Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Saga of the Indy Spirits Expo

I have to admit, the concept of an expo centered around drinking hundreds of samples of booze is pretty much the equivalent of Valhalla for me. When I die, the Valkyries will wing down from on high, warmly and lovingly embrace me as a lost son of Odin, and spirit me up to the Great Drinking Expo in the Sky. There will be an eternity of drinking, smoking, carousing, and playing video games. It will be awesome.

For the time being, however, I am perfectly complacent to slake my thirst for Valhalla's shores by quenching the ever-burning fires of Odin with sweet, liquid satisfaction. As you can see, I do enjoy chronicling my journey in the world of beverages. One of the things I've learned in my ever-continuing journey is my love of the micro. Microbrews, microdistilleries, microwine (if it exists); micro beverages are pretty outta sight. Unfortunately, they're hard to find. Without the clout of international corporation's huge marketing budgets and diehard PR teams, the small spirits have an uphill battle. They don't have the muscle to cram their regionally/limited/expensively produced goods onto store shelves when larger businesses can either offer insane discounts, brand loyalty, or image benefits. Thus, there are many...MANY awesome spirits out there made just as lovingly as the big boys...but they don't get the exposure that the major brands do.

This saddens me. Greatly.

I first heard about the Indy Spirits Expo awhile ago. It takes place in a variety of venues across the nation; centering on NYC, Las Vegas, and San Francisco. The man behind it, Dave Schmier, is a entrepreneur. Really, entrepreneur is a terrible way to describe it. Bad-ass with a heart of gold is more like it. Owner of Orange V Vodka and part owner of Redemption Rye, the man has a pretty sweet portfolio to begin with. But then he realized that, like him, the small guys were getting shafted by the budgets of the big and bold. So he decided to put on an expo, too.

Cojones of brass on this guy, I'm tellin' ya.

In contact with him over Twitter, he graciously invited me, my photographer, and Lindsay over at The Holy Trinity. For free. VIP tickets. Like I said, "bad-ass with a heart of gold".

Excited by the blossoming list of liquor representatives that would be there, I made sure my photographer cleared his schedule for the day and busted out the business cards. Gotta be a pro, my friends, gotta be a pro. As the day unfolded, I could see a trend beginning in terms of me, trains, and Expos.

First, we arrived to the train station a little bit late but just on time to watch the 1:40pm Metro-North roll out. Not a big deal, really. We still wouldn't be late and it would put us into the city with 45 spare minutes. My photographer and I purchase tickets and head off to the local bar to knock back a few beers. Two Guinnesses (two Newcastles for him) and we were comfortably seated on a train chugging its way to the city like a not very committed fratboy. As luck would have it, right before we hit Tarrytown, the train stopped dead in the tracks. For almost 45 minutes, the train sat on the tracks. The assistant train engineer stopped by to tell us that the brakes on the train had seized and wouldn't unseize. They'd have to unseize them by hand, travel to the Tarrytown platform, and disgorge us. Then they would shut down that track and get a train from the Croton-Harmon Train Yard to take us the rest of the way. Wonderful. I will spare you the oaths uttered in the stifling hot confines of that car (they, being the MTA, turned OFF the air conditioning on an 85 degree day). Finally, we get to Grand Central, hop the subway over to 50th street, and walk to Touch, the nightclub in which it took place.

My one and only one complaint with the event itself was the venue, really. It was kinda awkward to get around in the club and there were all sorts of tables in the nooks and crannies associated with a dance club. I'm afraid I missed shit, really. Other than that, the event was very nice. Now, to do an overview of what I tasted. Ahem:

WhistlePig Rye:  This is the first spirit I tried at the show and, honestly, I think my favorite of the entire show. A 100% rye aged 10 years in new charred American Oak, it was fiery and spicy. The oak on it mellowed the black pepper and chili powder in it and the wood itself gave it some sweet notes of vanilla to boot. Complex but easy drinking and extremely flavorful. I love this stuff and I really hope they'll think about releasing a cask strength version. I think at cask strength this would be incredible. But at 100 proof, it's not far away.

