Show Recap – WhiskyFest San Francisco 2017

I had the good fortune (thanks blog advertising income!) to attend the 2017 San Francisco WhiskyFest at the Marriot Marquis in downtown San Francisco this past weekend, with a VIP ticket. (I’ll get to that in a minute.) As in the past, I took voice notes and typed them up in a stream-of-consciousness style of micro-reviews, below. If you bother to read them, take them with a grain of salt – we’re talking about a glass that’s difficult to rinse out between pours, a noisy room, a hectic event schedule, food eaten periodically, and of course the snowball effect of tasting a lot of whisky, much of it cask strength and a lot of it heavily peated. Towards the end, my notes on some drams amount to “I can’t tell – it tastes like whisky”. Useful, right?

I tasted slightly more than 40 different whiskies over the course of four hours, and attended two seminars. I think the VIP ticket, although a whopping $300 (!!), is really the only way to do WhiskyFest. The mobbing of the popular (and even those of middling popularity) tables when the general admission crowd enters the hall is dispiriting at best, and all of the “good” (expensive) pours have either run out or been put away by then. Of the 101 whiskies on my “must taste” list (HA!), around 75 were VIP-only pours. Also, if you’re interested in all three of the seminars timeslots, that first VIP hour is the vast majority of your available time in the exhibition hall. Without it, you’d have (maximum) 45 minutes to get pours. Trust me, that time flies.

There were good choices for the seminars, and although I was eager to taste through a lineup of Japanese whiskies focusing on the effects of Mizunara oak, that one filled up before I could get in line. I did get to listen to Alex Chasko talk about the new Teeling distillery in Dublin and taste through their (sourced) lineup, including an incredible 24 year-old Irish single malt finished in Sauternes ($280 a bottle – ugh). Look forward to a single pot-still from Teeling coming out next year (ish)! I also got to meet Matt Hofmann of the Westland distillery in Seattle, and taste through their lineup. All impressive, especially the Garryana 2.1 release, partially aged in Pacific Northwest Quercus garryana oak casks.

As for the main hall, there were 92 tables, each featuring between 2 and 10 individual whiskies. The buffet-style food was excellent, and did not clash with any of the whiskies, although I could have wished for more finger-food for carrying into lines. My one big complaint is that despite the premium paid for a VIP ticket, the most-popular tables (Macallan, Glenfiddich, Ardbeg, Glenmorangie, etc.) had lines 10 to 12 people deep within 5 minutes of the doors opening. That never happened at Whiskies of the World. Just sayin’. Also, the Pappy Van Winkle table’s cordoned-off line ran the ENTIRE width of the exhibition hall for most of the night. I’d estimate there were between 50 and 70 people in line for a majority of the time. Good Lord. I should also note that a handful of the listed VIP-only pours were not available at all (Glenmorangie Signet) or ran out so quickly that they were unavailable 30 minutes into VIP hour (Wild Turkey Master’s Keep Decades).

If you don’t want to read through the notes below (really, why would you want to at all?), here are the highlights:

  • Westland Garryana 2.1 – Excellent, and a fascinating look at a totally unique type of whisky.
  • Hibiki 17 – WOW. I need to own this. Like the old Hibiki 12 but 100% better in every way. Ethereal. Heavenly.
  • Hibiki Harmony – Meh. Not as good as the old 12-year. A mild disappointment.
  • Redbreast 21 – Unreal. The best whisky of the night, for me. Mountains of tropical fruit, underscored by meaty unctuous pot-still oiliness.
  • Bruichladdich Octomore 7.3 – Everything I like about Ardbeg Corryvreckan, but better. Citrus peel, intense but balanced peat. Better than the 7.1.
  • Ardbeg An Oa – Mediocre (I think, I’d had a lot by this point). Sweetish, like Uigeadail, but without the punch.
  • Bladnoch – The entire (new) range is strong. This is all whisky acquired via the recent sale of the distillery, and it’s all very good, although heavily finished.

