Musings from WhiskyFest 2007

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First of all, let me just say that I am not a whisky expert. In fact, I've only just begun my whisky journey. But I'm learning fast, and I'm taking notes. And I am very enthusiastic about it.

Recently, for my husband's birthday, I bought tickets to Malt Advocate's WhiskyFest. Now, my husband is part of my inspiration for not only learning about whisky, but also enjoying it. Not only is he a great lover of the amber liquid, but it kind of runs in his blood (he's Scottish, so what can I say?).

After making sure we had a good foundation (cheeseburgers from Taylor's Refresher), we headed over to the First Annual WhiskyFest at the Hyatt in downtown San Francisco. The doors hadn't quite opened, but already there was a buzz in the air. We positioned ourselves near the main entrance to the floor, where there were over 70 booths sampling approximately 240 whiskies (at least that's what I counted in the booklet, there were likely more that weren't listed).


In addition to the booths on the main floor, there were a series of seminars that took place throughout the night, on such topics as Bourbon vs. Scotch and The Art of Japanese Whisky. We made a decision early on that it might be a good idea to attend one of these and chose quite possibly the most popular talk of the night, the Chocolate and Scotch Pairing, which I'll be covering in my next post.

So, back to the floor, which is where we spent the greater part of the evening. I kept very accurate notes, because I wanted to know exactly what we tasted. It's quite a list. In fact, I'm not sure if I'm impressed or horrified by it. You can make your own judgments.

Springbank, 15 year
The Macallan, 15 year Fine Oak
Highland Park, 12 year
Highland Park, 15 year
Highland Park, 18 year
Highland Park, 25 year
Highland Park, 30 year
Compass Box, Oak Cross
Compass Box, The Peat Monster
Compass Box, Asyla
Compass Box, Flaming Heart
Suntory "Yamazaki" 12 year
Suntory "Yamazaki" 18 year
Suntory, The Cask of Yamazaki 1993
The Glenrothes, 1991
The Glenrothes, 1985
The Glenrothes, 1987
The Glenrothes, 1975
Bruichladdich, 12 year
Bruichladdich, 14 year
Isle of Jura, 10 year
Old Potrero, 18th Century Style Whisky, 100% rye
King's Crest, 25 year
North of Scotland 1964
Edradour 1983 22 year
Signatory Laphroaig 6 year
Signatory Glen Scotia 14 year
Tullibardine 12 year
Tullibardine 1992

My favorite whiskies from this list were:

Highland Park, 12 year
This delicious whisky is distilled on the Orkney Islands northeast of Scotland, and is the world's most northerly located whisky distiller. This particular year was sweet, lightly peaty, and bright. It was my favorite whisky of all the Highland Park whiskies (including the older, more expensive versions they were sampling) and one of my absolute faves of the night.

The Balvenie, 15 year and PortWood 21 year
Located in the northeast of Scotland, The Balvenie is a good example of a Speyside whisky, which tend to be more sherried and less smoky (although the ones we tried were both aged in bourbon casks). Their 15-year single barrel is aged in bourbon casks, and was one of my favorites. It's smooth, slightly sweet, and really delicious. The 21-year was interesting in that it was aged in bourbon casks but then finished in port casks for 4 months (any longer and the port wood would become overpowering).

Edradour 1983 22 year
Granted this was the last one of the night, but it was also the only one I finished, and the guy poured me a healthy nip. This 22-year-old is finished in port wood, and from the smallest distillery in Scotland. It goes for about $300/bottle.

Suntory "Yamazaki" 12 year
This Japanese single malt whisky, which is made in the outskirts of Kyoto, is a Scotch-style whisky. The distillery was actually the first of it's kind outside of Scotland. If you've never tasted Japanese whisky I suggest you give it a go. Aged in American oak, it's delicious and quite interesting in flavor, you know it's not Scotch, but you can't quite place it.

In addition to tasting a whole lot of whisky, I learned quite a few things at WhiskyFest, such as:
1) Older whisky is not always better.
2) I tend to like younger whisky (it's often bright and feisty).
3) Peaty is good, it doesn't necessarily have to knock you upside the head, and it really can be subtle.
4) Chocolate and whisky are a match made in heaven.
5) I can drink a lot of whisky and still remain standing.
6) Not everyone suits tartan. Especially when it's made into a suit.
7) Conventional wisdom is bullshit; the great thing about a whisky tasting or event such as this is to turn things on their head, and discover that you might not necessarily know what you like.
8) Japan makes some damn good whisky.

I also learned how to "nose" whisky two different ways (no no no it's not dirty). The first way is to open your mouth and stick your nose down into the glass (mouth on the outside) and breathe in. With your mouth open. Apparently this allows you to smell the actual aroma of the whisky without breathing in so much alcohol. The other way, which was more about smelling the barley while it was malting (we did this with a 10-year-old Laphraiog) is to cover your glass with your hand, palm down, and shake the glass to get a bit of whisky on your palm. Then rub your hands together vigorously until you create heat and friction. Cup your hands to your nose and breathe. Try it.

The best part of WhiskyFest, however, was having the opportunity to taste things against each other (all different ages). Nowhere can you sample so many whiskies in one place and one night (without seriously falling flat on your face). So if you are at all interested in whisky, or know someone who is, you might consider going next year. I promise, it's worth it.