Baker’s Bourbon (7 year)

Yet another Jim Beam product, and yet another bourbon that doesn’t taste (to me) like Jim Beam. Thank goodness. The marketing for this particular bottling claims that it’s made in small batches from a “rare jug yeast” that has been in the family for 60 years. Considering that selections for bottling are made in the warehouse, not the stillroom, and that all of the Small Batch and Jim Beam bourbons share the same mash bill, I’m guessing that’s a load of nonsense or at least refers to the normal yeast strains used in all Beam products.

This bottle comes from Batch B-90-001 and is 53.5% ABV (Baker’s is always 107 proof). It’s also seven years old. Three cheers for age statements!

Nose: Pine sap, fresh corn, with a vinegar edge to the nose tickle. Somewhat austere bourbon notes – mild notes of brown sugar, oak, and vanilla in balance, but without the big, round fullness of Booker’s. Deeper in the glass, the vinegar notes turn to a pleasant tart cherry. Not a particularly sweet bourbon.

Palate: Thin bodied, with a rehash of the tart cherry notes and distinct barrel tannins up front. Little tongue burn (surprisingly for 107 proof), and again the wood wins out over the sweetness. Not overly wooded, just not very sweet. Some slightly bitter vegetal notes appear toward the end, like the herbal component of bitters or aperitif liqueur.

Finish: Medium-long. A malty sweetness creeps out of the wood, at last, along with blanched almonds, light brown sugar, and more tart cherries. The overall impression is dry, but the finish is pleasantly, mildly, sweet.

With Water: A few drops of water makes the whiskey slightly sweeter on the tongue – like a simple syrup. It also seems to tie the bourbon together and makes for a more integrated whole, with less austerity. A few drops of water is a good idea with this one.

Overall: This is a bit of an oddball. One expects from bourbon a big, sweet ball of corn syrup, alcohol, and oak. Here the sweetness is merely background, letting nuances (including bitter and tannic ones) from the wood and, perhaps, the rye component play out. It does not show any of the objectionable “paint thinner” notes of white-label Jim Beam, nor is it excessively bitter or hot on the tongue. One thing going for it is that this “non-sweet” style of bourbon lets a lot of nuance through that is usually covered up by the onrush of sugary flavors. This could be described as a bourbon for people who don’t like sweets. In fact, if you’ve sworn off bourbon because it’s “too sweet” – this is probably worth a shot. For everyone else who likes their bourbons big, bold, and treacly… try before buying.

Baker’s Bourbon (7 year)
53.5% ABV
ScotchNoob™ Mark:
Price Range: $42 - $45
Acquired: (Sample) Courtesy of DBC PR. Thanks Sarah!
Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , ,
Leave a comment

Knob Creek Small Batch Rye

Well, I liked Knob Creek Bourbon from Beam, and had an opportunity recently thanks to Sarah at DBC (thanks Sarah!) to try Knob Creek Rye. At 100 proof but lacking an age statement, it competes with a multitude of young-ish ryes on the market, all formulated to cash in on the classic cocktail revival trend. Unlike most of those, this is not relabelled LDI/MGP rye, but is actually distilled by Beam in Clermont, Kentucky. Its mashbill is secret but some sources list it at 51% rye (the legal minimum), which jives with what I tasted, below.

Nose: Soft grains and high notes of clove, anise (black licorice), and cinnamon extract (cinnamon candy). The aroma is not unlike the inside of an old-time candy shop. Despite all the sugar references, the aroma is not altogether sweet, but rather reminiscent of the extracts and spices that make those candies memorable. Unlike other young ryes, there isn’t much menthol, eucalyptus, or mint. Deep in the glass there’s a stirring of caraway and camphor.

Palate: Spicy at first, bursting with cinnamon, then cooling off into straightforward cereal notes, dusty spice cabinet, and Good & Plenty’s (there’s that candy again).

Finish: Short. The spices return, but tempered with dried apple, caramel, and a beery malt. The finish falls off quickly, but is never bitter.

With Water: Water amplifies the spice at the expense of balance, although the aroma is sweeter. Unless the water is frozen and accompanies vermouth and bitters, I’d skip it.

