Attending WhiskyFest

Oct 16, 2013 | By Jack Bettridge

This is going to be hard to write without seeming to gloat, but I'm going to plow through anyway and hope for your indulgence.

I just experienced about the greatest day of whisk(e)y drinking that a fellow can have: the New York WhiskyFest Weekend Seminars. It was part of last weekend's extravaganza of brown spirits at New York's Marriott Marquis.

If you're familiar with WhiskyFest, an event produced by Whisky Advocate magazine (a Cigar Aficionado sister publication, formerly called Malt Advocate), you know the nighttime sessions as must-go events, with the opportunity to walk the floor and sample dozens of hard-to-find drams in one convenient setting.

With the recently added Weekend Seminars format, that description just got a big promotion. Those lucky enough to attend drank impossible-to-find whiskey while sitting tableside and being led through these wonders by some of the most renowned members of the distilling trade.

It was kick-ass right from the git-go (9 a.m) as publisher and editor John Hansell introduced "the dream come true" tasting that he had orchestrated—Wanted Dead or Alive: A Tasting of Rare Whiskies. Including rare whiskies from active and demolished distilleries, the seminar even ranged into tastes that had been created specifically for the event and would never be made again.

Dr. Nick Morgan, Head of Whisky Outreach for Diageo, opened things up with a sample of the toasty, meaty Glenury Royal 23-year-old from the now-silent distillery in the Scottish eastern Highlands. Morgan's degree is in history and his doctorate dissertation was on Quakers. Oddly the Glenury founder, Captain Robert Barclay, was of that faith as well as having wagered prodigiously on his prowess as a walk-racer. "He was my kind of Quaker," said Morgan. "He made his money from gambling and vice."

Sam Simmons, the global ambassador for William Grant & Sons, brought along a 23-year-old sample from Kininvie, a Speyside, Scotland, stillhouse that ran for only 20 years and was almost exclusively used for blending. The whisky Simmons brought was from the first distillation on July 4, 1990, and was a veritable pocket full of posies with the taste of potpourri, mint, tangerine and licorice.

Sazerac 18-Year-Old Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey might have seemed out of place in this group, since even though it's in short supply, it is still released periodically. But then Chris Fletcher, head chemist at Buffalo Trace Distillery, explained that what we were drinking was from the original release. Bottled in 2000, it was the precursor of the now expansive Antique Collection. This collusion of candy and spice was a major player in the resurgence of rye.

Diageo's Ewan Morgan, master of whisky, trotted out two treasures from Kentucky's legendary Stitzel-Weller distillery. Once the purview of the celebrated Pappy Van Winkle, it was shuttered in 1991. The remaining whiskey has been passed along in a series of buyouts, but will never be available for sale. We drank it Saturday as a rare look back at the heritage of American whiskey. Morgan urged the crowd to stand up and take a massive breath before the experience. The better to appreciate the meeting of fire and velvet that was the Stitzel-Weller and the Halloween bag full of candy that was the Bernheim whiskey.

Bruichladdich master distiller Jim McEwan, right, and the Whisky Advocate contributor David Broom lead the crowd in a rousing Braveheart-style toast.
Bruichladdich master distiller Jim McEwan, right, and Whisky Advocate contributor David Broom lead the crowd in a rousing, Braveheart-style toast.

Next, in the first of three segments called Whiskey Legends, Jimmy Russell, the master distiller of Wild Turkey, sat down with Lew Bryson, the managing editor of Whisky Advocate. Asked what he had done to celebrate his recent 59th anniversary at the distillery, Russell said, "When I went home I had a drink." About a date for his retirement, he replied, "When it becomes a job."

Russell, the only distiller to have attended every WhiskyFest, talked extensively about his early days in the industry, when he took a job in quality control. "They laughed at me when I started," said the man who is now a giant in the Bourbon and rye world.

In introducing the whiskey he brought along for the seminar, a 12 1/2-year-old Bourbon that was a candy bar of a whiskey, he stressed the importance of keeping things the same at the distillery. "We've used the same yeast since I came. So that's 59 years that I know of."

If the foregoing weren't exclusive enough, the seminar featured four whisky-makers, each of whom made up an expression of just 12 bottles to be enjoyed at WhiskyFest and nowhere else. Ever.

