Whiskeyfest whispers

Pub date October 11, 2010
SectionPixel Vision

What words could be more beautiful to hear upon entrance into the skyscraper-y, shiny den of downtown’s Marriot Marquis? From the mouth of a woman in a blazer and matching knee-length skirt: “It smells like a frat house on a Saturday morning!” Ah, last Friday’s Whiskeyfest, you came to conquer my liver, but you left after conquering my heart.

To the tune of 250 whiskies, no less! Once ensconced in the hotel’s basement ballroom and properly attired with our souvenir tote and tasting glass, naught could be seen but opportunities to drink myself into an unproductive Saturday of cowering from the Blue Angels. Row upon row of the finest whiskies – the even finer ones available only for the special VIP tasting hour, whose $150 price tag may have seemed a little step were one not aware of the general admission’s $110 bar tab.


And who, pray tell, is buying these steeply priced passes into madness? Well, from the looks of Whiskeyfest SF, mainly older white men. Shocking. But more interestingly, also a secret cabal of rumor-mongers and shit-stirrers! Indeed. SFBG received this mind-blowing scoop (along with a pair of hefty pours of the 23-year aged malt) from Old Rip Van Winkle‘s crown prince of marketing management, J. Preston Van Winkle. 

See, Old Rip’s got little to prove in this big old world of bourbon. Our SFBG resident spirits expert, Virginia Miller (who will know doubt be sniffing and sipping through a slightly more sophisticated, taste and mouth feel-oriented version of this coverage later this week) pointed me towards their table right off the bat, so we knew it would be good and smooth beyond measure. 

Their brand has been starting fights and making horses kick since the days before Prohibition, and its Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve is the highest rated bourbon whiskey in the world. In. The. World. Thank you, Kentucky. Preston tells me that at this stage, there’s not too much marketing to be done. “It’s more like relationship management now,” he tells me, standing next to dad Julian the Third at their pouring table. 

So why the devil would one pay the reported price of $1,200 to have a Whiskeyfest booth and suffer the badgering of alternative newspaper reporters? Preston says there’s more at stake here than mere sales figures. And now we’re talking honor – or at least the Internet’s perception of it. “There’s a whole subculture of whiskey people,” he begins, not sounding too much like he cottons to this particular set of website forum-frequenting deviants. “There’s an active rumor mill. As soon as we don’t show up, there’s ‘a hostile takeover,’ we’re ‘shutting the doors.’ ”

“Yep, we’re still here pops. Get used to it.” Preston Van Winkle (left, navy polo) deflects the haters at Whiskeyfest 2010. Photo by Paula Connelly

The message board freaks seem to have won this round. “It’s easier just to come to [Whiskeyfest] and suffer the consequences and generate buzz that we don’t need. That and John Hansell has been good to us,” he smiles, a twinkle appearing at the mention of the kingpin behind the Fest-editor of sponsoring rag Malt Advocate, a twinkle which hopefully eclipsed the pain he must endure by unhelpfully-generated buzz. 

So rapt was I held by these revelations from the junior Van Winkle, I began to venture further into his whiskey wonderland. It gets weirder. Turns out, his family didn’t start their eponymous whiskey brand. Pappy Van Winkle actually brought the brand from another bloke after Prohibition. What is truly nutty is that Pappy had been making whiskey all along, just not with his last name as the brand (he sold his original three brand names in favor of reinvigorating the Van Winkle label). Preston and I surmise that the original owners were playing on the fairytale story of the man who sleeps for twenty years after escaping his nagging woman and drinking some booze belonging to ghosts partial to lawn bowling. Good whiskey being that which knocks you out so long you miss your harpy wife’s death.

Preston, when did you start drinking whiskey yourself? Answer: one year old. “My parents didn’t believe in store bought cough syrup,” he tells me in a slight Louisville drawl. 

The Van Winkle wares having been thoroughly sampled, our cadre moved on, threading amidst the refrigerator-shaped men in blazers and kilts through the tables of un-aged Koval white whiskey, of Japanese whiskey, of ryes, bourbons, scotchs, and a host of non-whiskey related items like Crop’s Bloody Mary-ready organic tomato vodka and Quelque Chose, a beer from the Unibroue brewery of Quebec that is meant to be boiled in its own bottle, then served hot at the temperature at which its foam emerges. Like mulled wine it was, a perfect antidote to the October pre-anxiety over Christmas commercials and family visits.

We emerged at the other side predictably weary, having missed all 12 of the expert seminars (who were we, really, to attend?), but done our darnedest to sample what we could of the high rolling whiskey lifestyle – as well as having reinforced the notion that the high rolling whiskey lifestyle is an elixir best meant to be sipped, and preferably not at a level of motion characterized by the lurch to the next nearest table of sampling whiskies. Also, even men in suits get fresh after too many fancy scotches. Whiskeyfest, til we meet again.