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Friday, April 23, 2010

Whisky Live: A Spirited Good Time

Whisky Live: A Spirited Good Time
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2010. All Rights Reserved

New York, NY – “Making the art of enjoying fine whiskies a part of your lifestyle” was the proposition. The blurb, promoting “Whisky Live New York 2010”, an opportunity to sample fine scotches, whiskies and bourbons from all over the world, swizzled my interest.

Reporting for duty at Pier Sixty, Chelsea Piers at 23rd Street on the Hudson River, I fell into the company of fellow attendees and New Yorkers John, 30-something, and “Muggie”, ten years his junior. The latter had “stumbled across [the event’s official] website trying to figure out the difference between Kentucky Bourbon and Tennessee mash… and kept it in the back of [his] mind.” The pair are waiter/bartender types at a Manhattan restaurant, so were already tasting oriented. Muggie, in fact, had participated in a past Beefeater gin tasting.

John said they were here today to “expand our minds and knowledge, and we’re on the Chelsea Piers… we might go swimming.” Fair enough… and ambitious.

After receiving a care packet that included a pear-shaped tasting glass, we eager fish were released through the floodgates into a main hall where approximately 40 distillers and distributors were set up.

First stop for me: the good folks at John Dewar & Sons, captained by Global Brands Ambassador Ewan Gunn and his two lovely deckhands Celina and Eva. I thought it necessary to gain a little 101 before I began my whisky journey and Ewan seemed just the right Professor of Whisky Protocol. He explained that the three ingredients of the single malt were water, malted barley and yeast and that, in very basic terms, Scotch whisky is essentially distilled beer. He added that 80 is the minimum proof for Scotch and that, globally, 93% of Scotch consumed is blended. Further, he suggested I always drink Scotch with water as the water “wakes it up, takes the strength down and helps bring out the secondary notes, revealing itself to you.” Sounded like a willing girl I mused.

About adding ice, Ewan said this was a question of great debate. In his opinion, when added, ice closes down the flavors. As to the age of a Scotch, this related to the time in which it is left to mature in the barrels. Barrels are only made of oak and, in general, the Scotch Whisky Association governs the Scotch-making industry.

At last, it was time to tipple and Ewan suggested we start with the younger and work our way up to the heavyweights with the more robust flavor. As such, we kicked off with a Dewar’s 12 double-aged Blended Scotch, advanced to a super-premium blended 18-year-old, stayed after school with the Dewar’s Signature (a blend of 40 different Scotches) and then went steady with an exquisite Aberfeldy 12 with a 21 chaser. Aberfeldy is a single malt from Scotland’s southern highlands and dates back in origin to 1898.

On a promotional note, Ewan noted that, in terms of U.S. market share, Dewar’s White Label enjoys the lead position, then Johnny Walker Red and finally Johnny Walker Blue. Not bad company.

I moved “next door” to Buffalo Trace Distillery, a Frankfort, KY-based, family-owned business more than a century old. My host here was Bourbon Brand Manager Kris Comstock. He, too, was informative, noting that to be defined as bourbon, a mix must be at least 51% corn by law, and that 98% of bourbons are from Kentucky. He started me off with a 90-proof small batch aged 8-12 years, then steered me to Eagle Rare, a 10-year-old single barrel. He said that when the spirit goes in the barrel, it’s actually clear and that it gains its coloring from the wood. The barrel is only used one time and then sold to Scotch makers in the U.K.

I sampled the distillery’s Blanton’s single barrel next, then a Sazerac rye. The grain for the latter comes from Minnesota and the mix must contain at least 51% rye to be labeled as such (the other 49% is corn and malted barley). The Sazerac was drier and spicier than the bourbon.

Switching to the beer category, I called on Belhaven Brewery, Scotland’s oldest brewer founded in 1719 and the biggest regional brewer in that country (as well as a pub operator). Its good-humored representatives offered up some tasty libations including cask-conditioned Belhaven Scottish Ale, Twisted Thistle Ale and Wee Heavy Ale, as well as a Scottish Stout.

The very peaty single malt Scotch, Ardbeg, was next on my hit list. “The Beast” – specifically Aigigh Nam Beist, was the championed spirit, infusing me with fire and smoke and truly tantalizing my tastebuds.

