Well, it’s over. My first whisky festival was a fantastic experience. I tasted around 42 whiskies (plus a few that I didn’t remember to take notes on), managed to not get too drunk to navigate MUNI home, and met some great people in the business. Here are some highlights, as transcribed from my increasingly slurred voice recorder notes:

* Met and shook hands with John Glaser of Compass Box. I admit to being a tad star-struck, but I gave him my card and told him that I think he’s doing great things for whisky. He was very gracious – a really nice guy. Also, Great King Street (his new ‘value’ blended scotch) qualifies hands-down as the best inexpensive blend I’ve ever had.

* Met and exchanged a few words with John Hansell, Publisher and Editor of Malt Advocate – excuse me – Whisky Advocate, and the presiding patriarch of WhiskyFest itself. Thanked him for running my letter to the editor. Another really nice guy.

* Confirmed my suspicions that Redbreast 15 isn’t a major upgrade in flavor from Redbreast 12. Unfortunately, there was no Redbreast 12 cask strength to try, which is something I’m very much looking forward to.

* Tried the Van Winkle 12 year-old bourbon. While quite tasty and of evident quality, it doesn’t have the unctuous mouthfeel or glorious flavor profile of the older Pappy Van Winkles. Saw Julian Van Winkle, but didn’t get to talk to him. Star-struck anew.

* Sampled the increasingly older GlenDronachs, which were increasingly awesome. The 18 year-old “Allardice” was unbelievable; it hits every note in the chord. The 21 year almost as good: although a little over the hill in terms of woodiness.

* Swag! Snagged a Talisker shot glass (who drinks Talisker out of a shot glass?) a Johnnie Walker Double-Black rocks glass (I didn’t taste anything ‘doubled’ – it just tasted like JW Black to me), a Johnnie Walker baseball cap, and of course the WhiskyFest 2011 Glencairn glass.

* Spit out everything (especially the cask-strengths) except the really nice (read: out of my price range) stuff. Still left pleasantly inebriated. Just goes to show you that anyone trying to drink every sample would be down for the count before the 1-hour mark.

* Learned that there’s no earthly way to take written notes on tastings and keep up a decent pace, so the Voice Memos app on my phone came in very handy, especially once I figured out how to pause and resume recording with one hand. 🙂

Overall, it was a great time, and totally worth the $135 ticket price. I will certainly be attending next year, and now that I’ve got a festival under my belt, I feel prepared to attend Whiskies of the World SF in 2012.

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  • I’m not surprised Van Winkle 12 tastes different from its older brethren. For one thing Van Winkle 12 is made at Buffalo Trace while the older expressions are the remaining product of a closed distillery.

  • i wondered at these whisky tastings if people spit out the samples like they do at wine tastings. with so much of the character of a particular whisky determined by the finish, doesn’t this cut the experience short?

    • Hi Jordan, I had the same concern when I attended my first festival. The fact is, you *cannot* swallow every sample you get, even if you pour out the remainder in your glass. If you did, you’d be too drunk to smell or taste anything before getting your money’s worth out of the event. 😉 While it’s true that you lose the portion of the experience by not swallowing, you can get an estimation of the finish by breathing slowly out of your mouth after spitting. You can actually get a bit inebriated just by the absorption of alcohol (especially with the cask-strength whiskies) through your gums and tongue.

      Furthermore, after 5 or 6 whiskies they all start to taste very similar (even with water breaks to cleanse the palate), so you’re not getting a perfect evaluation of each whisky anyway.

      My strategy (which worked pretty well) was to only swallow the rare or expensive drams, and spit out everything else. Since I was really there to sample as much as I could (as opposed to carefully evaluating every whisky), this gave me a good sense (recorded on a voice recorder) of the overall style and quality of everything I tasted. Of course, I had neither the time nor the presence of mind to do any full tasting notes, so the only notes I gathered are represented in the above article. Even with all the spitting, I still needed to use public transportation to get home.