Thursday, April 06, 2006

WhiskyFest--It's a Beautiful Thing

When someone tells me they don’t like scotch, I tell them they are drinking the wrong scotch. They’ve probably had a blended scotch, a nasty concoction of several whiskies stirred up into a pretty bottle. But a single malt scotch is a beautiful thing. It’s a caramel-colored, complex, slightly smoky liquid that warms you from the tip of your nose to the tip of your toes.

Of course, different areas of Scotland produces different scotches. The Lowlands produce a soft, malty whisky (that’s whisky without an “e” please). Glenkinchie is an example. The Highlands, being the largest area, produce mostly a drier whisky, sometimes with a hint of peat. Glenmorangie and Oban are popular Highland whiskies. Speyside produces a softer, elegant whisky, and is the home of The Glenlivet and Glenfarclas. And, leaving what I consider the best for last, is Islay, a 25-mile long island that is the home to such wonderfully peaty-scotch distilleries as Bowmore, Laphroaig, Lagavulin, and Ardbeg.

One of the best places to find out what you like, if you don’t have a great bar like the Dundee Dell like we do here in Omaha, is to go to WhiskyFest in Chicago. Sponsored by Malt Advocate magazine, this kid-in-a-candy-store event is a celebration of all things whisky—Scotch, Irish, Bourbon and Blended. Malt Advocate also has a WhiskyFest in New York and London, but this one is more attainable to me, personally, so this is the one we went to. And although the real target audience is distributors and buyers, they were just as friendly and helpful to us consumers.

The doors into the Grand Ballroom at the Hyatt Regency Downtown Chicago opened at 6:30, and we flooded in, eyes bulging and not knowing where to start. Ever been to a Home Show? That’s what this was like, only instead of row after row of tables and booths of landscaping and tiling options, it was all whisky. And, thank God, there were two huge buffets on each side of the room with pasta, roast beef, and muchies. Malt Advocate was nice enough to give everyone a spiral notebook for notetaking with a map of the tables, but it sat unused in my goodie bag. That takes way too much planning. And way too much sober organizational skills, although I saw some people using them.

So, we started on the right. We decided we’d start with some things we hadn’t tried before. We went to Connemara Irish Whiskey (this time, you may use the “e.”). They had 4 different whiskeys to try! Holy Cow, one table and I’m done! Actually, I wasn’t, but that would have been the smart thing to do because nothing tasted as good as this first taste. Oh, it tasted really good, but that first sip, mmmmmmmmm.

Then the trolling began. With tasting glass in hand, (Malt Advocate also supplied lovely engraved glasses), we worked our way around the room. Even though we didn’t have to drive anywhere, I took it easy. Alcohol and my medication don’t get along too well, and I don’t fancy a liver transplant. Besides, this was Hubby’s Christmas present, and as the night went on, it became obvious my role would be as support: support walking, support getting back to the room, support worshipping the ol’ porcelain altar, and so on.

What all did we, or he, try? Penderyn, Bunnahabhain (the rare example of a good blended Scotch from Islay), Old Potrero, Anchor Brewing (a little break from whisky), Santa Teresa Rum, Unibroue Beer, Goose Island Brewing, The Glenrothes, Tullamore Dew, Suntory Yamazaki (Japanese is a growing Scotch producer. It’s a little sweeter than Scotland’s), Wild Scotsman, Compas Box (Oranerie was amazing! And I don’t like sweet drinks.), Dewar’s (actually gave samples of the $200 bottle and gave out cigars), Buffalo Trace, Glenfarclas, Woodford Reserve (still my favorite bourbon), Balvenie, and Maker’s Mark. And those are just the booths we actually visited, and each booth had about 4 different bottles to try. We decided not to go to Laphroaig, Ardbeg, Glenfiddich, and others that we know well and have at home.

Other little treats were Jim Murray, autographing copies of his Whiskey Bible, and Ian Gray, a self-titled “Whisky Artist.” He had prints of his watercolors of distilleries on Islay and some new ones of Woodford Reserve in Kentucky. He signed them and talked about living in a camper van and painting. We bought 2, one depicting Ardbeg Distillery and one depicting Bowmore barrels. They are a wonderful souvenir of the evening.

By 9:30, we were pretty much done. Hubby was really done. Less than an hour earlier, he had been boasting about how Scotch isn’t the same as drinking other alcohol—he was fine, he just couldn’t feel his tongue. Then we sat down for a few minutes to chat with some people, and that did it, he wasn’t able to walk any more. I went to the room to get cash to pay for the prints, and he said that someone asked him if he was OK. He said yes, but I decided no and steered him back to the room, holding on to his elbow, ever so gently maneuvering him down the hall and up the escalators, except for the times I actually had to hold him around the waist to bring him back in the right direction. Imagine an old man, arms bent at the elbows, closed fists, shuffling along, moving his arms back and forth with every step, that was Hubby.

I won’t go into the rest of the evening, you can use your imagination. He eventually slept. He woke up, took some Motrin, took a shower and announced it would be a long time before he drank again. He did make it to the Field Museum and Frontera Grill, but he was hurtin’. What a good sport.

So, will we go next year? Well, yeah! Now we know what to expect. Now we can plan our route and what we want to taste. Now we can plan to attend a seminar or two. Now we’ve got a year to recover. We’ll be ready!

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