Overall: For me, Knob Creek Rye sits squarely in the middle of the available (read: young) ryes currently available. It avoids the “spicy to a fault” armies of LDI/MGP rye clones with a nice balance of rye spiciness against warm, sweet cereal notes. However, it doesn’t show any of the bright minty notes of craft ryes, nor the deep earthy sweetness of Rittenhouse 100. Since it’s easier to acquire in some places than Rittenhouse and it makes phenomenal rye-based cocktails, I think this is a good choice for a house rye, especially if you can’t find a reliable source of Rittenhouse 100.

Knob Creek Small Batch Rye
50% ABV
ScotchNoob™ Mark:
Price Range: $38 - $45
Acquired: (Sample) Courtesy of DBC PR. Thanks Sarah!
Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , ,
2 Comments

Booker’s Bourbon (Batch C07-B-7)

After receiving a generous sample of Booker’s from Sarah at DBC (thanks Sarah!), I thought it high time to revisit my old review of Booker’s, which was made under some duress. Also, as a small batch product (one of Beam’s Small Batch Collection), variations between batches are expected. This bottle is from Batch C07-B-7 and is 7 years and 2 months old and bottled at cask strength, 65.4% ABV. It is neither colored nor chill-filtered.

Booker’s, named after creator Booker Noe (Master Distiller for Jim Beam for 40 years) is bottled unfiltered and at cask strength in small batches after 6 – 8 years of age in heavily charred oak barrels (#4 char). Originally, Booker Noe hand-chose aging barrels from the center of the rickhouse (both vertically, from the center floors of a nine-floor rickhouse, and horizontally at the ‘heart’ of the facility) to bottle at full strength as gifts for friends and family. Eventually, he released those same selections to the general public. This style is a throwback to the original days of American whiskey, when jugs of whiskey would be filled for customers directly from the barrel.

Beam Global (now owned by Suntory) is a dichotomy for me. For one, it’s known far and wide as the producer of Jim Beam “White Label”, one of my least favorite whiskies of all time, and the bane of my college years. Jim Beam’s “White Label” bourbon is the one and only reason that I thought I hated whisky for the first decade of my drinking life. And yet, the very same distillery that cranks out industrial quantities of that hideous liquid also produces some of my favorite bourbon, including Knob Creek, Baker’s and Booker’s. This is especially odd considering that (as far as I can tell?) all Beam straight bourbons are the same mashbill, and the vast flavor differences are down solely to age and warehouse location.

Nose: Chocolate-covered caramels. Root beer floats with vanilla ice cream. The aromas are aggressive at 65.4%, but subtleties and complexities lie hidden beneath that blanket of alcohol vapor. Something vegetal and rooty, like sassafras or filé powder. A strong sense of sappy, dark oak pervades, but the interplay between the sticky-sweet candy notes and the vegetal root notes drive the complexity. After a rest in the glass, a billowing cloud of butterscotch cake icing emerges. Yum.

Palate: It burns like fire! After much eye-watering and stamping of feet, I’m finally able to taste cinnamon red-hots, tannin-y charred oak (slightly bitter), and caramel hot cocoa. This is simply too strong to taste much at full proof.

Finish: Long and warming. The sweet candy notes return on the finish, along with Christmas mulling spices and and an overall feeling of well-being for having surmounted the obstacle… not unlike the feeling which must follow walking across hot coals. It fades elegantly, with a touch more of cinnamon and oak, but without the bitterness perceived on the tongue.

With Water: It should go without saying that this whiskey demands some water. A few drops fail to tame the nose tickle, (while bringing out some weird veggie notes like celery salt), nor the tongue burn. A much more aggressive watering (probably down to around 50%) yields a sour note – like apple cider vinegar – and reduces the nose tickle to a manageable level. The palate, much muted, reveals more cake-y notes with vanilla and buttercream. There’s still a great deal of oak.

Overall: A beast of a whiskey. Booker’s shows its best flavors and aromas while undiluted (except on the palate, where you can only taste fire), and provides a sense of accomplishment that few whiskies can offer when conquered neat. That said, one will be much more comfortable with a glass of Booker’s if a generous splash of water (or two) is used to tame it. Booker’s also shows off its strength (literally) in cocktails, where the extra concentration stands up to bitters, vermouth, sugar, and anything else you can throw at it.