The dozen from Highland Park were a 1968 vintage cask sample, a vatting of four American-oak Sherry casks, served cask-strength, without chill filtering. The global marketing manager Gerry Tosh described how the rampant winds on the treeless island of Orkney tempers the whisky at Highland Park, the northernmost distillery in Scotland.

From Scotland's Aberlour came a 21-year-old, 106.8-proof fruit bomb that the Chivas international brand ambassador Ann Miller described as a microcosm of the quintessential Speyside distillery. Aged in a single ex-Sherry cask made from European oak, it showed toffee and licorice as well as fruitcake.

"We'll never do anything like this again," said David Stewart, malt master of The Balvenie of Banffshire, Scotland. He was introducing Balvenie Offspring, a marriage of three casks laid down in the 1980s in American oak, a Sherry hogshead and a refill butt. The 51-year veteran of the company added that the casks represented the birth years of each of his children: 1980, 1982, and 1986. The result was a layer cake of flavors.

Dr. Bill Lumsden, who oversees Ardbeg and is director of distilling, whisky creation and whisky stocks for Glenmorangie, reached back to the 1973 vintage for his contribution. He explained that with the purchase of Ardbeg came a library of stocks that revealed a "checkered past" for the distillery on Scotland's Islay. "Consistency was not part of the plan," said Lumsden. Nevertheless, the sample he pulled from cask no. 1149 displayed an extraordinary balance of smoke, spice, sweetness and mint.

Next up in the Whisky Legend series was Jim McEwan, interviewed by Dave Broom. Long the master distiller of Bowmore, he left to reopen the shuttered Islay distillery of Bruichladdich in 2000. In a lifetime filled with accomplishments, he described his most emotional moment in the business as when the old stills shook to life at the reopened distillery, putting dozens of men back to work. "That is the biggest buzz I've ever had in my whisky life," he said.

The whisky that he brought—2013 Feis Ile, vatted from eight casks with a combined age of over 150 years—was also quite a buzz. McEwan also had the crowd on their feet as he led them through a Braveheart-style toast, using the muscular fruit ball of a malt for lubricant.

Next came the reprise and expansion of one of the most popular seminars: Scotch & Chocolate, with three separate combinations. First, John Glasser, of the boutique maker Compass Box, matched Spice Tree, a blend of three Highland and Speyside singles malts, with Bourbon Cask Aged Bolivia Chocolate from Raaka Virgin Chocolate, represented by Ryan Cheney.

The next pairing represented a first in single-malt Scotch production: a whisky created in collaboration with a Michelin-starred chef. The Dalmore master blender Richard Paterson partnered with Daniel Boulud to create The Dalmore Selected Daniel Boulud. It brings together malts aged in Muscatel, Madeira and Port wine casks. Boulud provided his namesake chocolate Daniel for the experience.

The final combination brought Lumsden back to the stage with Glenmorangie Signet, which appropriately is made with roasted "chocolate" barley. To further the synergy it was matched with Del Posto's Whisky Caramel with Edible Paper, infused with whisky from Glenmorangie.

The tasting didn't stop even at lunch, which saw Broom and Morgan introducing a quadrant of Talisker, comprising 10-, 18- and 25-year-olds, as well as Talisker Storm. The latter is a more intense version of the 10, with an extra dollop of the smoke and maritime influence associated with the distillery on Scotland's Isle of Skye.

The postprandial seminar was entitled "Where Whisky is Heading," and included Doug McIvor of Berry Bros. & Rudd presenting Blue Hanger 6th release. The latest edition of the Scotch blended malt includes Glenrothes, Bowmore and Bunnahabhain. His secret to a great vatted malt? "As long as it tastes good and makes a happy blend."

Tadashi Sakuma, of Nikka Whisky Distilling Co., weighed in from the Japanese sector of the whisky world. He shared Taketsuru 21-year-old, named for the founder and father of Japanese whisky Masataka Taketsuru, who studied whisky making in Scotland and brought the art to the Far East. The 21 year old blended whisky is from the company's Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries.