For the truly bored, here are my stream-of-consciousness transcribed notes from the event:

Westland Garryana 2.1. Very good. Cinnamon. Potent and concentrated. Chocolate and orange peel, like usual stuff but better. Peat Week v.4 – mild (Highland) peat. Seemed “weak” compared to Garryana. Glenmo Astar (2nd ed.). Soft spices, sandalwood. Soft grains. Banana. Tropical fruit – coconut. Good. Interesting finish with a lot of fruit. Balvenie 15 Single Barrel (Sherry cask) – nice bright fruit. A little plum (darker, red, but not dried fruit). Stewed plums maybe. Delicate. Definitely Balvenie. Honey and Heather on finish. Hot (high proof). Booker’s Rye. Hot, spicy. TONS of clove, some pine. A little fruit (cherry), but more like cooked cherry. Definitely rye. Super hot. OUCH. Really big, potent, but not super special. Hibiki Harmony – Perfumed. Some plum. Like the 12 but just “not all there”. Like it enough, though. Check price? Hibiki 17 WAY more potent – a real spike of cherry blossom. Plum wine. Tart, even. Floral. Gentle. Wow. Excellent. Subtle but amazing. Even stood out against high proof stuff beforehand. Would love to own. Stranahan Snowflake 2017 (recent release). Smells craft. Off note, grainy. Industrial? Strong beer malt flavor, nice. Finishes grain-forward, a little smoke or wood. Would be disappointed if I had bought it. Lagavulin 8. Very peaty (of course). Some nice vanilla in there. Light wood. Pale color. Meaty. Hot (CS?). Good – straightforward, but very Lagavulin. Very potent, but not refined. Not sweet. Way smokier. Like it, but wouldn’t pay “more” than Laga 16. Wild Turkey Rare Breed. Soft. Little spicy. Hot. Tons of cherry. Nice. Even more cherry on finish, like cherrywood smoked. Would be great in cocktails (price?) Compass Box Double Single. Glen Elgin and Girvan, although smells like Clynelish. Waxy, sweet. Excellently fruity and floral. So much fruit (fruit punch). But waxy! Really good. Nose best part. Phenomenology (The one they want people to guess, and they’ll reveal the recipe in January 2018). Banana. Mostly Banana. I dunno. Hot. Refill sherry? Not great. Wouldn’t buy it. Glengoyne 21. Lots of rancio. Typical sherry, a little less sherry/less bright than younger Glengoyne. Very good. Rancio carries through. Starting to lose ability to taste. Redbreast 21. Aroma unexpected – KIWI. Grapefruit! Coconut (water, not dried). Sharp. Tart. Fruity nose. Best tonight so far. Oils (less than 12), more tropical fruit. Dragonfruit? Passionfruit? Guava? Can’t tell. Amazing. Redbreast Lustau. Not nearly as much fruit on nose, but some of the oil. Some wood. A little bourbony. A bit hot. Don’t like as much as 12. Less oil, less fruit, more wood. Green Spot aged in Chateau Montelena Zinfandel (releases later this year). Vanilla. Coconut. Soft. Not oily. Green Spot for sure. Bubble gum from the wine, not overt or tannin-y. Good, a bit more wine flavor on palate. Grape (red grapes). Don’t need to own. Bruichladdich Octomore 7.1 and 7.3 – 7.3 is lemon peel/citrus like Corry. VERY good. Super hot. Soft despite high ppm. 7.1 not quite as nice, nor as much fruit. Good, but 7.3 better. Islay Barley Port Charlotte. Nice, but hard to taste. Black Art 7-series – Gentler on nose. Dark fruits. Resin. Sherry. Lots of sherry – sherry bomb with background of intense peat, well complemented. Real good. Weller 12 – Sweet wheat. Herbal. Good. Honeyed, maybe. A little spice. Hot ish. Woody. OK. Blade and Bow – Standard bourbon, lot of sawdust, pencil shavings. Very woody on nose. Bad oak ish. Palate some fruit, cherry. Orange peel? Very bitter. Lots of charcoal. Don’t like it. Ardbeg An Oa – A little piney smoke. Definitely Ardbeg. Christmas tree, almost. A little sweeter than usual (like Uige). Wonder what it is? Sweet, almost syrupy body. Interesting. I like the 10 better. This is a little sweeter, milder? BLADNOCH new lineup – company bought in 2015 from Diageo. Impressive range. Bladnoch 15 (?) Oloroso? One is CA red wine 7-8 years? Older (25) in Port Pipes. All three quite good. Liked all of them. Good fruit presence, well-balanced, not bitter, not overly wooded, not too young/grainy. Blend (Pure Scot) 30% malt various distilleries in virgin oak – decent, reminds me of Bank Note, would only buy if cheaper than Bank Note. Rebel Yell Single Barrel 10 year. Very sweet. Soft on nose. Very soft – lots of wheat. Biscuit. Light, reserved, tannic on palate. Finish just OK. Blood Oath bourbon (CA wine casks) (3rd ed) Bourbon. More fruit – cherry. Not too grappa-like. Some grape (red), Bourbon with some well-balanced red wine, no off notes. Cranberry? It’s OK. Shackleton blend (new release – this is different from the one-off Shackleton replicas from several years ago) Blue bottle. Nose is light, malt-forward. Watery. Wouldn’t buy. Highland Park Magnus – Light peat. Citrus, lemon. Lemon-lime nose. Malty. Light. Not very highly peated. (Hard to taste at this point).