Chelsea Catania, who was manning the Jim Beam Small Batch Bourbon table and whom I dubbed the “Spirits Goddess”, splashed some nine-year-old 100-proof in my beggar’s cup. Its sugary, sweet goodness lay down on my tongue like a cat curling up on a rug in front of a fireplace.

But that mellow cat soon got whacked by Master Ambassador Simon Brooking of Beam Global who was serving up some Laphroaig Scotch. Marked by pungent, earthy aromas, sweet nutty notes and even flowery scents, it was a bouquet of sensations if you will. We jumped on the 25-year-old to start, downshifted to the 10 and finally sampled the Quarter Cask, which is aged 5 to 11 years in smaller barrels that created more surface contact. Simon was quite the host and had a special, amusing toast for every sample we tossed back.

I was soon packing my Innis & Gunn, oak-aged beer that was “peat and sweet” due to its containment in oak barrels previously used to mature bourbon. The finish was unbelievable, with hints of vanilla, toffee and orange. A fellow attendee, Carmen Operetta, an excitable lass billing herself as Libation Girl, was a real fan of the brand and rushed over for a tasting.

Afterwards, Carmen and I took a dip together – rather we dipped the bases of our tasting glasses in a vat of hot red wax at the Maker’s Mark table. The full-flavored bourbon from Kentucky, birthed back in 1953 by Bill Samuels, Sr., always had a special place in my heart, so I would greatly appreciate this memento.

I was beginning to feel a bit over-stimulated and needed to counter all that I had sampled (and seen) with a smattering of grub. Sorry, “grub” would certainly be an insulting term as the spread offered here was anything but chuck wagon fare. Leafy salads, hearty pastas, delectable meats, bread and more awaited hungry whisky enthusiasts that needed to absorb the spirits they had been mainlining. To boot, there was entertainment on a main stage erected in the dining area, where groups of unrelated tasters had plopped themselves down. New social circles were being forged here, jamming tunes circulated in the air and all enjoyed fun and good times. It was difficult to drag ourselves back into the exhibit area but continue to taste we must.

I would hit just a handful of distillers in the homestretch, beginning with Heaven Hill, the largest, independent family-owned U.S. distiller. The engaging Becky proffered a tumbler of Bernheim Original Wheat Whiskey that was 51% soft winter wheat (available only in Kentucky), 39% corn and 10% malt barley. It was delectable, like a dessert complementing the food I had just consumed.

Becky’s boss, Craig Beam, took the reins then to introduce me to some Elijah Craig 12-year-old bourbon. If I captured the story correctly, Craig was a Baptist minister and cast out when it was learned he was making whiskey. The barn where his still was located apparently caught on fire, charring the barrels in which he aged the spirits. The smokiness added just the right flavor to the batch and became the enduring secret element to this line.

Teasing me to the max now, the pair placed in front of me some Parker’s Heritage Collection Golden Anniversary. The “Parker” in the name is Craig Beam’s father, which seemed appropriate given the senior nature of this brand – a small batch aged no less than 27 years!

I pushed on down the row to the reps at the Bowmore single malt Scotch whisky stand.  Bowmore is made up of eight distilleries, the first of which was founded on the island of Islay off the west coast of Scotland in 1779. As I dipped my wick, Marketing Manager Kirsten Beeston told me to expect an “uber peaty” taste (not surprisingly), “moderate smoke” and “complex notes”, all of which rang true.

Why not finish off my tasting experience here with a rum I said to myself, crossing the room to the Zacapa table. The namesake of the brand is a town in Guatemala, in the mountains 2300 meters above sea level. The cool air there slows the aging process, which aids in the development of the spirit’s character. I was like a bee at a hive, abuzz about its fine honey flavors.

As a last decadent, self-serving measure, I swooped over to The Chocolate Garden table to snag a couple of handmade truffles. Popping them in my mouth, I drifted out of the show hall and into the New York night air, every nerve ending awakened by this multi-sensory experience and a feeling of utter contentment putting an extra spring in my step. Thanks “Whisky Live” – it was truly a pleasure!