Schwartzhog: An interesting competitor to the coveted Jagermeister title. As of late I've seen a lot of herbal liqueurs arriving from Western Europe (I'll be reviewing Harlem soon) and Schwartzhog fits the bill. It's the same color of Jager but that is the only aspect it shares. First off, it's not as sweet as Jager which is my main problem. Also, the medicinal flavor of Jager is non-existent in Schwartzhog. Instead it's a strong bitter orange and ginger with a honey like sweetness to it. Also, it has "sauwurz", or hog root in it. I dunno what it is or what it does to the flavor, but the fact that there's an herb called hog root entertains the shit out of me. The table actually had other stuff (it was a representative table for The Other Wine and Spirits CY) that I didn't get to try thanks to the MTA. They had The Irishman and Deau Cognac. If anyone's got any notes on that, I'd like to see 'em.

Greenbar Collective: I gotta admit, this table was pretty damn cool. They had a really interesting range of spirits that I had never imagined before. They had the vodka (flavored and standard). I tried the lemon vodka, called Tru, and I enjoyed it because of its simplicity. It wasn't trying to be a limoncello but rather a vodka with a light backbone of lemon which I found oddly refreshing. It'd be good for making an alcoholic Arnold Palmer. I had their Tru gin which was very different. Heavier on fennel than juniper it had a very pronounced anise flavor that was balanced by the juniper and some lavender too. I had it neat and in a cocktail with their jasmine which I didn't like, actually. I thought the aggressive gin slaughtered the delicate taste of the jasmine. But that's not really reflective of the spirits themselves. My FAVORITE of the table was their Crusoe spiced rum. It had a nice rich base of dark rum and a huge punch of cardamom, cinnamon, and clove to it. I'd like to compare it to the Kraken but the Kraken is a much different beast than this. This one is sweetened so it would be ideal for cocktails while the Kraken I'm perfectly happy sipping on the rocks. Two different animals but the Crusoe rum gets my thumbs up.

P.S. Jack, I looked up the details on that cigar. The Orange Label cigar is a Dominican, long filler, mild smoke from SJ Cigars in Philly. Lemme know how it was.

Cognac Ferrand: The Cognac Ferrand had a veritable buffet of booze but, due to time constraints, I wasn't able to try all of it. They had Citadelle Gin (which I've never had but wanted to try) and a variety of fruit liqueurs but I was on a brown spirits roll so I went with their Cognac and their Rum. The Pierre Ferrand Ambre was a nice entry level cognac. It had some nice notes of fresh red apple, a slight touch of residual wine sugars, and the oak was complimentary but not overwhelming. The Plantation Rum was an interesting find as well. The 5 Year Old, which is double aged (first in ex bourbon, then in ex cognac) smacked heartily of vanilla. The oak on it was muted by the overwhelming flavor of fresh vanilla, a slight creaminess, and banana on the aftertaste. The 20 Year Old was even more intense, butting the banana out of the taste all-together and just pouring on the vanilla and oak. Lindsay and I waxed philosophic about what we could do with the rum and we came up with: reduced and poured on ice cream, Bananas Foster, and topping flan. I was pretty giddy with the culinary avenues opened with that rum.

Redemption Rye: I will be completely honest, even though Dave probably won't want to hear this. I wasn't actually that impressed by the Redemption Rye. I really like my ryes to be bold and robust but the Redemption was too mild for me. It's a 95% rye mash bill, aged in oak for 2 years. I feel it's too delicate to mix but neat or on ice it would be pretty good for someone that's never had rye before. For me, however, it just didn't have the oomph I like in my ryes. But still, as Levar Burton says, don't take my word for it. Try it yourself.

80 Strong Bourbon: Ok, we were confused with this bourbon. At first sip, it had the mild sugary/vanilla and oak taste of your standard bourbon with a touch of rye to it. Then...the weird turned pro. It tasted like fresh roasted peanuts. My photographer was intrigued as he's allergic to peanuts, so he was amazed to be tasting something (safely) for the first time. Lindsay and I were pretty confused and slightly amazed by the revelation. If you like peanuts, I'd go for it. Other than that, not bad but nothing outstanding. I'd hedge its a pretty good deal. This would be a crazy bourbon to taste at cask strength. I wonder if the flavor follows through. EDIT: Yeah, it's only about $20. I'd drink it for $20.