Alex Chasco Teeling tasting – ALL SOURCED (until 2018 when 6-y/o is ready). New distillery is triple AND double distilling. 3 copper pot stills. SOME SINGLE POT STILL COMING! 8 types of spirit can be produced. All 46%, NCF. Single Grain is 95% French-sourced non-GMO grain on a column still. Aged in French Oak CA red wine casks. Biscuity, dry, grappa (grape skins). Palate soft, fruit, spicy with lots of clove. Grappa finish. Small Batch – Blend of ex-bourbon malt, ex-bourbon grain that are married 6 months in rum casks. Reasonable but spirity. Rum casks are refill. Age range of components up to 18 yr. Changes batch-to-batch! Single Malt – A bunch of stuff including maderia and port-aged, ex-bourbon, also 20% volume is aged in CA wine casks, some also from sherry. Fruity, spices. Ages range 2001 – 2009 (to 2017 so 8 to 16 yr). 24 Year-old Vintage Reserve is their 21 year-old sourced single malt aged for an extra 3 years in Sauternes casks. YUM! Golden raisins, Kiwi, passionfruit. VERY nice. 5 ppm (how?!) 1991 vintage 100%.

Westland Tasting – “Pacific Northwest is best place to grow barley for beer – that’s why they make malt whisky” Use #1 and #3 char barrels. TRANSPARENCY (lots of info on website). All currently 3-5 yr. Aging some older stuff, but not focusing on age. Want barley and yeast to show, not oak. All NCF. American Oak bottling – Belgian yeast for fruit. New oak. Banana nut bread, dark chocolate nibs. Slow-grown oak, air-dried staves. Sherry Wood bottling – Oloroso and PX. Some full-term sherry, some 2 years in new oak and finished in sherry. 20% no sherry at all. Raisiny. Good, lots of chocolate (chocolate-covered cherries). Licorice? Peated bottling – 20 ppm Highland peat. Combination of 50ppm and standard recipe. Middling peat. Garryana bottling 2.1 – Garry oak is air dried for 3 years (longest of oaks). Like Quercus Alba but “darker” notes. 50% ABV. 23% of volume is aged in Garry – would be too strong/woody otherwise. Used a lot of pale malt (non-roasted) to let the Garry shine. Peat Week edition 4… made once/yr during Peat Week festival at distillery. 54.4% ABV, made in 7 casks (5 new oak, 2 ex-bourbon). Peat is Highland peated malt from Scotland. Campfire. Hot. Good.

