Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Saga of Whisky Live NYC 2010

Short story:
1. I met Mark Gillespie of WhiskyCast. We high fived. Life = complete.
2. I met Craig Beam, master distiller of Heaven Hill. He was nice and pours like a true Southern Gentlemen: HUGE POURS.
3. I got to try Glenlivet XXV but the 18 was better.
4. The Bowmore, Park Ave, and Glenlivet people were awesome.
5. I ate a lot of sandwiches.
6. Amtrak sucks.

The complete story:

I am, even after the event is over, still amazed that they gave me a press pass. Let us be honest here, to say I'm a small-time reviewer would be an overstatement. Seventy five hits a day on a site covering as broad a range as this one does typically doesn't warrant a press pass to something like Whisky Live. Hell, I'd be happy if I got into the local fair on a press ticket. But events like the New York Coffee and Tea Festival and, ye gods, Whisky Live? Never imagined it. At all.

So when I got the confirmation email from Jeffery Connell on April 1st...I was skeptical. I had to ask if it was an April Fool's joke. His reply was short and sweet: "Too tired to be playing games. Tell all your friends about the event and I'll see you there".



As I was getting dressed yesterday, I was trying to figure out what to wear. I had a pair of khakis that I had freshly pressed and I had put on a nice shirt. I even tucked it in. Yeah, I was super serial about this. I was worried how I'd look, honestly. I'm small; I don't want to make a bad impression. I certainly didn't want to offend anyone. This event was huge for me, a gateway and a way to put my foot in the door. I mean...go to the website and look at the pour list. I didn't want to offend any of those companies. They're heroically awesome with beverage lists longer than the excuse list of Amtrak (more on that later). Then I realized that it would be appropriate to ditch the khakis and put on jeans. No tucking on the polo. Why? Because that's not me. If there's one thing I've learned from "Crush It" it's that you have to hold on to your passion and uniqueness to survive and thrive. So I went au naturale: jeans and a polo with my trusty kicks. If anyone was offended, I'm sorry. But I gotta be who I am. Hopefully my charming good looks and debonaire style wooed you over. Yeah, half way through typing that I started laughing.Oh well, I tried getting it out with a straight face.

Of course when my compatriot Pat showed up dressed in shirt, tie, slacks, and confidence waned. He had just come from some formal event and I looked like a damn hobo compared to him. Well, whatever, off to the races. Too late to turn back now. We hustle on down to the Poughkeepsie train station, get our tickets, and look out the window overlooking the tracks. Woo! Our train is pulling in soon as we can see it further down the track. We amble out and go down the stairs. Rounding the corner, we see the not-so-sweet visage of tail-lights of the train. In the distance. A far distance. Like...600 feet.

The. Train. Never. Stopped.

It just kept on truckin' like a Grateful Dead song. What the hell.

Amtrak: I'm sure you have the wherewithal to know if there are supposed to be passengers at a station, considering I booked the tickets for the train four days ago. This isn't a hard concept. You get my reservation, you stop the train at the station, we get on and go to the city relatively on time. Instead, you decided that "Screw it, it's not worth the gas to slow down to pick up these damn kids" and just motored on by. Thanks Amtrak. Thank you for completely voiding the fact that I bought Pat a VIP ticket to the event that entitled us to an extra hour of tasting. I'd like those $30 back, please. Sure, it was nice of you to put us on the next train, even though you not only gave us a laundry list of excuses, several different variations on what we did wrong (hint: saying we should arrive a range of five minutes to a half hour early WHEN WE WERE ALREADY AT THE STATION does not help) but the fact of the matter is that we deserved it. Good talk, Amtrak. Try applying brakes next time. So, instead of arriving at the Piers at about 5:55 (a touch later than the VIP but still an extra half hour) we arrived at the Piers at about 7:15. Way to be, Amtrak.

