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WhiskyFest Chicago: A Marathon of Whisky

Last Friday evening I found myself two stories underground in the lower level of Chicago’s Hyatt Regency Hotel. At the starting line of a whisky marathon. I put a badge around my neck to signify my participation then corralled with the press and VIP crowd in front of one of about six tightly closed double doors. This door was not chosen by accident. Behind this particular door was a straight shot to several of the finest bourbon producers on the planet ready and waiting to pour rare and limited edition samples. As I continued to scan the map taken out of my welcome bag the doors opened and VIP hour began.

This year’s WhiskyFest Chicago, hosted by the venerable Whisky Advocate, sold out in mere hours and was attended by 1,900 enthusiastic whisky fans from 34 states and four countries. Dozens of producers were on hand to pour and discuss over 350 different whisky, scotch, and bourbon samples. Whisky Advocate Magazine has been entertaining and educating whisky enthusiasts for over 20 years. The goal of WhiskyFest is to offer fans the opportunity to taste rare samples as well as their personal favorites; to learn about the whiskies they love from the producers themselves.

 

WhiskyFest Crowd
Some of the crowd at this year’s WhiskyFest Chicago.

 

When the doors opened whisky fans flooded into the Grand Ballroom with purpose and direction. Walking, jogging, practically sprinting to get to the booths pouring extremely limited quantities of the world’s most popular bourbons for this first hour only, or until they ran dry. Not surprisingly, there was an initial dash to the Old Rip Van Winkle booth where a line appeared instantly to sample the Pappy 23 year. Instead of waiting in that line I veered to the booth next door, run by Buffalo Trace, pouring the now impossible to find George T. Stagg. The Stagg was a spicy blast to the senses as expected from a ~140 proof pour. It was quite a way to kick off WhiskyFest but one that I had to try before it was no more. Thankfully, there were water bottles available everywhere to open up some of these high octane spirits.

Next up was the Blanton’s booth staffed by a personal friend and Sazerac’s Midwest Regional Trade Marketing Manager the lovely Kim Gillespie. Kim and her team were pouring Blanton’s Gold Edition. A single barrel expression, as always, this one is particularly special, bottled at a higher 103 proof and available only to the European market. Saying it was smooth on the palate doesn’t do it justice. This higher proof Blanton’s expressed all the characteristics we love from the original and at a higher proof it is somehow even smoother with less heat. The lower perceived heat on the nose and palate let the complexity of this bourbon shine through.

 

Blanton's Gold Edition
Blanton’s Gold Edition from Buffalo Trace Distillery. Limited to the European market. Sad face.

 

From there we circled back to the Van Winkle table to meet Preston and Julian Van Winkle, Jr. and sample my favorite in their lineup, the Pappy 15 year. There was still a line which we braved this time which went much quicker than expected. While waiting, I talked to a couple gentlemen standing in line who hadn’t heard of Pappy bourbon; they were Scotch people. I learned a few Scotch facts and educated them on the popularity of Pappy Van Winkle. This was a big part of the fun of WhiskyFest. Meeting both bourbon veterans and those who are finding the spirit for the first time. The Pappy 15 was worth the wait and remains one of my personal favorites. Judging by the amount being poured, I was not alone in that sentiment.

 

 

We love our local brand ambassadors and PR reps who make these events possible. But, what is really special about WhiskyFest is the attendance of the Founders and Master Distillers themselves. There’s something extraordinary about hanging out with the people whose names are on the bottles we enjoy. A few of these big bourbon names included the Van Winkles of Pappy fame, Jimmy, Eddie, and Bruce Russell of Wild Turkey, local distiller Paul Hletko of FEW Spirits, Denny Potter, Master Distiller at Heaven Hill and David Perkins, Founder of High West Distillery. These guys have poured their souls into this industry and dedicated decades of their lives to making the finest bourbon whiskey in the world.

