This weekend, I had the pleasure of attending the Whiskies of the World 2016 show in San Francisco on the beautiful Hornblower Yacht: The San Fransisco Belle. While it remained docked throughout the show, the motion of the waves definitely seemed to… uhh, intensify as the night’s tastings went on.
This trip was an extremely generous gift from my Brother-in-Law’s girlfriend (Thanks Dalina!) and marks the first time I’ve attended an event like this with a VIP ticket, as well as the first time I’ve attended a whisky show with someone else. Long-time readers may remember that I attended WhiskyFest in 2011 and Whiskies of the World: San Jose in 2014. If you’re thinking about attending one of these shows, make sure to read my Survival Guide.
The event in San Francisco is a bit larger than the one in San Jose, with perhaps 30% more booths. There was no confusion or difficulty lining up and getting our wristbands, although I advise showing up at least 30 minutes early, to avoid being the last on the ship. The event took up two floors of the riverboat, plus a dinner buffet for the “Dram Club” members on the first deck, and a cigar lounge / masterclass tent on the top deck. The food was not nearly as good as San Jose’s, with just a few nibbles to choose from: cheese cubes, salami, crackers, olives, and assorted pickled vegetables. The VIP ticket is a resounding “Must Buy”: The extra hour you get on the boat allows you nearly instant access to pours at the booths, with very little wait. Louis and I did nearly all of the tastings that we wanted to hit during that first hour, leaving us the remaining three hours to relax with a cigar, explore the boat, and attend a seminar. Once the general admission ticketholders entered the main show floors, lines 5 or 6 people deep appeared at many tables, and navigating between booths became tedious. I believe I’ll be purchasing VIP tickets at all upcoming whisky shows that I attend.
For those wondering, the third tier of ticket, the “Dram Club” gave a few perks that I don’t think are worth the extra cost: a real Glencairn instead of a throwaway sipping glass, an extra 5 minutes on board the ship when the gates opened, the hot dinner buffet (which would have chewed up a bunch of precious time. Just eat beforehand), a free seminar, and an afterparty. Both VIP and “Dram Club” tickets gave access to that prime first hour of tastings, plus special expressions at some booths that aren’t available after the first hour.
Water bottles were freely available, as well as coke and ginger ale on ice (at the bar). Each attendee was given a cheap cloth bag with a logo tasting glass and a program (with booth map).
A few highlights from the show: Redbreast 21 and Barry Crockett Legacy at the Midleton booth were excellent (although I’m not sure I would lay down the significant amount of cash necessary for a bottle of either). Alexander Murray had a booth – interesting to see them expanding beyond bottling for Trader Joe’s and Costco, although I thought their Polly’s Cask expression uninteresting. Compass Box had Hedonism, Spice Tree, and Peat Monster, but no John Glaser this time. I got to try the Oban Little Bay, an NAS that uses smaller casks a la Laphroaig Quarter-Cask. While I thought the quarter-cask effect was noticeable (more vanilla, brown sugar, and oaky tannins), the overall expression lacked depth. I found Johnnie Walker Blue Label (my first!) to be wholly disappointing, and much drier/smokier than I expected. It’s light, smoky, with a ton of pencil shavings, but not a lot of opulence. The new Johnnie Walker Select Casks: Rye Cask finish was very interesting, though, and worth a second look. It definitely shows rye characteristics of cinnamon and spice. A shining star was the Highland Park Dark Origins, with 75% first-fill sherry casks aging. Very heavily sherried, with lots of fruitcake, resin, and tobbaco. The sherry almost overwhelms the peat, which in a Highland Park isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I enjoyed it very much. The Lagavulin 12 year was (as I’ve experienced before) hot, rough, fiery, and not as mellow as the 16 year. I really don’t know why people pay extra for it. The Lagavulin Double Matured (aka sherry finished) was mediocre – with almost no sherry character. I’d skip it. I also tried the current Uigeadail, and was just as underwhelmed as last time.
It was nice to see Carin from SIA Blended Scotch representing her own Kickstarted brand. I had a brief conversation with Diageo’s Steve Beal, a fixture at these events. Also had a brief discussion with a Diageo rep about NAS whiskies, with both of us conceding that most of the buying public would turn their noses up at a bottle with a “5 year” on the label, even if the liquid inside was actually better than a comparably-priced bottle with a more acceptable age statement (like 12). My counter (as always) is that the average consumer has no way to know if the liquid inside is actually better, and it can be considerably worse. Less information cannot lead to better purchasing decisions, even though age statements are a faulty marker of quality.
Lastly, Louis and I attended a seminar on pairing whisky with cigars. I learned some interesting things about cigars, including the useful knowledge that while cigar length determines the amount of time it takes to smoke the cigar, the ring size (or girth) determines the amount of smoke in each puff. Thus, a thinner cigar will produce less volume of smoke per draw than a fatter one. That will be useful to know next time I’m choosing a cigar. Also learned that machine-rolled cigars often have a layer (or tube) of wood pulp and tobacco that gives it enough rigidity for the machine to fill it – this, according to the speaker, makes them taste and smell a bit like burning garbage. A good reason to choose a premium, hand-rolled cigar.
Overall, I had a great time and would definitely attend the San Francisco Whiskies of the World event again in the future. I’ll definitely spring for the VIP ticket at any whisky show – that extra hour with less crowds (and usually special pours!) is just too valuable to pass up. Louis and I got to taste the whiskies we wanted to (plenty enough, to be sure), relax, and take our time to enjoy the whole event.