Whisky Week 2013 - Highlights from WhiskyFest and Jewbilee

Photo by Amanda Schuster
Photo by Amanda Schuster

Whisky Week, October, 2013. New York City was once again awash with distillers, visiting brand ambassadors, tartans… and loads of delicious, fermented grain spirit. This is the second year that WhiskyFest has taken place over a Friday and Saturday (as opposed to a single week night), which has brought significant changes to the way New Yorkers partake of their whiskies. But what this also does is shut out a key part of the whisky-loving demographic - practicing Jews, who can’t attend such events on Friday nights for religious reasons. Enter Jewbilee - organized as a fringe event by the Jewish Whisky Company, a.k.a. Single Cask Nation, as a sort of mini WhiskyFest that showcases a few select prominent brands with many of the same high profile whiskies that will be on offer over the weekend, in a smaller setting, but with cholent.

In its second year, Jewbilee has grown into an impressive gathering of drams. If one is attending both shows, it’s a great way to begin the tasting adventure and access some of the whiskies ahead of time, with more opportunity to mingle with those behind the products, as well as get face time with fellow aficionados and visiting writers. There’s a real communal feel to Jewbilee, even if you’re not one of the The Chosen. Though it got packed, and with so many thirsty fans, looks like for next year, to use a common paraphrase, they’re gonna need a bigger shul.

Delilahs High Res Image
Delilahs High Res Image

Besides the new schedule, there are a couple of notable changes to WhiskyFest, more apparent this year than ever. This annual convention, organized by John Hansell and the Whisky Advocate, is now more expensive to both attend and participate in. Sadly, this has occluded many of the craft distillers from exhibiting. This is not to say there aren’t some interesting new things to try, but there was noticeable lack of the more experimental little guys this year. However, the good news is there were more women in attendance than ever, very little instance of scantily-clad models pouring corporate whisky, unable to engage guests in anything off the “script’ they are given that same day. Corporate whisky is finally understanding its audience - we've all seen boobies. We want to learn about whisky.

Between the two conventions, there was much whisky to be tasted. Below are some highlights. Not to be outdone by this season’s excellent releases from the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection and a long visit with Jim McEwan, the “mad scientist” Master Distiller behind Bruichladdich, but there really is so much whisky, so little time:

Compass Box Delilah’s: This limited edition blended Scotch by the ever-progressive Compass Box tributes Delilah’s punk whisky bar in Chicago, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in August of 2013. The intent was to create an approachable whisky “that can be enjoyed by all.” Read: something you want to knock back with a beer at a cool bar with “Teenage Kicks” on the jukebox. Success! It’s very soft and subtle, but still flavorful enough for discerning Scotch palates.

Trey Zoeller & Chef Edward Lee, courtesy Castle Brands
Trey Zoeller & Chef Edward Lee, courtesy Castle Brands

Angel’s Envy Rye: I’ve said this before - rum cask finishes are like cologne. It requires judicious exposure or it’s too overpowering; they can be the hairy-chested gigolos of the whisk(e)y world. So it was quite daring for the folks at Angel’s Envy to attempt a rum finish on an American whiskey, which apparently had been an idea expressed by their late Master Distiller Lincoln Henderson. Perhaps it was the particular barrels used, former Plantation Rum casks, which themselves were once Pierre Ferrand Cognac barrels, but whatever their thought process, they nailed it. The whiskey is spicy, orchard-fruity and surprisingly dry, with a delicate, butterscotch sweetness in the finish. Unlike any other rye on the market. I wouldn’t dream of putting this in cocktails as I wanted to cherish each sip on its own.

Parker’s Heritage 2013 - “Promise of Hope”: Sad news reached the whiskey world when it was announced that beloved Heaven Hill Master Distiller Parker Beam, for whom this annual release is named, was recently diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (also called ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease). $20 of each bottle sold will go to the Promise of Hope fund in his name. It’s one of the most heinous diseases in existence, and Mr. Beam is one of the nicest men on the planet, and that should be reason enough to pick one up. However, even more incentive is the particular “vintage” of this whiskey is better than it’s been in years. The balance between spice, sweetness and heat is exceptional, gorgeously rounded with a hint of Corn Pops cereal (always a good thing!) in the finish.

Wiser's range at WhiskyFest, photo by Amanda Schuster
Wiser's range at WhiskyFest, photo by Amanda Schuster

Jefferson’s Bourbon Chef’s Collaboration: Jefferson’s Master Blender, Trey Zoeller, continues this legacy of finely-tuned, “experimental” American whiskeys with a collaboration blend of bourbon and rye made with Louisville, Ky Chef Edward Lee. Chef Lee is a longtime fan of the range, and wanted to create a whiskey that would pair with his style of robust Southern cuisine - something with just the right amount of weight and spice. He likes his pork, and this whiskey harmonizes with heavier cuisine effortlessly, cutting through the richness, while giving the palate something to linger over. This limited edition at a super affordable price is going to sell out fast. Get it while you can.

Wiser’s 18 Years Old: The US greatly loses out on what should be two of the world’s best imports - Australian wine and Canadian whisky- with only a few representations here while much of the best stuff stays at home.

Kavalan Single Malt and Fino Cask at WhiskyFest, photo by Amanda Schuster
Kavalan Single Malt and Fino Cask at WhiskyFest, photo by Amanda Schuster

Luckily one of the latter is finally gracing our shores. Most of the Wiser’s range tasted at WhiskyFest was quite good, but the 18 Years Old rye blend really stood out, mainly for what it *doesn’t* taste like. Much softer with less heat than most American ryes, but thankfully lacking the syrupy finish we mostly associate with the corporate Canadian whisky previously available here. Subtle pie spice, caramel, sweet smoke and a bit of a viscous, cereal mouth feel. If anything, it’s a bit too easily approachable for my palate, but still happy to welcome it to our shelves across the border.

Kavalan Single Malt and Fino Cask: In the world of Scotch-tradition Asian whisky we mostly consider Japan for its exquisite offerings, but this Taiwanese distillery is a worthy rival for our attention. They make a big deal about the spring water used in production on their website, but considering how young this whisky has to be, the distillery having only been in operation since 2005, it might play a big role in its rather silky feel. The Fino Cask, if you can find it and afford it, is simply brilliant. Using a drier sherry finish (most ex-sherrys on the market tend to be Oloroso or PX) on this particular whisky freshens all the fruit flavors and puts some needed brine on the sweeter notes. Terrific balance and character. Looking forward to tasting what else they come up with.