Booker’s Bourbon (Batch C07-B-7)
65.4% ABV
ScotchNoob™ Mark:
Price Range: $50 - $55
Acquired: (Sample) Courtesy of DBC PR. Thanks Sarah!
Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , ,
4 Comments

Deanston Virgin Oak

This bottle caught my eye while browsing at a Total Wine & More in Phoenix, AZ. Craft presentation (46%+ ABV, and not chill-filtered), an interesting finish (in virgin oak, presumably charred), and $30? Sign me up! I’d never heard of the Central Highland distillery, Deanston, but at this price I figured I couldn’t go wrong.

I was… well, wrong.

It pains me to write this review (see Overall, below), because I’m very much in favor of distilleries getting on the NCF bandwagon and bottling at reasonable proofs. I’d love to support Deanston in its efforts, and in its price point, but the whisky is just simply not good.

Nose: An unappetizing chemical component, like partially-cured leather. Beeswax without the honey. Dry, dusty stale malt. Wet cardboard.

Palate: Nicely creamy body. Minimal tongue burn. A hint of honey, hardwood sawdust, and something saline, like salted ice cream.

Finish: Short. A lot of oaky bitterness, and a return of the wet cardboard. Slight nougat, and a tang of raw honey.

With Water: A small splash of water yielded a musty, fungal odor and upped all the negative notes. It also thinned the body somewhat, and added some hazelnut to the palate and finish, and made the finish somewhat sweeter. Not pleasant, either way.

Overall: Wow I really don’t like this. A shame, because I’ve read that recent changes at Deanston had upped its single-malt game. The craft presentation (non-chill-filtering and 46%+ ABV) is a huge plus, but it’s a pity that this NAS release fell horribly flat. I gave it the benefit of the doubt, too, and went through several glasses over several weeks before resigning myself to writing this review. It’s just not good, even at this bargain-basement price. It tastes like the “virgin oak” used to finish the whisky was from a tainted or improperly cured barrel. A pity, but I hold out hope that the age-statement releases are much better.

ScotchNoob™ Mark:

About The Distillery

Owned by Burn Stewart and, by extension, Trinidad drinks corporation Angostura, Central Highland distillery Deanston has two pairs of large stills with oversized balls to encourage reflux, and thus a lighter spirit. The distillery opened in 1965 in an old cotton mill. Its process water comes from the River Teith via a canal, and the river also powers electric turbines (and, once, the water wheel for the cotton mill). A recent refurbishment of the Deanston product line has released several non-chill-filtered, craft-strength malts (including an NAS bottling), and soon an organic release.

Deanston Virgin Oak
40% ABV
ScotchNoob™ Mark:
Price Range: $26 - $35
Acquired: (750ml bottle) Total Wine and More, Phoenix AZ, $30
Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , ,
4 Comments

Knob Creek Small Batch Bourbon (9 year)

After the dismal showing of that Kirkland (Costco) bottling of Beam bourbon, which I had hoped was a value bottling of Knob Creek, I found myself craving the real thing. The stuff may come from the same Beam distillery in Clermont, Kentucky, but it’s worlds different to my taste buds.

Knob Creek, a Beam brand, was created by bourbon legend and Beam master distiller Booker Noe in 1992. It’s aged longer than most bourbons (9 years), and bottled at a respectable 100 proof. It’s part of Beam’s “Small Batch” collection. See the link above for my thoughts on the “Small Batch” term.

Nose: Deeply caramelized sugar, heavy oak, molasses, and a maraschino cherry on top. This definitely benefits from a rest in the glass – the notes meld better and mellow. Now I get a little rye eucalyptus and pine sap, and some gentler malt and marshmallow notes.

Palate: Well rounded, with a spike of cherry tartness. Not cloyingly sweet, but barrel sugars and corn sweetness are evident. Still heavy on the wood, but the effect is bracing rather than astringent.

Finish: Long. A little of the pine sap comes back, along with corn-syrup candies (caramel corn), and a little drying wood tannin and some barbeque char. Little to no bitterness.