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  • Noob,
    I went to my first whisky show last year. For me, the highlight was trying such a wide variety of whiskies given that there just aren’t many opportunities to do so in Canada. Like you, I found the more expensive pours were gone quickly, although the Dalmore table had King Alexander 3 that people didn’t seem
    aware of. Like you, I also found my palate destroyed an hour or two in. Everything started to taste the same and subtlety was gonzo. That said, it was great fun and worth it to try such a wide variety of Malts. Unfortunately, we were at the mercy of the exhibitors in that there were zero Japanese malts and only one distillery from islay (huge disappointment). It is Canada’s 150th anniversary, so there were many Rye whiskies on offer instead. I’m going back this year – hopefully there are some more diverse scotches on offer.

  • Excellent tips. I just signed up for my first whisky convention – Whiskies of the World on Nov 4 in Atlanta. 53 sponsors in attendance: 30 are American, 13 Scotch, 2 Irish, 1 Indian, 1 French and 6 independent bottlers. The VIP price is $145 relative to $120 for general admission – a no brainer. Looking forward to it!

  • I recently got back from Japan and brought back a bottle of the 17 and a 21 from Narita duty free, 100% worth it, only caught onto it because of this site.

    • Was referring to the Hibiki, if you find the 17 it’s a decent price to quality ratio, though still not cheap at around $250. 21 is amazing but not worth the $500 price tag.