The venue itself, Pier 60, was a very nice place. The perfect size with windows facing out onto the Hudson Bay. Very picturesque. You could sit there, have a snack and a dram, and watch puttering up and down the waterway. After getting my press badge and Pat his VIP ticket, we decided to get something to eat first. We hadn't eaten in awhile (I actually hadn't eaten all day) and it's never a good idea to dram on an empty tummy. As I put it: if you want to build a house of whisk(e)y, you need to have a strong foundation. This foundation resulted in a small smorgasbord they had laid out. I passed on the cheeses (they had a blue that looked nice) and went straight for the hearty stuff. They had a black forest ham, cheddar, sauteed onion sandwich with cranberry chutney on rosemary bread. It was very good. They had some sort of basil cream sauce ravioli that I would fight a hundred men to the death to get the recipe for. Also, meatball sliders that were kinda hard to eat (the rolls were clamshell-like so the meatball would shoot out) but delicious. A rinsing of the Glencairn tasting glass we got and we were on our way to Scotchtown and Bourbonville. Oh, and Rumburgh.

Who I met:

Mark Gillespie - The maestro of WhiskyCast. I almost literally ran into him on the way away from the Bowmore booth. He had just finished talking to the guys at the Suntory booth and I looked up from my notes as he turned around. Since he's a good bit taller than I am, the first thing I saw was the name tag, framed in green for press. My mouth went slack and I met his eyes. He's AWESOME. A very nice guy. I introduced myself and revered him (as everyone should). He had his recorder in his hand so look out for a sweet review with the Suntory people! He had just finished tasting the Hibiki 12 year and he motioned to me to nose it. In normal society this would seem creepy and wrong. In whisky society, this is a great honor. Suffice to say, the nose on that Hibiki 12 was awesome but more on that later. I thanked him profusely for what he does. I kinda fanboy'd out on him a touch. Normal people become fanboys or girls of movie stars or singers. Mine's a whisky enthusiast. Yeah, I rock.

Craig Beam - No, seriously. It was THE Craig Beam. The master distiller of Heaven Hill. I shook his hand. He was a very nice gentleman and southern to the extreme. Why do I say this? Because you can take the boy out of the South but not the South out of the boy. He poured generously, in true southern hospitality. I tried the Evan Williams Single Barrel, Bernheim's Wheat, and Rittenhouse Rye there. Those Southern boys can pour, I tell ya. I walked away from that table with, like, three shots under my belt. I had to go get food again.

What I drank:
This list is significantly larger, so bear with. The notes are not complete in any respect so don't judge these as reviews. I'd like to get some of these at a later date and actually give them the attention they deserve but the tastings did serve as a good guide for what I want to review later.

Glen Grant - I tried the 10 and the 16 year old. The 10 had a nose of tropical fruit, clean malt, and black tea. The taste was light and fruity with a short finish. A nice, light dram that I could see drinking on a hot day. Also would be nice to cook with. The 16 year old was heavy oak nose with chocolate and raisin. The taste was strong oaky. I personally think it had been in the wood a touch too long but this is just prelim.

Auchentoshan - I tried the Three Wood, the 18 year old, and the 21 year old. Nice whiskies all, the Three Wood in particular. Eight years in ex bourbon, then finished in Oloroso and Pedro Ximinez sherry butts gives it an interesting profile. It has the dark fruit taste and cherry color of the sherry but the depth and complexity of the bourbon's oak, vanilla, and char. A nice amalgamation. The 21 was very nice and really showed how well Auchentoshan ages. While long in the barrel I didn't think it showed it, retaining its sherry notes while having an intense oaky background; the two counterbalancing each other. Since we're being completely honest here, the 18 I can't remember. I tasted a lot.

Bowmore - Woman at the Bowmore table, you were awesome. I tasted the range of Bowmores: 12, 15, 18. My favorite was the 12 year by far. It had a nice malty sweetness to it with a muted but complementary peat smoke finish. The 15 was aged in sherry so the peat was tamed greatly giving it a fruity, smoky flavor which was nice but not working for me. The 18 managed to be a balance of the 12 and the 18 in my eyes, but I feel that the 12 really shined. Next time I'm trying their 25 year.