With Water: At 100 proof, this is intended to be mixed with something (water, ice, or vermouth and bitters). A few drops of water are effective at rounding off the edges and smoothing out the whole operation. I don’t detect any additional aromas or flavors, but the water doesn’t hurt, and does tame the burn.

Overall: A pleasant, forthright bourbon. It is oaked right up to the maximum of effectiveness (any more would be like chewing on bark), and delivers standard bourbon flavors with balance and without any off notes. Cheap enough (and the right ABV) for mixing, widely available, and robust enough to enjoy by the glass. You could certainly do worse than this for a house bourbon. Some of my best Manhattans and Old Fashioneds were made with Knob Creek.

Knob Creek Small Batch Bourbon (9 year)
50% ABV
ScotchNoob™ Mark:
Price Range: $26 - $32
Acquired: (750ml bottle) Beverages & More, San Jose, CA, $29
Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , ,
8 Comments

Angel’s Envy: Toast the Trees


I don’t normally post PR press releases, but this one from Angel’s Envy Bourbon tickled me. Also, they send me whisky to review, and I like that. The TL;DR version is: order a drink with Angel’s Envy in it during September 2014, snap a picture, and post it on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter with the #AE4THETREES hashtag, and they’ll plant an oak tree. The gimmick? Providing future oak barrels for the next generation of bourbon drinkers (and, by extension, scotch drinkers). Woo!


Louisville, Kentucky (September 1, 2014) – Louisville Distilling Co. LLC, producers of the highly celebrated Angel’s Envy super-premium bourbon, will Toast the Trees this September (aka National Bourbon Heritage Month), in an effort to fight back against the current bourbon barrel shortage.

With a sharp increase of new bourbon enthusiasts over the past several years, demand is higher than ever. Angel’s Envy is committed to helping make sure that there is always enough American white oak for the cooperages and bourbon distilleries of tomorrow to continue to age in new charred oak barrels. Angel’s Envy goes the extra step in finishing in port barrels.

This September, the World’s Highest Rated Bourbon is partnering with the Arbor Day Foundation to plant new white oak trees across North America for every picture bourbon enthusiasts take of an Angel’s Envy cocktail – neat, on-the-rocks or in a cocktail. Participants simply post their picture to Facebook, Instagram or Twitter with the hashtag #AE4THETREES. Angel’s Envy will plant a white oak tree for every picture posted this September bearing the hashtag.[1]

“We wanted to create a charitable initiative to engage our fans in a fun and meaningful way via social media where they’re already active,” said Samira Seiller, Managing Director of Louisville Distilling Company. “As Angel’s Envy grows, we realize it’s important to give back. Toast the Trees helps us to preserve the future of bourbon through planning and sustainability.”

About Angel’s Envy
The small batch artisan bourbon is the culmination of the late Master Distiller Lincoln Henderson’s storied career. One of the original pioneers of the premium bourbon and whiskey categories in the U.S., Lincoln came out of retirement to create the world’s finest bourbon on his own terms – with a simple desire to enjoy the art of making whiskey. The Master Distiller, who was an inaugural member of the Bourbon Hall of Fame also spent 40 years of working on world-class brands, such as Woodford Reserve and Jack Daniels.

In addition to the flagship bourbon port cask finish, the Company offers Angel’s Envy Cask Strength and Angel’s Envy Rye. Each Expression exhibits Lincoln’s passion for experimenting outside of conventional norms and producing unique whiskey steeped in tradition, but finished with a twist.

Posted in News
Leave a comment

Laphroaig Triple Wood

So what do you do when you want to beat a competitor’s vast success with Double Wood? Simple. Triple Wood! (Although Auchentoshan beat them to it). In this case, a reasonable vatting of standard ex-bourbon Laphroaig, Laphroaig Quarter-Cask (does that really count as a separate ‘wood’?), and ex-oloroso sherry casks. The whole is bottled at a robust 48% ABV and not chill-filtered.

Nose: Slightly muted (but recognizable) Laphroaig peat, with an immediate wave of fresh red fruits. This marriage creates a distinct ‘saltwater taffy’ vibe, of the red variety. Is ‘red saltwater taffy’ a tasting note? It is now. Deeper in there’s some plum jam, piney campfire smoke, and the usual Laphroaig ‘iodine’ (which I usually read as seaweed), although less than usual.

