Last night was WhiskeyFest Chicago at the Hyatt Regency downtown, year eight for what has become a rite of Spring. So big is WhiskeyFest that it is now Whiskey Week, as various bars and liquor stores sponsor their own events to take advantage of the awareness, the presence of industry executives, and the desire of whiskey enthusiasts to keep the party going. It's gotten so big, in fact, that several people I know came into town from as far away as Houston but didn't attend WhiskeyFest itself, partaking instead of all the ancillary events. In the case of one group, not attending WhiskeyFest enables them to secure seats at the bar at Delilah's, the site of the unofficial afterparty. (And so cool is Delilah's, they don't even mention it on their schedule.)
WhiskeyFest is sponsored by Malt Advocate, a magazine. They do the same thing each year in New York and San Francisco too. WHISKY Magazine has its own, similar series call Whisky Live, which covers the rest of the world. There are similar, independent whiskey shows in Philadelphia, Toronto and other major cities.
The format is pretty simple. Hire a hotel ballroom, rent booth space to all the whiskey companies, provide a nice buffet and non-alcoholic drinks, and a few additional rooms for seminars. The producers provide the whiskey and the seminars. For the price of your ticket ($110) you get a tasting glass and all the whiskey you care to sample. The tables pour freely. By law, a "taste" is 1/2 ounce, but there is no limit on how many tastes you can obtain.
Since I've now raised that spectre, people who are clearly intoxicated are not served and people getting drunk are a very small problem, from what I've seen. Most people are responsible and that's not why they're there.
The stars at these things are the master distillers. I really only pay attention to the Americans, but I'm sure there are many Scottish distillers there as well. I saw Jimmy Russell (Wild Turkey), Jim Rutledge (Four Roses), Chris Morris (Brown-Forman), John Hall (Forty Creek Canadian), Craig Beam (Heaven Hill), Greg Davis (Barton), and Jeff Arnett (Jack Daniel's).
Jeff is Jimmy Bedford's successor. His ascension was announced, not coincidentally, the day before. I was looking forward to meeting Jeff which, when I did, I realized I already had, when I was in Lynchburg about a year ago. He had showed us around the warehouses and some other parts of the operation. Nice guy. As I said to him last night, I hope he knows what he's gotten himself into. His life will never be the same.
WhiskeyFest is a great event. Everyone seems to have a good time, and why wouldn't you? For me, anymore, it mostly feels like a party that John and Amy throw for a couple thousand of their closest friends. (John Hansell is the Publisher and Editor of Malt Advocate. Amy Westlake is the Events and Magazine Director.) I see tons of friends and get to meet, in person, many people who I've previously only talked to on the phone or via email.
So what about the whiskey? A couple of highlights. Death's Door, a micro-distillery in Madison, Wisconsin, was sampling what they called White Whiskey, whiskey straight from the still without benefit of any aging. I liked it. I've had what distillers generally call white dog off of just about every still in Kentucky and Tennessee, and this was as yummy as any of them. I hope Brian Ellison, the proprietor, didn't mind that I sent every master distiller I talked to over for a taste.
Also fun was the Heaven Hill seminar, at which Craig Beam and Larry Kass walked us through a tasting of several very rare bourbons sold only in export markets. I arrived late and didn't have all of them, but they included an intese 12-year-old and a very intense 23-year-old.
That's not to say those were the only interesting whiskeys there, but nobody was really pouring anything I haven't had before and, as I said, I'm there as much for the visiting as the drinking.
One surprise on the visiting front was the appearance of Rob Allanson and Gordon Dundas, editor and sales manager respectively for WHISKY Magazine, i.e., the competition, and it was just my luck to be chatting with Rob and Gordon when John Hansell walked up. There were a number of people in our little cluster, including Larry Kass, an executive at Heaven Hill. John didn't notice Rob and Gordon at first, as he had come over to speak to Larry, and we made a few jokes about edging slowly toward the door, but all was friendly and cordial. (I write for both magazines.) John certainly would have nothing to be upset about, as what could be more flattering than having the competition check out your event? They even bought tickets, feeling it might be just a bit too cheeky to ask for press credentials.
So, it was fun, it always is, but I don't know how people can do several days of that, especially the people from the distilleries who seem to go from one of these events to another. I didn't even hit the party at Delilah's. Instead, I strolled down to Michigan Avenue where my chariot (the no. 146 bus) awaited. Thanks again to the Chicago Transit Authority for facilitating my depraved lifestyle.