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.