Palate: The red fruits come to the fore, and are sweeter than I expected – Jolly Rancher style. Red ones. Also, cinnamon red-hots, campfire smoke, seaspray, and wet charcoal.

Finish: Long-ish. The red fruit thing gets a little weird here. Jammy, but smoked. Without the sweet background of malt, it just leaves a taste like burned jam behind. At the tail end, a little bitter oak charcoal and some mint.

With Water: Water sparks up the fruitiness, and adds a little tartness. It does little on the palate besides tame the burn, although it allows some sweet notes to echo into the finish, thus reducing that dissonant burned jam note I mentioned. Water does help here.

Overall: This is not as well integrated as I’d like. When I drink Laphroaig, I want the bitter coastal salt-flecked winds of Islay to batter me. I want smoke and fire and salt. I don’t really want smoky jam… but that’s me. I usually have this reaction with sherry-aged peated malt (except Lagavulin Distiller’s Edition, where it works really well, and Kilchoman Machir Bay, where it only plays a supporting role). I mean – do you personally like strawberry jam with your smoked salmon, or grape preserves with your maki sushi? Through personal bias alone, I wouldn’t buy a bottle of this, saving my money instead for the essential Laphroaig 10 year – or two! That said, die-hard Laphroaig fans will need to buy a bottle to feed the obsession, and anyone who likes smokey jam – this is your moment.

ScotchNoob™ Mark:

About The Distillery

The heavily peated Laphroaig, pronouned “La-froyg”, was established on the southern coast of Islay in the mid 1820s. Laphroaig’s medicinal, seaweedy, ‘iodine’ flavors may be derived from its local, hand-cut peat, which is used to dry malt in its own floor maltings. The local peat is more fibrous than peat used by the Port Ellen Maltings on Islay, where other Islay distilleries source their peat. Laphroaig does source 80% or more of its malt from Port Ellen, since the maltings are too small to meet all of the distillery’s demand. Process water flows via a burn from the Sholum Lochs and collects in the Kilbride Dam. The water is highly acidic, but soft. The whisky is matured on-site, mostly in ex-bourbon casks from Maker’s Mark, in both dunnage and rack warehouses.

Laphroaig Triple Wood
48% ABV
ScotchNoob™ Mark:
Price Range: $60 - $75
Acquired: (30ml sample bottle) Master of Malt.
Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,
4 Comments

Exclusive Malts: Laphroaig (8 year) 2005-2013

(Note: This review directly contrasts this bottling with the official bottling of Laphroaig 10-year Cask Strength at 57.8%)

I received a sample of the Exclusive Malts single-cask bottling of Laphroaig, distilled 2005/bottled 2013, by the distributor ImpEx Beverages (Thanks Katia!). It’s a single-cask Laphroaig bottled at 55.9% ABV. As usual with single-casks from independents, I’m looking for two very specific things. I want it, first, to taste better than the similarly-aged cask-strength official bottling from the distillery (OR be significantly cheaper). Second, I want to detect something unique in it – a component from the official bottling that is amplified or elevated in the single-cask, or a unique note that gets hidden by the vatting of other casks in the official bottling. If it does not have both of those things, then I can’t see a reason to spend money on it.

Also, I’m always clear with anyone who sends me review samples, that I will not give a more positive review of something just because it’s free. I am, however, always grateful for samples – I love getting to taste a new whisky, especially when I can directly contrast it with a similar product from the same distillery. I also have a sample of Laphroaig’s official cask strength 10 year-old here, which I’ll refer to as “the OB”. With that said, let’s dive in…

Nose: Slightly more vanilla than the OB. Also, a bit more cereal sweetness. Not quite as much meatiness. Otherwise, notes are the same – intense Laphroaig peat and seaweed.

Palate: Far sweeter on the tongue than the OB. Vanilla in spades, and the usual complement of peat and salt notes, although not as complete as the OB is. This seems to be missing all of the charred meat notes.

Finish: Long, of course. Same notes (echoes of the peat and smoke aromas), but with a suggestion of sandalwood.