The Far West was also represented. David King, of Anchor Distilling, brought Old Potrero Hotaling's, a single-malt rye made in San Francisco by the leader in the craft-distilling trend. This taste, with its delicate charms, is at an outside length in the company's aging program: 10 years.

Fletcher returned to talk about Buffalo Trace's Experimental Collection, bringing along a release that had been aged in wood that had been air dried for 13 months instead of the typical six, which gave it a tobacco note. The chemist said the challenge with the experimental collection was "How can we change whiskeys without making them not what they are?"

A Legends segment with Parker Beam, master distiller of Heaven Hill Distilleries, posed a somber note. The oft-awarded and well-loved Kentucky stillman has been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease). Hansell, as moderator, noted that it has already been a sad year for the Bourbon world with the deaths of Elmer T. Lee, distiller emeritus of Buffalo Trace, and Lincoln Henderson, formerly master distiller of Brown-Forman's Old Forester, Jack Daniel's and Woodford Reserve, and later of his family's venture Angel's Envy.

The silver lining has been Beam's efforts on the part of finding a cure for ALS with the Parker Beam Promise of Hope Fund. With this year's seventh annual release of the handpicked Parker Heritage Collection, Heaven Hill will donate $20 for each bottle sold. On top of that a one-of-a-kind Bourbon was created through the efforts of the Bourbon community to help the charity. Called Parker's Unity, it is composed of extra-aged Bourbons from Heaven Hill, Buffalo Trace, Four Roses, Jim Beam, Maker's Mark, Wild Turkey and Woodford Reserve. A two-bottle lot was earmarked for auction at Bonhams the day after WhiskyFest (it raised $8,500 for the charity) and the rest of the miniscule batch was sampled during Beam's segment. An emotional video, featuring the other master distilleries who contributed, was shown during the segment as a tribute to Beam.

The final portion of the seminars was dedicated to presenting the 19th Annual Whisky Advocate Awards. The award winners were presented by the writers who chose them.

Davin de Kergommeaux introduced Lot No. 40, 2012 release, from Corby Distillers of Canada, a mélange of flavors including earth, wood, velvety vanilla and floral notes. Dominic Roskow flagged Yellow Spot, a 12-year-old single pot still Irish whiskey from Sherry, Bourbon and Malaga casks, made at Midleton Distillery. Hansell presented Four Roses 2012 Limited Edition Small Batch, which employed four of the distillery's 10 recipes distinguished by mash and yeast types, to create an intensely complex Bourbon. Gavin Smith ushered in both Glenmorangie Pride 1981 Vintage and Auchentoshan 1979 Vintage, both from Scotland. The former, a Highland whisky enjoyed extra maturation in Chateau d'Yquem barriques. The latter, triple-distilled and from the Lowlands, aged in first-filled Sherry casks and made a release of only 1,000 bottles. Broom lauded The Balvenie Tun 1401, Batch 9. The batch includes 11 traditional casks and three Sherry butts. Corsair Triple Smoke, presented by Bryson, is an American pot-distilled malt whiskey that joins the sweetness and barrel notes of domestic whiskey with the smoke of a single malt.

Which brings me to the one complaint I could possibly conceive about the event.

There were no actual smokes to go with all those fine whiskies.

For that I guess you have to go to my cigar and whisky pairing at the Big Smoke Las Vegas in November. Hope to see you there.

More in Blogs

See all
Good Cigars, Great Company

Good Cigars, Great Company

“The company you keep can make for the very finest smokes.” Executive editor David Savona recounts …

Sep 1, 2021
The New Cigar Boom

The New Cigar Boom

The past year and a half has been hard on just about everyone.

Jul 20, 2021
Father’s Day

Father’s Day

Being a father is one of life’s greatest pleasures and largest responsibilities.

May 11, 2021
The Longest Wait

The Longest Wait

Gordon Mott recollects smoking his first cigar in nine weeks due to a mild case of Covid-19.

Mar 5, 2021
I Owe Rush So Much

I Owe Rush So Much

Rush Limbaugh: 1951-2021. Marvin R. Shanken remembers Rush Limbaugh, a giant among cigar smokers.

Feb 17, 2021
A Big Start for the New Year

A Big Start for the New Year

A note from editor and publisher Marvin R. Shanken and executive editor David Savona.

Feb 9, 2021