Appetite: Recapping Whiskyfest 2011

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Sipping rare rums (yes, rum) from Samaroli imports at WhiskyFest 2011
GUARDIAN PHOTO BY VIRGINIA MILLER

Another year, another WhiskyFest. I've been attending a number of years now, ever relishing an opportunity to try unexplored whiskies, refresh my taste memory on others, and connect with whisk(e)y industry folk and distillers here from Kentucky to Scotland.

A number of options listed as VIP tastes (more than ever this year) were not, in fact, available at all. Some purveyors said these bottles -- like Isle of Jura's Shackleton or Pierre Ferrand Ancestrale Cognac -- hadn't reached the States yet. I find this a problem, particularly for those paying more to hit VIP hour for these rare tastes ($135 regular tickets; $185 for VIP hour).

One that WAS there however, was the soft, layered, fruity yet slightly oaky, Tamdhu 30 year from Gordon and MacPhail.

Their Benromach 10 yr (available all night, not just during VIP hour) is surprisingly complex, with essence of cedar, nuts, smoke, and spice. Aged in bourbon casks, then finished off in sherry, it does not taste a full 20 years younger than the Tamdhu. I chatted with the company's friendly managing director, Michael Urquhart, one of 3rd and 4th generations of the Urquhart family who own the company and have been making single malts long before they were ever marketed as a category.

My favorite VIP taste may have been Ardmore's gorgeous 30 yr Scotch. Surprisingly light, it evokes coffee, caramel, dried orange and a long, gently peaty finish. I found this beauty at the Laphroaig table, where I also enjoyed another taste of Laphroig's Cairdeus and Triple Wood whiskies).

Italian company Samaroli imports a number of special edition whiskies, but of greater interest to me were their unique rums, some layered and elegant, others funky, but all fascinating, particularly Caribbean2003, a rum that is predominantly Cuban, and a French-style rhum agricole: Guadaloupe 1998.

Bruichladdich, who wins for hippest, out-of-the-norm packaging, is doing some interesting things, particularly with their new gin (yes, I said gin), The Botanist. Though containing far too many botanicals (22 in all, from bog myrtle leaves to apple mint), somehow it manages to come together in a cohesive, smoothly refined whole. Their unique Black Art 2 whisky, an uber-secretive recipe that purportedly only distiller Jim McEwan knows, was aged in a range of unlisted barrels, possibly sherry, even wine casks, just like the first limited edition of Black Art.

High West Distillery in Park City, Utah, has a new bottled Manahattan cocktail. Though it's a decent product, I couldn't fathom preferring it to a freshly made (or barrel-aged at a bar) Manhattan. All initial barrels in Utah sold out in 8 days, so they launched the product beyond. I sampled their new 21 yr Rocky Mountain Rye, but actually preferred another new bottling: OMG (meaning Old MononGahela, a Western Pennsylvania river) Pure Rye Silver Whiskey. They left the heads and tails in, giving it a rugged, green profile of Meyer lemon citrus and rye spice, best enjoyed neat at room temperature.

Tequila Corrido, a tequila line I enjoy from start to finish, poured their new Extra Anejo from the first barrel to ever leave the distillery. It tastes of lemongrass, oak and chocolate, with agave actually detectable (a fault of many anejos when wood drowns out the agave).

Great King Street
, a blended Scotch made by the Compass Box Whisky Company wasn't my top taste of the night, but is a smooth blend of Lowland, Highland and Speyside single malts, lightly toasty with vanilla and spice. It's fresh, classically modern packaging and approach of bringing back respect for blends make it stand out.

WHISKYFEST Seminar with Parker Beam and Alain Royer

My seminar of choice was the evening's highlight, led by one of my whiskey heros, Parker Beam (who I had the privilege of meeting last year and chatting again with this week), and master Cognac blender Alain Royer of the Renaud Cointreau Group. Beam and Royer discussed Parker's Heritage Collection 2011 release: a 10-year bourbon aged first in charred American white oak barrels, then 6 months in used Limousin oak Cognac casks. You wouldn't know it's a bracing 100 proof, as it goes down smooth, sweet and silky with maple, apple, and gentle spice. It might not be as revelatory as Parker's Golden Anniversary or 27 year whiskeys, but alongside last year's robust Wheated Bourbon, it's yet another winner in Beam's impeccable collection.

Only Heaven Hill, the company that makes Parker's Heritage Collection (among my top bourbons of all time), can claim that since 1934 every drop of whiskey from their distillery (all their brands) is overseen by Earl, Parker or Craig Beam of the esteemed Beam family. They produce 900,000 barrels of whiskies out of 49 rickhouses across 30+ acres.

Parker ever charms with his slow-as-molasses (or maybe even slower) Southern drawl belying his feisty sense of humor. Keeping it real, he says, "If you want to make good bourbon, you make it in Kentucky. If you want to sell it, you damn well make it in Kentucky." He sips one of Heaven Hill's most popular, affordable whiskeys during his down time, however: "At home I kick back with our Evan Williams single barrel."

In regards to joining forces with Parker to make Parker's Heritage Cognac Barrel-finished Bourbon, Alain states: "When I tasted Parker's bourbon, it reminded me of Borderies." Known for their floral richness, Cognacs from Cognac's Borderies region are often elegant beauties with heart, just like Parker's Cognac Bourbon.

Parker talked about the process of deciding what this year's special release would be (each of his annual releases are rare, limited editions): "We had some older products [older than his 27yr bourbon] that wasn't up to snuff. I didn't like it, anyway... To make Cognac bourbon we went gung ho, as we knew the bourbon was gonna be good... and we trusted Alain's selection of barrels".

Next to the final product, we sampled Heaven Hill's Bourbon Rye Mashbill (10yr bourbon, 100 proof) from new charred white oak barrels. Even in its raw form, the rye exhibits fullness and spice, coconut and vanilla. We also savored Alain's Chateau de Fontpinot XO Cognac, aged an average of 18-20 years and produced on one single estate from ugni blanc grapes. It's seductive with apple and apricot, subtly earthy with hay and wood notes, a sophisticated Cognac.

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