With Water: Water here does only what you’d expect it to – tames the burn, amps up the vanilla, and makes the finish sweeter. With this one, I would use water only to dilute the dram to a drinkable strength.

Overall: I struggle to find something unique here. It tastes like the OB cask strength, but with a few drops of vanilla extract added and with the complex smoky meaty flavor reduced. It could be thought of as a component of Laphroaig, and thus available as an analysis of one aspect of the OB, but its only claim to individuality – the increased vanilla – is little reason for me to own a bottle. Between the cheaper OB cask strength and this, I’ll opt for the OB.

ScotchNoob™ Mark:

About The Distillery

The heavily peated Laphroaig, pronouned “La-froyg”, was established on the southern coast of Islay in the mid 1820s. Laphroaig’s medicinal, seaweedy, ‘iodine’ flavors may be derived from its local, hand-cut peat, which is used to dry malt in its own floor maltings. The local peat is more fibrous than peat used by the Port Ellen Maltings on Islay, where other Islay distilleries source their peat. Laphroaig does source 80% or more of its malt from Port Ellen, since the maltings are too small to meet all of the distillery’s demand. Process water flows via a burn from the Sholum Lochs and collects in the Kilbride Dam. The water is highly acidic, but soft. The whisky is matured on-site, mostly in ex-bourbon casks from Maker’s Mark, in both dunnage and rack warehouses.

Exclusive Malts: Laphroaig (8 year) 2005-2013
55.9% ABV
ScotchNoob™ Mark:
Price Range: $80 - $100
Acquired: (Sample) Courtesy of ImpEx Beverages. Thanks, Katia!
Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,
1 Comment

Laphroaig (10 year) Cask Strength

This is the full cask strength version of Laphroaig’s flagship 10-year. At 57.8% ABV and not chill-filtered, this is essentially the standard 10-year minus water, and without the chill-filtration. That means there’s nothing between you and the raw fury of Laphroaig peat. Beware!

Note: This is a sample I saved from a friend’s bottle, so I don’t know which batch it was. Sorry!

Nose: Unmistakable Laphroaig peat. Seaweed and salt seaspray, with dense, meaty woodsmoke, like a driftwood bonfire on the beach. At 57.8% ABV, it will crawl right up your nose if you get too close. Meat notes dance around the edge – like the charbroiled crust of a well-salted steak. Powerful and lean.

Palate: At full proof, this stuff will take a layer of skin off of your tongue, and pour saltwater in the wound. Once your tongue gets good and numb from the punishment, you can taste, finally, the malty sweetness hidden beneath that fiery inferno of peat smoke.

Finish: Super long. Meaty again, with crusty barbecued meat (minus the bbq sauce), smoldering campfire embers, and crispy dried seaweed (nori). Fades (amazingly) without bitterness. A welcome respite from the torrent of flame.

With Water: A healthy splash of water is almost required, as the malt is barely drinkable neat. Try to aim for a robust 50% ABV. At this point, the nose is more correctly balanced between woodsmoke, salt, and sweet cereals. Vanilla saltwater taffy emerges, and the finish acquires something minty. At even further dilution, look for some very faint fruit notes – strawberry or raspberry, and a more mossy, subdued peat.

Overall: I only have a sample here, but if I had a full bottle I might view it as an Everest in my cabinet. I would rarely be in the mood to hike its treacherous peaks, but once in awhile the manly urge to conquer might rise in my chest and I might crack open the bottle to brave the frostbite and possible loss of life or limb that waits inside. Seriously though, this is a challenging whisky that should only be attempted once a healthy respect for both heavily peated Islay (try Laphroaig 10 first) AND cask strength single malt (try Aberlour abunadh first as well). Even when you’re ready for it, don’t be a hero. Put in some water.