Before the first seminar of the evening started in one of the breakout rooms, we sampled a few more bourbons. This time it was the Four Roses booth where I spoke with Midwest’s Regional Sales Manager Brian Krieger. Brian poured me a sample of the 2015 Small Batch Limited Edition (SBLE). This is a barrel strength bourbon specially dedicated to retiring Master Distiller Jim Rutledge who stepped down in September 2015, the month this SBLE was released. Brent Elliott took over for Jim and hand picked the Single Barrel Private Selection I picked up just before WhiskyFest at the Four Roses Distillery itself. Brent will undoubtedly hand pick the 2016 SBLE as well as the returning Single Barrel Limited Edition which took a year off in 2015. The Small Batch Limited Edition 2015 is one of the finest bourbons I’ve tasted in the past year. It is a combination of several of their mashbills ranging in age from 11 years all the way up to 16 years. It’s fruity and sweet with a little spice, not too much heat, and a rich velvety mouthfeel that lingers. I have great expectations for what Four Roses will bring to the table in 2016.

 

Four Roses Brian Krieger
Four Roses Brian Krieger holding the 2015 Limited Edition Small Batch.

 

Next I walked over to the Jack Daniels booth to grab a sample of their new Single Barrel Rye. New to the Chicago market just one week prior to WhiskyFest. This is a particularly exciting time for Jack Daniels as it has been a very long time since they have released a new recipe. With the resurgence in popularity of rye whiskeys in the past five years this is the right time. The whiskey is receiving a red carpet nationwide rollout this year. Bottled at 94 proof with a mashbill of 70% rye, 18% corn, and 12% barley. Fans of Jack or of rye can find this bottle for about $50 at many Chicago outlets.

 

JD Single Barrel Rye
Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Rye. New to Chicago.

 

There were 10 seminars this year, up from 9 in previous years. Some of them overlapped so allocating time and choosing the best track was a challenge. While I was interested in bourbon I decided to expand my horizons and attend a Scotch seminar. The first seminar was the ‘Glenmorangie: Finishing Firsts’ led by Brendan McCarron, Head of Maturing Whisky Stocks. Brendan is an energetic lad, I think that’s the appropriate term, who was quite knowledgeable and entertaining. He brought with him six samples he personally pulled from individual scotch casks. These were “single barrel” samples that would never be tasted in this form again as they will be blended with other barrels before commercial bottling. A pretty cool aspect of this tasting experience. See the accompanying image for the complete list we sampled. A few I enjoyed were the Glenmorangie Original: Fruity, citrus, peach, vanilla. Nice and sweet. Not peat heavy.

 

Glenmorangie seminar about to begin
Glenmorangie seminar with Brendan McCarron is about to begin.

 

The PX cask with a bourbon like finish. The Virgin Oak Cask which was closest to bourbon with it’s vanilla, sawdust, and honey notes. The Milsean 2016 Private Edition, Brendan’s first project with Glenmorangie, is first aged in bourbon casks then Portugal wine casks. The goal was to make a scotch that tasted like a candy shop. The bottle itself has a candy cane like seal covering it’s cap. I would say he succeeded as this scotch is very unique in it’s fruity sweetness while still holding its own as a fantastic example of a fine scotch. Only 2,000 bottles will be produced. Brendan is Dr. Bill Lumsden’s right hand man and will takeover when Bill retires. If you like what he did with the Milsean keep an eye out for more Glenmorangie releases created by Brendan in the future!

 

 

After the first seminar we had a short break before the next seminar that caught my eye began. I ran over to say hello to FEW Spirits Founder and Master Distiller Paul Hletko and his team. Paul was pouring their award winning gins as well as the bourbon and rye. An interesting addition to their lineup was a rye collaboration with Chicago’s Drake Hotel. Paul was excited to pour this bottle and explained that when the opportunity arose to collaborate with the “most Chicago part of Chicago” he had to make it happen. Their bourbon has always been my favorite of their dark spirits but I may have found a new king in The Drake Rye.

 

FEW's The Drake Whiskey
FEW Spirits ‘The Drake’ Whiskey.