  • I had the good fortune to attend my first whiskey convention yesterday – Whiskies of the World in Atlanta. The event certainly exceeded my expectations, and that was largely due to the fact I was armed with sound advice from SN. I’ll hit some high- (and low-) lights below, with specific commentary, by booth, to follow.
    Caveat: I much prefer scotch to bourbon, so the vast majority of my time was spent at the scotch booths, as opposed to the bourbon stations.
    • 51 sponsors and over 250 whiskies available for sampling. Roughly 60% bourbon or American whiskey/rye, 25% scotch. The remainder were Irish, independents, Indian, and French
    • The VIP pass is a must-have. In the first hour we visited almost every booth that was on our hit list. Over the remainder of the time that allowed us flexibility to visit others or re-visit our favorites (more on that below)
    • Inexplicably, lots of people spend 30 mins or more waiting in line at a custom pasta bar. I would have none of that. I just grabbed a well-adorned turkey sandwich or two and got back to the whiskey.
    • There were 6-8 Masterclasses over the course of the evening. They are free and seemed to be first come first served. Although I had tickets I was never asked to show them
    • Most booths had very knowledgeable and motivated staff. Some were actually Scottish. A few booths leaned toward the eye candy as opposed to informed employee who actually had skin in the game.
    • I didn’t count the number of whiskies I tasted, but it was plenty. I never stood in a line longer than 2 minutes before getting a pour (although I did often dodge the booths with longer lines until they died down). I managed to taste every dram on my hit list, and some multiple times.
    • Best booth: Dewars. Wonderful bar-like presentation with a real wooden table to pour and a glass shelf behind the servers to show off the remaining bottles. 12 expressions from: Dewars, Craigellachie, Royal Brackla, Aberfeldy, Aultmore, and Deveron. The premium pours – Craigellachie 23, Aberfeldy 21 and Dewars Signature were flowing all night long
    • Worst booth: Glenmorangie. No backdrop. Just a small table with 4 bottles being sloppily managed by 3 ladies that seemed far from excited to be there. But the biggest faux paux was they had a “demonstration” bottle of Signet sitting on the table but wouldn’t pop the cork and pour it. They claimed it was just for display…lame indeed!
    • Best whisky: Balblair 1983. I tasted this expression 3 times over the course of the evening, just to make sure!
    Insofar as the individual booths:
    • Compass Box. Spice Tree Extravaganza is a big step up from the standard Spice Tree and (almost) worth the premium charged. One of the best drams of the event. Also learned that Peat Monster is comprised of Caol Ila, Laphroaig and Ardmore
    • Clyde May. Maybe the only bourbon I tasted since it’s one of my favorites (and I’m from Alabama). Offered up all 4 of their available expressions
    • Amrut. Booth manned by an informed Indian employee named Raj. Sadly, no Intermediate Sherry and I was told it was being discontinued in its present form. Tried a beauty called Kadhambam.
    • Paul John. Another Indian whisky but not one I tried previously. Tasted 3 expressions: Classic (unpeated), Edited (lightly peated), Peated (heavily peated). Didn’t care for any of them. Featured a prominent peanut nose that I don’t personally care for. Also, something about the person serving it not being Indian also bothered me a tad.
    • Glen Moray. Light and lacks personality. I tried the 18 (didn’t bother with the NAS, 10 or 15) and was not impressed
    • Black Bull. Duncan Taylor blends. 50% ABV. Tried the 12 (sherried) and the 21 (ex bourbon). Pass
    • Kilchoman. I love Kilchoman. Offered up Machir Bay (85 bourbon / 15 sherry), Sanaig (50/50) and Loch Gorm (0/100). Sanaig was my fav.
    • Glenmorangie. Astar (cask strength NAS) is nice but sweet. The 18 is over-priced and drinks younger. Weren’t offering the luscious Nectar D’Or. Disappointing booth.
    • Brenne. French whisky. NAS tasted like cherry soda. The 10 was fine, but at >$100, forget it
    • The strangest booth at the event featured: Laphroaig (but only Select), Auchentoshen (but only Three Wood) and Bowmore (but only 15 Darkest). I don’t care for any of these offerings, but this was the only booth featuring a meaningful give-a-way, a real Glencairn class featuring the Laphroaig logo
    • Glengoyne. I had the 21. Lovely sherried dram but there are better to be found. Also presented the 10, 15, and 18 that I didn’t bother with.
    • Benromach. I had the 15. Lovely. Unlike SN, I liked it better than the 10. Unfortunately the vendor said he dropped the 10yr cask strength bottle on the trip over, which I had been excited to try
    • Balblair/Pulteney. I spent A LOT of time at this booth. Balblair 1983, 1999, 2003. OP 21 was also flowing all night long, along with the 12 and Navigator. The booth was also non-pretentious and tucked away in the corner, to my advantage
    • Macallan/HP. I don’t drink Mac out of principle. I did taste the new Highland Park Magnus. I liked it as much as the 12, a bit more sherried and less peated. For the reasonable price a very palatable whisky.
    • Benriach/Glenglassaugh. We had a lovely conversation about owner Brown-Foreman vs Diageo. I like Benriach a lot and enjoyed a pour of both the 10 standard and Curiositas. Glenglassaugh is making a nice comeback from mothballedness. The Revival is perfectly lovely.
    • Glenlivet. The eye candy was more appealing than the whiskey. 18 was offered up, which I always enjoy. Had the full range of Nadurra’s available as well (but not the discontinued 16, of course)
    • Dewars. I love me some Craigellachie 13, so I was quite excited to taste the $300 23yr old. To my surprise and disappointment it was rather sharp and even bordered on off-putting. This is one that I would have liked to have spent more time with to give it a fair shake. Aberfeldy 21 drank like a 12 yr old and the 12 drinks like kerosene. I would not be fooled by Dewars 18, but pour me some Signature and you’ll see a smile on my face (since I’m not the one paying $250/bottle for it).
    • Ardbeg. Waited to the end for this one, for obvious reasons. Staff was a bit cranky by then. Nothing on the table I hadn’t tasted many times, but my crew certainly enjoyed finishing the night with the wonderful (sorry SN) Ugy

    Whew. What an evening! Already looking forward to WoW Atlanta 2018