Suntory - I tried the Yamazaki 18 and the Hibiki 12. Let me put this in perspective. Have you ever watched a sci-fi movie where someone gets grievously injured and gets rescued by a medical team? They always show him or her floating in that tank of weird but life-sustaining liquid, breathing by means more magical than I can comprehend? If that ever happened to me, I want them to fill my tank with either of these whiskies. The Yamazaki 18 and Hibiki 12 I can't really describe in words but I think what I like most about it is the influence of Japanese Oak on the whisky. It gives it a certain sandalwood/aloewood like spice that really is unique and different. The Yamazaki 18 has a silky smooth mouth-feel and finish that's completely full of butterscotch / caramel. It was so, so good. Pat referred to it as a "dessert whisky" because of it's sweet taste. The Hibiki 12 I can only describe as such: remember your first "sweet and spicy" dish, whether it be shrimp or BBQ wings or whatever. I remember my first was a wing when I was young and I distinctly remember wondering "how can this combo work". This is the crux of the Hibiki 12. It's nose is out of this world but it's taste has a sweet spiciness to it. It starts off with a peppery sweetness that gives a burst of cinnamon, cardamom then fades to a sweet maltiness. It's delicious. They had a few other bottles that I'll have to try next time.

Heaven Hill - With Craig Beam pouring, I couldn't say no. I tried the Bernheim's Wheat Whiskey, the Rittenhouse Rye, and the Evan Williams Single Barrel. The highlight was definitely the Rittenhouse Rye. I've heard people raving about it for awhile but after really not liking Canadian ryes I was skittish in purchasing a full bottle. Man, gonna have to buy one now. It has a flavor profile that's spicy with clear notes of rye, black pepper, maybe chipotle too (I think that's the best way of putting it). It was spicy, slightly smoky, and crisp. Very easy drinking too. The Bernheim's was interesting with a nice astringency and a flavor of fresh cut hay and slightly burnt toast. The Evan Williams was soft and sweet with a high corn mash bill (Mr. Beam said 78%). I think I prefer the Elijah Craig more though. The Evan Williams was a bit too easy-going and corn-sweet for me. I think that the aging/barrel char on the Elijah Craig gives it a better toffee-like flavor and a touch more complexity.

Park Ave. Liquors - I had their Tormore '97, their Glendronach '89, and their Four Roses Single Barrel, all bottled specially for (and only available at) Park Ave. Liquors. At this point, my palate was kinda shot so my notes are a bit screwy but oh well, here goes: The Four Roses Single Barrel tasted, I swear, like dill pickles. It had the traditional bourbon oaky, vanilla sweetness but tucked in there was, so help me, dill pickle. It was actually...nice. Sad to say, I can't remember the Tormore. Their Glendronach I got notes of...beef stock and road tar. Honestly, I feel bad doing this but I'd discount my notes on this one. I should have reset my palate before the cask strength beasties because, frankly, these notes are scary as hell. Beef stock? Dill Pickle? Manuela, thank you for the pours but apparently I failed you terribly. I'm sorry.

Oban - Oban had this cool "Oban Experience Tent" like thing with some nice couches in it and a "Master of Malts" or some other official title. He had, by far, the best job I've ever seen. He sits around in a kilt, drinks Oban all night, and talks about it. Rinse, repeat a bunch of times. Really, he gets paid to sit around, drink, and talk about it. Sounds vaguely familiar...Anyway, I tried the 14, the 18, and the Distiller's Edition. The 14 was, as always, very nice. The Distiller's Edition I actually did not like at all. The normal Highland floral notes, toffee sweetness, and smooth finish yielded to a grassy, herbaceous quality in the Distiller's Edition that I didn't find appealing. My palate may have been a bit off but not by much as I had eaten right before that. The 18 was the 14 year old but more intense with a slightly more brooding oak influence. I definitely prefer the 18 over the 14 in this instance.

Glenlivet - Whoever made the choice for staffing at the Glenlivet table should be given a damn medal. The two guys at the booth were the coolest guys ever. I got to try a bunch of stuff that I'd never be able to afford ever in my life and they did it with a smile on their face and a bounce in their step. Oh, and a lab bottle filled with diluting water. Which freaked me out a bit because the very same bottles are used in our organic chemistry labs. To hold acetone. Yum, scotch and harsh solvent. Om nom nom. I tried their 18 and...jeez, their XXV (25). Honestly? The 18 was the best. It had a nose of clean malt and, amazingly, fresh apple. The normal pineapple flavor of the 12 year old has evolved into a more mango-ish flavor which teases the oak on it. A cracking dram. The XXV was very nice for it's age. It was not over-oaked at all and was exceedingly smooth with a long finish. I just didn't think the fruit flavors that I love in the younger Glenlivets could compete with 25 years worth of an oak barrage. To the guys at the Glenlivet table, slainte. You were awesome.