ScotchNoob™ Mark:

About The Distillery

The heavily peated Laphroaig, pronouned “La-froyg”, was established on the southern coast of Islay in the mid 1820s. Laphroaig’s medicinal, seaweedy, ‘iodine’ flavors may be derived from its local, hand-cut peat, which is used to dry malt in its own floor maltings. The local peat is more fibrous than peat used by the Port Ellen Maltings on Islay, where other Islay distilleries source their peat. Laphroaig does source 80% or more of its malt from Port Ellen, since the maltings are too small to meet all of the distillery’s demand. Process water flows via a burn from the Sholum Lochs and collects in the Kilbride Dam. The water is highly acidic, but soft. The whisky is matured on-site, mostly in ex-bourbon casks from Maker’s Mark, in both dunnage and rack warehouses.

Laphroaig (10 year) Cask Strength
57.8% ABV
ScotchNoob™ Mark:
Price Range: $60 - $80
Acquired: Sample from a friend's bottle.
Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,
4 Comments

Should I Go To a Whisky Show?

Someone asked me this a few weeks ago: Should a newbie whisky lover consider going to a whisky show like WhiskyFest, Whiskies of the World, or one of the similar shows held annually across the world? Obviously, I can’t answer the question for everyone, but I thought I’d break down my thoughts on the matter and maybe help you decide for yourself if a whisky show is the right choice for you.

Before we begin, a caveat: I have been to exactly two of these (one WhiskyFest in San Francisco in 2011, and one Whiskies of the World in San Jose in 2014), so my opinion might not be as valuable as a jaded whisky marketer or representative who has been to hundreds of the things. Then again, my perspective might be less jaded and thus more useful. You decide.

First, you must ask yourself why you want to attend a show. They’re short (2 hours, or so), crowded, noisy, and usually require you to establish alternative transportation home. I’ll organize my thoughts based on the possible answers to this question.

1. To drink a lot of free whisky!

Tickets to a whisky show will range from $50 to $150 (or much, much higher) per person. At my last show I tasted about 40 whiskies in the two hours allotted and paid $65 for my ticket. That’s a little higher than $1 per taste, which would be a good deal if I’d been able to taste ANYTHING after the first eight pours or so, or if I’d been physically capable of swallowing more than about 10% of it (I spat or poured the rest out). You’d likely be able to enjoy the whisky more by spending $65 on 6 to 8 decent drams at a well-stocked bar, and taking your time.

Also, you will not be able to taste everything you want. Most tables have between 2 and 10 bottles, and there are dozens of tables. Hit your “must do” tables early in the evening, and then focus on tables without long lines. You can’t possibly taste them all, so know that beforehand.

2. To try things I couldn’t afford to buy, or can’t find.

While it’s true that whisky shows will attract big brands with pricy bottles to pour, the vast majority of the product on the floor will be either cheap (bottom-shelf brands trying to drum up business in an industry increasingly focused on premium product), bad (“craft” producers riding the craft wave with 18 month-old swill), widely available (everything at the Diageo table, and of course the 10, 12, 15, and 18 year products from all of the major producers), or not even whisky (brandy, vodka, gin, rum, tequila, etc. also trying to ride the wave of whisky popularity). You will certainly find a few gems: 18, 21, or 25 year-old bottles, choice independent bottles or rare distilleries (I had an awesome Mortlach from Gordon & MacPhail at WoW 2014), really good craft products (Corsair, Lost Spirits, or High West for example), or special editions that sell out quickly. There’s sometimes even a Pappy Van Winkle table, at least there was at WhiskyFest in 2011. Of course, it will be difficult to enjoy those gems due to the beating your sense of taste and smell have taken from previous pours, and the large crowds (‘lines’ would be too generous) that develop around those tables.

Also, the “best stuff” is usually reserved for very pricey VIP sessions on the tasting floor, or for equally pricey seminars.

3. To have a good time with friends who also enjoy whisky.

Shows are a great way for a small whisky appreciation group to get out and do a group activity. Some shows offer group discounts as well, and you can probably drum up a designated driver or two, or split accommodations in a hotel. Remember, though, that the expo hall will be noisy, everyone will have their own priority list of tables to visit, and few tables can handle more than four to six people at once. The chance of your whole group getting to stand around and chat with Julian Van Winkle over some Pappy is… well, zero.

