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Things I learned at WhiskyFest
I learned something about myself at WhiskyFest. For years when someone would ask me if I’m Irish my standard line would be “my liver is.” But now I know it’s not. It’s Welsh.
Fellow whiskey lover Phil Rosenberg and I attended the annual event. Because there were over 200 whiskeys and bourbons we had to be selective about which ones we’d try. As with wine, there are any number of flavors and personalities, and while we would have loved to sample them all, that would have been nigh well impossible.
When we learned of a Welsh whiskey we knew that had to be on our list since neither one of us had ever heard of it before. Stephen Davies poured us a taste and explained that Penderyn was the first Welsh Whiskey in 100 years. The dry spell came about from religious tee-totalers, similar to our much shorter-lived Prohibition. Because of Penderyn’s unique distilling process, there was no smoke and no peatiness. That and the bit of salt and raisins and vanilla meant it was quite drinkable. The kicker that gave me the revelation my liver must be Welsh? It’s 92% alcohol.
We were about halfway through the 4 hour fest by the time we got to that high proof discovery and were still coherent and standing upright. The evening had started with a stop at Ben Riach, where Alistair Walker poured the 16 year and proclaimed it “instantly quaffable.” We talked with him for a bit while he explained whiskey’s popularity. Each one has a distinct character, and each distillery has a distinct story. When you drink it, you can be transported in time to the exact place you were when you first sampled it. (I guess that means I and many others will be remembering the Hyatt Regency ballroom with some frequency.)
I insisted we stop at the Bowmore table, since the 25 was my favorite two years ago. To our chagrin they weren’t pouring it, but Jonathan Jewell gave us a taste of the Auchantoshan Three Wood instead and that almost made up for it. Phil was completely won over. Towards the end of the night, after trying who knows how many whiskeys, he proclaimed that the Three Wood was “his find” of the evening.
As I was talking with Jonathan, Phil and James Kutill of Chicago were groaning about the survey they asked us to fill out when we arrived. In particular they cringed because we were asked how much we spend on the spirit in a year. James said “I tell my wife, I don’t mess around, so this is my vice.” Well said.
Several times throughout the night we ran into another gentleman, “John from Microsoft,” whose wife also doesn’t appreciate the finer points of whiskey. Actually, all night we ran into gentlemen, some married, some single, because I think there were a total of 7 women in the whole room. Whiskey’s still a decidedly masculine spirit, but even so I cringed when Ronnie Cox from The Glenrothes tried to give me a more delicate year. While it was eminently drinkable in the way a lite beer goes down easily, I prefer mine with more character. I drained it and then promptly put out my glass for the 1975. This one, he told us, was the one you break out when you want a guest to leave. “If you have a guest at home that you want to get rid of,” Ronnie said, “give him this. Put him out in two drinks.” That’s more like it.
By this time my taste buds weren’t dead yet but they were limping along. Good thing we tried the Balvenie 21 year. The middle jumped out, as if to say “Hello, I’m scotch and I’m in your mouth.”
There were many, many more we sipped, from the Japanese Suntory Yamazaki (think “Lost In Translation”) to the Greenore Irish, the only corn grain (“It’s like the soft drink of Irish whiskies,” Phil said.). The Convalmore bit the tongue, the Ledaig was like a salt lick, and the Mortlach had hints of chocolate. Yes, chocolate.
John Saucke from Laphroaig used analogies to describe his scotches: “Ten is a woman sitting in the front seat of your car smacking you in the face. Fifteen is a mature sweet woman sitting in the back seat.” He poured us a two-year old out of his boot, which surprisingly did not taste like rotgut.
The night was filled with kilts and characters, accents that spread the world, and tastes that span the palate. We ended the evening, as many others did, by a stop at Delilah’s. To our delight John from Laphroaig also stopped in and played on his bagpipes.
Whether your liver’s Irish, or Welsh, or Scottish, or something else entirely, WhiskyFest brings out something fine in those who attend. There’s an overall sense of gaiety and zest for life that could make even the whiskey-hater want to kick up the heels and do a little jig. I’ll drink to that.