Ardbeg - Ardbeg was there in force. Ever see a rather tipsy Ethan Kelley of the Brandy Library on a motorcycle? I have. Ardbeg was raffling off two(?) Ardbeg motorcycles to a U.S. Ardbeg Committee Member. They were pretty great looking. I got to try their Uigeadail. One simple word: Peat. It was more intense than their 10 year old in both peat and sacchariferous qualities (that is SUCH an awesome word). It was yummy in my tummy.

Edradour - I had it. I can't remember it. I remember peat and being impressed. This was at the end of the show. I was not in the greatest condition after Park Ave. Those cask strength whiskies did me in a touch. I'll try to get a bottle sometime.

Cabin Fever - The last beverage I tried. A maple whisky. No, not a maple FLAVORED whisky. Nothing artificial here. It's just simply Vermont Maple Syrup and whiskey that's aged in oak for three years and then chill filtered to cut down on the sweetness. Warm it was still a bit cloying but not totally unpleasant. It still had an interesting dichotomy to it and I feel that the oaky whisky and maple tones did not mesh well. Upon recommendation from Rob to have it on ice, I do feel it pulled together quite well. The cold really softened up the sweetness and brought out the whiskey flavors. Personally, I'd like to see what they could do with either a lighter hand as far as the syrup or maybe blending it with a more aged/oaked whiskey to bring about more balance.

What I Missed (brought to you by Amtrak: Screwing up your travel plans since 1971):

Compass Box - Gah, so pissed I wasn't able to get to Compass Box. From their Orangerie to their Spice Tree, Hedonism, Oak Cross, Lady Luck, and Asyla, their table looked like a feast of whiskey. But I just didn't have the time. Argh. To those that got a taste, JEALOUS.

International Beverage table - Oh man, oh man. They had Balblair, anCnoc, and Old Pulteny to taste. No dice. Note: they import Mekhong "whisky" too. Interesting.

Most of the Irish Whiskies - Castle Brands had a large selection, including Knoppague Castle (great name) and Clontarf (even better name). Michael Collins and The Wild Geese Irish Soldiers and Heroes were there as well. Some other time.

Brandy Library - I wanted to meet Ethan Kelley. I saw him drunk on an Ardbeg motorcycle. We'd get along swimmingly. I'd go to the Brandy Library in NYC but I own no clothing that I could wear that wouldn't get me kicked out of there faster than I can drink sweet tea.

Laphroaig - I've never had it. Odd, eh? Next time.

Sheep Dip / Pig's Nose - The names amuse me greatly. Sheep Dip comes from the tendency for Scotsmen to "mislabel" their whisky to avoid the high tariffs. By labeling it "sheep dip", or a chemical dip used on sheep to remove bugs, they could get around the whisky tax as it was an "agricultural" product. Pig's Nose comes from the saying "smooth as a pig's nose" as one of the whiskey's qualities.

Well, there you have it. Coverage of the 2010 New York Whisky Live event. I had an excellent time. I'd just like to thank Jeffery Connell for the opportunity to go, everyone at Whisky Magazine for their awesome magazine, to Mark Gillespie for putting up with me, and finally to my parents who seem to be tolerant of my job choice. I have some pictures that I will share later. As for now, cheers. Stay classy and keep drinkin'.


  1. Whisky Live wouldn't be for me, but I really enjoyed reading about your trials and tribulations on this trip. Hm. Perhaps I should rephrase. I didn't enjoy reading about your mishaps per se, but I did have to chuckle.

    This was an interesting & fun account of your visit. And if you're a Whisky Live fan, it's gotta be pretty informative too.

    Now I see you wrote about tea just before this post. Well, that's more my drink, ha ha. I'm going to read it as soon as I am done writing here.


  2. Wow, that sounds awesome.

    Jakewalk in Brooklyn has the Ardbeg Uigeadail, so I get to enjoy it on more occasions than are perhaps strictly proper and good.

  3. I actually visited the Edradour distillery in '96. It's the smallest distillery in Scotland. First time I ever had a single malt, too. I remember it well, and I didn't have it again until twelve years later.