Calisaya: This, too, had me confused. It's  an Italian bitter but it uses cinchona calisaya, a South American bark high in quinine. It gives the drink a very bitter edge that is smoothed out by a lot of sweetener and some orange. It's a peculiar beverage and I find myself wondering what I'd do with it. The recipes on their website are pretty fascinating and I'm wondering if they'll really work. Maybe I'll try to find a bottle to tinker with at some point.

Scorpion Mezcal: A lot of people weren't trying this because of a key reason: the fact there's a goddamn scorpion in the bottle. Which is a shame, really, because it's a pretty nice mezcal. A touch rough in the earlier expressions (I had the blanco / Silver and reposado) but it has that pleasant outdoor, woody smokiness coupled with a balancing saccharinity. Not sure how much the fact that there's a scorpion in the bottle boosts the MSRP but we'll see. At some point I'll track down some of the older expressions.

Pool: Dear Pool, let's have a chat. While I appreciate the fact that you're trying to break into a huge market of fruit flavored vodkas, I'd just like to point out that you probably shouldn't serve a cocktail eloquently called "Pee In The Pool" at an event where people are paying upwards of $75 to enter. Serve something that doesn't sound like you polled an elementary school for a cocktail name. Thanks, IWB.

nadaRed:  A triple distilled grain vodka with a mission. You buy their vodka. They donate 100% of their net profits to fight for freedom and personal rights in oppressive countries. While I like the idea and the fact that, from what I can see, they're doing it...their media needs to change. Firstly, I'm a stickler for spelling. So when the brochure spells triple as "tripple", I nearly blew a blood vessel the size of Oregon. Second, the stock photos in it were...not very convincing. Finally, the website has a map that declares "nadared", "partly red" and "red" countries. Frankly, McCarthyism didn't really work out too well for us, so I'd suggest rephrasing that whole section. But, all in all, the vodka is pretty good and it's a good cause so I give it a thumbs up.

Luna Sueno: 100% blue agave tequila. Comes in your standard three types: blanco, reposado, and anejo. Oddly enough, my favorite of the bunch was the blanco. The blanco was fresh and light with the perfect balance of agave and smoke. The reposado didn't have a whole lot of that caramel-like agave taste I like and the smoke was more aggressive. Lastly, I think the anejo was overoaked as the wood notes overpowered everything. So, if you're reaching for a bottle, I'd go for the blanco. It was nice.

Orange V Vodka: While I wasn't a huge fan of the Redemption, Dave's Orange V Vodka was really good. It wasn't super sweet. It wasn't fake orange. It tasted like someone injected vodka into a ripe Florida orange. Which, now that I think about it, is a really good idea. Someone's gonna get rich off that. It was a touch thick for me but other than that, a pleasingly fresh orange taste to it.

Vieux Carre: Sorry for the lack of the accent grave but I just can't find it. I'd really been looking forward to trying this absinthe. Produced by Philadelpha Distilling, it is one of the high quality artisan absinthes made now that the absinthe ban is over. The spirit itself clocks in at a hefty, heavy 120 proof (60%) it is not for the faint of heart. My cameraman enjoyed drinking it straight but he's absolutely crazy. Diluted, with sugar, it had a strong anise taste coupled with a delicious undertone of spearmint that really made the absinthe. I was under the impression that I didn't like anise but this absinthe made me change my mind. Buy it and drink it in vast quantities. They also had their Bluecoat Gin and Penn 1681 Vodka but I was pressed for time so I only went for the absinthe. Some other time, my sweets.

Ok, I think it's fair to say at this point you need a break almost as much as I did at the event. So, go grab a bite, maybe a quaff. Here's some soothing music:

Everything peachy? Are you sitting comfortably? Good, then we'll begin.

