Dispatch from WSWA 2016

Showgirls flanking the announcement of Larry Ruvo's lifetime achievement award, photo courtesy Amanda Schuster
Showgirls flanking the announcement of Larry Ruvo's lifetime achievement award, photo courtesy Amanda Schuster

They say “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” however, we would be remiss in not sharing the highlights of this year’s Wine & Spirits Wholesalers Association convention at Caesars Palace. It was massive, it was bright, it was boozy and there was its fair share of flashy fun!

First, getting down to business, with drinks in hand

Amanda Schuster and Christie Brinkley
Amanda Schuster and Christie Brinkley

The WSWA Educational Foundation honored Tito Beveridge, founder of Tito's Handmade Vodka and presented him with the Sidney Frank Award, named for an industry giant who set new standards for innovation, community engagement and philanthropy. The award is given in partnership with The Sidney Frank Importing Company, and includes a $10,000 contribution in Beveridge's name to his choice of charity, CORE (Children of Restaurant Employees). WSWA also recognized Larry Ruvo, Senior Managing Director of Southern Wine & Spirits of Nevada with the Lifetime Leadership Award for outstanding business leadership in the industry and decades of philanthropic service to Nevada educational, health and community organizations, including the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, founded in his father’s name to serve patients, provide family support for, research cognitive diseases. For more on these stories, please click here.

The main part of the show is the grand tasting, which took place on two floors and several suites at Caesars. It was fun (and a great way to rest one’s dogs with all that walking in the vast venue!) to take a break and pop in on events such as the Wholesaler Iron Mixologist Competition and Call for Cocktails Mixology Competition. The two cocktail competitions highlighted some fantastic bartender talent, who were flown in from all over the country to mix brand recipes live in front of a panel of fans and industry experts.

Showbiz!

Cheech Marin and a mezcal angel, photo Amanda Schuster
Cheech Marin and a mezcal angel, photo Amanda Schuster

One of the biggest trends in beverages these days are the big name celebrities who are rolling out their own products. This year’s WSWA provided an opportunity to actually mingle with them as well as taste the famous hooch! Appearances at the tasting included Cheech Marin Tres Papalote mezcal, Channing Tatum with his vodka Born & Bred and Christie Brinkley with her rather delicious line of Prosecco, Bellissima.

Tastings

Of course, the main focus of WSWA is to spotlight emerging brands as well as revisit some old favorites. With so much to taste in such a sizable space, it’s difficult to cover all of it, even over the course of two days. However, a mighty effort was made. Here are some standouts:

Mexican Spirits and Rum

Colectivo Regional
Colectivo Regional

Colectivo Regional: The big story in spirits these days is the increasing popularity and quality of Mexican imports of every region, not just tequila and mezcal. This lineup is as impressive and educational as it is comprehensive. There is a representation of every style of spirit from Mexico - tequila, mezcal, bacanora, raicilla, sotol and even the rarely seen outside of the country, charanda, which is distilled from sugarcane, not a species of agave.

Mucha Liga: here is an outstanding example of cool packaging with high quality liquid. Two Mexican cultural traditions that demand respect are tequila and Lucha Libre wrestling. Much as every tequila has its own character, each of the expressions - blanco, reposado and añejo - represent a different luchador character. Considering the tough persona they are meant to embody, these tequilas are surprisingly approachable and so sippable, they’re almost downright cuddly.

Don Pilar: a grower-producer tequila brand from Los Altos, Jalisco that’s named for its storied master distiller, Don José Pilar Contreras Marquez, who is depicted at different stages of life on the bottle from the youngest to oldest

tequilas in the range. The tequilas exhibit terrific finesse and never lose their agave character, even in the older marks.

Other Mexican standouts included the excellent Galán and Cava de Don Samuel tequilas, and the outstanding lineup of mezcals hailing from Guanajuato, Hacienda Jaral de Berrio.

Stemmari wine, photo Amanda Schuster
Stemmari wine, photo Amanda Schuster

WSWA showcased many brands who were there to raise sugar cane. Two standouts were Bones Rum from the Virgin Islands, which not only features a cool pirate label, the liquid, matured in a combination of cherry wood and French oak, was smooth, toasty and butterscotchy. Tiburon Rum from Belize was also quite impressive with its balanced flavors of vanilla, bittersweet chocolate and a smoky finish.

Taking a wine break

After tasting many spirits, it was a pleasure (after some time to reset the palate), to taste some delicious wine. Stemmari from produces a range of wines from Sicily using sustainable practices. What is particularly remarkable about their expressions is that not only do they make a range of single varietal styles from native Sicilian grapes such as grillo and nero d’avola, they have also had impressive results with grapes associated with cooler climates, such as pinot grigio and pinot noir. Their blends, such as Dalila, made with grillo and viognier and Cantodoro, made with nero d’avola and cabernet, truly exhibit their finesse at merging old and new world styles.

A sip of a high roller luxury

Et No. 1, courtesty Chapters of Ampersand
Et No. 1, courtesty Chapters of Ampersand

Chapters of Ampersand introduced their inaugural spirit, Et. No. 1. Well, they had the bottle, designed by Swedish crystal artist Göran Wärff of Transjö Hytta glassworks in a display case. To taste the liquid, one had to ask very, very nicely for a wee sample. Why? Because the spirit is a Cognac blend that contains Tiffon Grande Champagne 1943, 1974 and 30% of a pre-1870 eau de vie* and is selling for upwards of $8500 a bottle (sold through distributor MHW). Ask nicely, I did, and it tasted remarkably fruity, perfumed, soft and youthful, which was the intended goal of master blender Folke Anderson.

The really fun stuff

Of course, the best part of any WSWA convention is the spirits previews, wacky packaging, cocktail stands and exotic products. It was particularly exciting to taste a preview of Anchor Distilling's Nikka Coffey Malt Japanese whisky. Manille liqueur from the Phillipines and Araceli marigold liqueur and even Ol’ Major Bacon Bourbon impressed this jaded skeptic. I also thoroughly enjoyed Ludlows Cocktail Co.'s spritz cocktail popups. Some of the others here, well, they call them "adult beverages" for a reason, right? (Additional photos courtesy TheMinty.com.) 

Cheers to another jam-packed year at WSWA!

*For those unaware, the reason that vintage is so significant is it predates the worldwide phylloxera crisis, a mite infestation which decimated all grape rootstock past that year into the early 20th century, and forced all vineyards to graft their native grapevines to American ones, which was identified by Texas scientist Thomas Volney Munson as the only way to prevent the mites from killing all the grapes. Therefore, almost all modern wine grapes around the world are, in effect, hybrids, and will taste different than an ungrafted varietal.

Caesars Palace fountain, photo Amanda Schuster
Caesars Palace fountain, photo Amanda Schuster
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