a big crowded conference room. Don't fall so deeply into analysis that you lose touch with poetry and enjoyment. If you do, the knowledge you bring out with you will be scantly useful for your real-world enjoyment of these great drinks.

Some of the tiny-writing, obsessive nerds you bump into are able to do this unnatural style of tasting in full analytical mode, and use the data thus compiled to draw meaningful conclusions about real world pleasure and poetry (though most are simply Aspergering out). That's a very tough thing to learn, and you needn't if you're more casual. So don't feel obliged to account for and name every flavor nuance. Just taste deeply and patiently, and don't forget to consult your feeling lobes.

But, again, do remember you're there to learn and experience, rather than for sheer pleasure. It's a tough balance to strike, but with a little discipline, you can nail it! Have fun!
posted by Quisp Lover at 10:14 AM on October 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have only been to two of these types of events, and I think that Quisp Lover's advice is good. I wish I had had it before my first event. I made the mistake at my first event of thinking getting your money's worth was about how much I could taste. I tried as many as I could. The next time, last year, I had kept a list throughout the year of whiskey's that I had heard about or were recommended. I worked my way through that list. Some I tried, some I just talked to the folks at the table while smelling and swirling. I got a lot more out of it the second year.

I am not going this year because I found that after all the tasting and smelling and learning, I kept buying my college bourbon, Jim Beam. It has been going down smooth for 30+ years for me and I was cheap/reluctant to buy the better stuff.

I think to sum it up, I would say quality over quantity.
posted by 724A at 10:15 AM on October 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

The issue that tomierna alludes to doesn't apply to non-American whiskies of course, so no need to worry about it if you're exploring Scottish, Irish and Japanese whisky.

As far Japanese whisky. I always recommend the Yamazaki 12yo as a good introduction - it's got that interesting cedar / incense note that characterises many Japanese whiskies, and in general it's just delicious and easy to drink, with a beautiful dried pineapple finish. I've never tried the 18yo (bit expensive!) but that's supposed to be excellent too.

One other suggestion I'll make is that if you want to try some of the peated Islay whiskies (and, my dear chap, you certainly should) leave them until last because the peatiness often lingers for quite some time. Lagavulin 16yo would be my suggestion as a good place to start on that front, and Bruichladdich Scottish Barley is utterly grand if you want to compare it to a non-peated Islay.
posted by sobarel at 10:17 AM on October 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

Ack, ambiguity in my first reply, above.

"It boils down to taste and rarity"

I meant preference and rarity.
posted by Quisp Lover at 10:18 AM on October 27, 2014

Quisp Lover has given you the best advice.

That said, I'll add a couple of things. First, none of the scotch whiskies you've listed are islay scotches, which are the smokiest, so I'd recommend trying one to see if you like the intense "campfire on a beach" flavor. Bowmore is one of my favorites.

Also, Japanese whisky is really good these days. Yamazaki 18 is really, really tasty if you can find it.
posted by General Malaise at 10:19 AM on October 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Yes to Yamazaki, they've truly arrived. Yes to not missing peaty Islays, and yes to saving them for last (as they will totally skew your palate). 724a, do me a favor, and at least TRY Jim Beam Black, which is galaxies better for a few pennies more!

If you were to stick exclusively to Scottish single malts, you could do a really thorough, really helpful survey. It might be a smart way to go on your first time. I'd recommend it. But Irish whisky can be great (forget Jamison's), bourbon and rye can be great, and the aforementioned Japanese has arrived. Decide early whether you want to broach this interesting, fruitful, "miscellaneous" drawer of options or not. If not, be disciplined. Maybe enjoy a micro-sip of Yamazaki at the very end if you still have the headroom, just to entice future research. But I'd suggest Scottish single malts this first time (note that Islay is a region of single malt).
posted by Quisp Lover at 10:33 AM on October 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Quisp Lover's advice is spot on. Did you get VIP tickets for early entry or regular tickets? There are a few rarer items that are only being poured during the VIP early entry timeframe, so if you have VIP tickets try to make a list of any of those you'd like to try before going. They have a PDF download with a map of the event and an app too.

P.S. I will be there too! Feel free to MeMail me if you wanna talk whisk(e)y.
posted by bedhead at 12:02 PM on October 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

One of the best scotches I've ever bought is Ardbeg's Uigeadail. I also had a great glass of Westland American single-malt at a bar in Seattle recently, so their table might be worth a look. Also, if the folks Bruichladdich sends to a show like this are half as fun as the folks in their distillery's tasting room, they might be worth hanging out with a little. Have fun.
posted by aught at 1:11 PM on October 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

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