Chairman's Reserve Rum and Castries Cream: The rum wasn't too bad. It wasn't blowing me away though. Nutty and sweet, it was a decent sipping rum depending on the price. At this point my palate was kinda shot so I'd like to try it again. I kinda tried it after the Castries Cream and the absinthe so I'd imagine that I probably missed a lot. The Castries Cream (my photographer's favorite beverage of the entire expo) is a peanut cream liqueur that was, surprisingly, pretty damn good. Not cloyingly sweet, not overwhelmingly peanut-y, and not oddly viscous like the 1921 Tequila Creme. Not sure what I'd do with it, but I'd drink it. Maybe mix it with creme de cacao and call it done.

Denizen Rum: A clear rum with an interesting taste. It had your standard clear rum "sweet and slightly burning" taste but the aftertaste was papaya, mango, melon, and mint. The craziest part? It's made in Amsterdam. Well, distilled in Trinidad/Tobago/Jamaica but blended in Amsterdam. Close enough. I'd buy it for mixing and maybe even sipping on the rocks. I'm seeing it at about $16 a 750ml which isn't too bad.

Jewel of Russia: This was actually an eye-opening thing for me. I'm normally not a vodka drinker per se but I do like trying vodka. I  don't reach for the vodka first but a good vodka tonic or the OCCASIONAL Kangaroo (that's a vodka martini) sits well with me. I almost approached this booth on pure whimsical fancy and I'm glad I did. They had the Classic, the Ultra, and the Berry but I only had time to try the Classic. Poured from the bottle, cold, it was...magical. It was silky smooth and extremely palatable. None of the harshness of some other vodkas. It was...actually delicious and extremely easy to drink. It was like a slightly tingly water. And that was just the Classic. I want to try the Ultra at some point. I would, surprisingly, recommend the shit out of this. As a matter of fact, I believe I will. It was good.

Vermont Spirits: You know my opinion on the Vermont stuff. It's excellent. Lindsay and my photographer tried the White and loved it. Just buy it already, will you?

Berkshire Mountain Distillers: Another semi-local distillery that I've shamefully never tried the product of. And by shamefully, I mean it burns like the fiery power of a thousand suns. I tried their Ragged Mountain Rum which was really, really good. Very heavy on the butterscotch and Christmas spice, even though it wasn't spiced. I'm going to investigate this brand more in the future. Stay tuned.

Harvest Spirits: Yeah! Harvest Spirits was there. They had their applejack (review forthcoming, it needs its own page), their Core Vodka, and some brandies. Collin was there and we chatted. He said there's some pretty interesting things coming down the pipeline for the Harvest Spirits line (hint: a special applejack that I will greedily chug like a pig) among other things. The other guy at the stand whipped up probably the best damn cocktail I've ever had. It was their Core vodka, some honey, some lemon juice, and some blueberries. It was so good I want it put in an IV bag and mainlined into my aorta. I want to replace my blood with it. That. Good.

Tuthilltown: It's Tuthilltown. Do I really need to put up a review of Tuthilltown. Actually, I tried their Single Malt and, sadly, wasn't impressed. It tasted kinda...musty. I'll try it again because these reviews go in chronological order so, in case you've been keeping track, my tongue was looking like a Steakum at this point.

*deep breath*

There it is, a full report of the Indy Spirits Expo. It was really, really fun despite the absolute monster of a headache I got on the train ride home. I credit this to mixing flavored vodkas, mezcal, tequila, absinthe, gin, and whiskey in a veritable melting pot of cortex searing potency. I'd just like to thank everyone at the show for the coming out and pouring generous portions of their product. I'd like to thank Dave Schmier for the tickets and the utter bemusement that I was, indeed, wearing pants. I'd like to thank Lindsay for putting up with me for 3 hours. And finally, I'd like to thank the MTA for having such shitty trains.

Seriously, a train made by Bombadier? They make snowmobiles. And not very well, I might add.



  1. Awesome. Sounds like you had a great time and deserved every throb of that headache :)

  2. Excellent write up on the Indy Spirits Expo. Photos are great. How can anyone drink corporate booze after going to this event?