4. To meet whisky celebrities.

Some shows bill high-visibility luminaries like master distillers, CEOs, authors or journalists, and prominent representatives like Dr. Bill Lumsden from Glenmorangie, John Glaser from Compass Box, and Richard Patterson from Whyte and MacKay. These people are usually attending the show to give seminars, but often hover around their company’s tables for part of the show. I’ve met John Hansell of Whisky Advocate, Steve Beal of Diageo, David Perkins of High West, Steve McCarthy of Clear Creek Distillery, John Glaser of Compass Box, and (OK I just stood near him) Julian Van Winkle III of Pappy fame. If geeking out for 3 seconds while shaking the hand of one of the heroes of whiskydom is your bag, then book your ticket now… but make sure to check the advertised attendee list and don’t get your hopes up. These events can be crowded.

5. To attend seminars.

Most whisky shows offer topical seminars about appreciating whisky. They usually cover aspects of tasting/nosing, blending, distillation, maturation, and other salient aspects of the industry. They also usually include samples to nose and taste while listening. Sometimes these offer vertical tastings that would be difficult (or impossible) to organize on your own, or include difficult-to-get products like new make (white dog), heads or tails from a distillation run, whisky from closed distilleries, privately-bottled whisky, or partially-aged spirit or blending components that aren’t bottled by themselves. The price is usually in excess of the value of the samples, however, and they’re almost always scheduled in such as way that you’d miss part of your time on the tasting floor… especially if you want to attend more than one seminar. Keep a close eye on the scheduled times (and available tickets) when choosing a seminar.

A few other things to note. Some tables often offer free merchandise (no, never actual whisky) like hats, whisky glasses, flasks, and the like. This isn’t nearly as common, though, as it is at other shows (like tech conventions). You’ll usually get a program and a tasting glass when you check in for the event, and sometimes a bag to carry any loot you might acquire, but you might also consider bringing your own bag in case they don’t offer one. There will be ample bottled water, and enough neutral-tasting snacks or finger-food to curb any appetite you might drum up while tasting. There will be buckets at each table for disposing of your extra whisky, since most tables will pour you more than you need to taste. You can either sip a little, swallow, and pour the rest in the bucket, or sip, taste, spit it back in your glass, and then pour that in the bucket. Never spit directly into the bucket, please!

You will NEED to spit! If you take a single swallow from every bottle that you can possibly taste in 2 hours, you will die of alcohol poisoning. Seriously though, just swallow the exceptional stuff and spit/pour out the rest. This is not a place at which to get roaring drunk.

You will find it difficult to get timely pours at every table, since the event will be full enough (especially in the first hour) to keep you waiting in small lines at the popular tables. Don’t push, but feel free to tap on the shoulders of people who already have a pour and ask if you can slip in. You may need to catch the attention of the representatives pouring the whisky, especially if someone else is bending their ear. Don’t be rude, however.

Speaking of which, don’t ask difficult questions unless you know you’re speaking to someone who has the answers. The people pouring are usually reps from the local distributor or importer, or simply people hired by those companies. They can answer simple questions, but don’t ask them what the mashbill is, or the angle of the lyne arm, unless you know you’re talking to someone who actually works at a distillery. That said, some reps are more knowledgeable than others.

I suggest keeping a bottle of water in your pocket, and rinsing out your glass (and your mouth) between every pour. This can get annoying, but it’s worth it to avoid everything tasting like peat after you visit the Ardbeg table. It’s also worth scheduling your stops to put peated malts at the end, but that works better in theory than practice. Don’t try to write down notes, but it might be worth carrying a pocket recorder (or using an app on your cellphone) to record your notes. You simply won’t remember anything about what you tasted later if you don’t record notes.

Lastly, arrive at the venue early (15 to 30 minutes at least) to check-in. You don’t want to lose tasting time standing in line at 5 minutes past the hour to register late. Don’t bring anything you aren’t willing to carry around, in case there’s no coat check.

I hope I’ve answered some latent questions about whisky shows, and I hope I’ve given enough information to help you make your own decision. If you simply want to try a wide range of whiskies in order to expand your horizons and identify a few products that are worth a closer look, a whisky show is perfect for you. Just don’t expect to leisurely sample high-end products and chat with whisky celebrities. Ask questions in the comments below. Cheers!

Posted in Articles | Tagged ,
2 Comments