 

(Read more about our tour of FEW Spirits and their other collaboration spirits, click here)

 

The last seminar I attended was the ‘Kentucky Uncut: Barrel Proof Jewels from Beam Suntory’ hosted by Beam Suntory’s American Whiskey Ambassador Adam Harris. Adam brought with him four barrel proof bourbons which included Maker’s Mark Cask Strength, Maker’s 46 Cask Strength, which is only available at the distillery, Booker’s Small Batch Cask Strength and Booker’s Bluegrass Small Batch Cask Strength. He told a few great stories as we sampled these bourbons. Such as sitting next to Jimmy Russell while listening to another bourbon producer describe his juice with intricate details such as “gently used pipe tobacco” and “leather from an old book stored in a musty bookstore”. After some time Jimmy turned and said something to the effect of “I don’t know about you but I don’t put any of that crap in my bourbon.” This was an entertaining session where we learned more about the bourbon industry as a whole.

 

Kentucky Uncut
Kentucky Uncut seminar samples included two Maker’s Mark and two Booker’s selections.

 

There were many representatives from the top Scotch, Irish Whisky, Japanese Whisky distilleries and others. In the time we had at the event we weren’t able to meet them all and instead focused our efforts on our namesake, Bourbon. The event flew by. As I was sitting in the Beam Suntory class and looked at my watch it was 9:00pm. Only 30 minutes left of the event. I had to excuse myself to race back to the grand ballroom to make a few final introductions and sample the last whiskies of the night.

I hit the Wild Turkey and Russell’s Reserve booth to sample the Russell’s Single Barrel. An outstanding bourbon expressive of the direction Wild Turkey is heading. Expect more hits coming from them in the coming years. It was great to not only meet Jimmy Russell himself but also to get a pour of the Single Barrel from his grandson and future face of Wild Turkey, Bruce Russell.

 

Jimmy and grandson Bruce Russell
Jimmy and grandson Bruce Russell pouring samples of Russell’s Reserve and Wild Turkey.

 

I finished off the evening by visiting our friend Taylor Hansen, WhistlePig’s Midwest presence. WhistlePig maintained an impressive line of tasters all night long and was second only to the Van Winkle booth. It’s not hard to believe given the excellent rye they bottle, currently distilled in Canada. Though they have grand plans in the works to grow the grain, distill, harvest the barrel staves, and age their own whiskey all on their Vermont farm. With Dave Pickerell at the helm, formerly of 14 years as Maker’s Mark Master Distiller, I believe they will succeed in creating an amazing story and a great legacy of American craft rye. Look for their 15 year coming in May 2016. Bottled at 92 proof this whiskey is aged 10 years in new American oak char #4, sourced from Alberta, then transferred to first fill Vermont oak barrels at a char #3 for an additional 5 years of maturation. The Vermont oak has a tighter grain which helps prevent the spirit from getting “over oaked”. The Franklin Room in Chicago will have a large allotment of the 15 year and will be a great place to taste it as well as many other bourbons and whiskeys.

 

(Read more about WhistlePig’s collaboration dinner with Chicago q, click here)

 

While walking around WhiskyFest I bumped into a guy and his father who have been coming to WhiskyFest together for 10 years. I’ve attended the Chicago Auto Show with my dad for about as long as I can remember. It is these annual Chicago events that bring together fellow enthusiasts and allow us to bond over something we love. Thank you to Whisky Advocate for continuing the tradition.

 

WhiskyFest Food
The whisky is front and center but the food selection at WhiskyFest is no slouch.

 

VIP hour only bourbon and American whiskey pours included:

  • Jefferson’s Groth Reserve Bourbon
  • WhistlePig Straight Rye 15 year
  • Clyde May’s Alabama Style Whiskey Special Reserve
  • Wild Turkey Master’s Keep
  • Hudson Whiskey Maple Cask Rye
  • High West Yippee Ki-Yay and Limited Release Bourye
  • Maker’s Mark 46 Cask Distillery Exclusive
  • Jim Beam Distiller’s Masterpiece
  • Michter’s Toasted Barrel Finish Bourbon and 10 year Bourbon
  • Buffalo Trace George T. Stagg
  • 1792 Port Finish Bourbon
  • Old Rip Van Winkle Pappy 23 year
  • Compass Box This is Not a Luxury Whisky
  • George Dickel Barrel Select

 

If you would have liked to sample any of these amazing bourbons and whiskeys be sure to get your VIP ticket early next year!

 

An enthusiastic thank you to Joan McGinley, WhiskyFest Events Manager.

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