Appetite: WhiskyFest 2010 highlights, part one

Pub date October 12, 2010
SectionFood & Drink

“[Whisky] feels appropriately intellectual: a drink you can wrestle with, linger over, and appreciate with all its nooks and crannies.” – Victoria Moore, How to Drink

WhiskyFest turns into Whisky Week with many of the world’s great master distillers and brand ambassadors in town from the reaches of Scotland and Kentucky for a tasting event of nearly 300 whiskies. I had the privilege of meeting with seven different distillers – some met with me over coffee or lunch, others at intimate gatherings. Impressed by the wide range of approaches, styles and personalities, I could easily write an article about each one and their respective distilleries. I will share highlights, this time with Scotch master, Richard Paterson, from a Charbay whiskey dinner, and tastes from the event. Part two will be conversations with bourbon and rye distillers.

10/8 LUNCH WITH RICHARD PATERSONRichard Paterson, known as “the nose” for his impeccable nose and taste, has been Whyte & Mackay’s master blender for decades. He’s one of the world’s leading scotch experts, author of the book Goodness Nose (which I savored as “homework” all through Whisky Week). To be part of one his seminars (such as at WhiskyFest Friday night), is to be bombarded with dates, history, uproarious expertise, irreverence, drama, laughter. When one lucky member of the class samples Dalmore Sirius (which has sold at up to $60,000 a bottle!), Paterson sets off a mini-rocket filled with confetti. Fireworks. Revelation. Kind of like tasting it myself…

I had the privilege of an intimate three hour lunch over food and the Dalmore line with Paterson at Wayfare Tavern. We covered the range from 12 year to King Alexander III scotches (which I first had at Whiskies of the World). The chocolate, marzipan, tropical fruit of King Alexander III remains a Dalmore highlight for me. It’s the only single malt in the world finished in six different woods (Port, Bordeaux Cabernet Sauvignon, Marsala, Madeira, Matusalem sherry, small batch Knob Creek bourbon barrels). Dalmore’s Gran Reserva stood out more the second and third time I sampled it with spiced marmalade, crushed almonds, and sherry notes from the 60% Oloroso sherry casks it’s aged in.

Get Richard started on wood and he says, “The wood is, as far as I’m concerned, the be all, end all.” With a devotion to fine sherry casks (like Gonzales Byass), a key source of Dalmore’s elegant taste profile, they also use a generous amount of American white oak, bourbon casks from Heaven Hill and Jim Beam, which enriches the profile further.

A favorite, which I would happily sip on its own, isn’t bottled: the unaged distillate or, whisky base. It’s amazing how much you can tell of a spirit’s quality by its foundation. I was pleasantly assaulted with an array of tastes from spice and earth to lemongrass in the clear, strong distillate. I finished every drop.

Certainly a pinnacle is reached with the Sirius. The rare opportunity to sample highly aged spirits just a handful times (like two 1800s cognacs in New Orleans or Highland Park’s 40 and 42 year scotches) has opened doors of flavor I could not dream up – this scotch transported me to regions beyond. There are only 12 bottles of Sirius in existence, a ’51 vintage with a blend of Dalmore scotches from 1868, 1878, 1926, 1939. History courses through each drop, while Paterson’s expert blending skills are illuminated here. Rich chocolate earth gives way to licorice and a bonfire smokiness. I count myself lucky.

To drink with Paterson is to learn how to properly nose a glass, how to hold whisky in your mouth for maximum taste (from many seconds, up to 2-3 minutes). One learns how the dreaded phylloxera aphid (which wreaks havoc on vines) inadvertently aided whisky’s growth by making dominant cognac in short supply, creating demand for other drink (read chapter seven in Paterson’s book). But he doesn’t just talk aphids, he brings visuals: big, plastic bugs to illustrate whisky’s unexpected “friend”.

Quirky and colorful, whisky comes to life through Paterson’s interpretation. Intelligent and challenging though the whisky world can be, Paterson retains the intellect but makes it approachable, fun. A Paterson course in whisky education should be mandatory for all would-be and already-avid drinkers.

TASTES – As usual, VIP hour is the time for the rare, the old, the latest, though it was more packed than ever with a mad rush waiting at the door at opening time.  This meant less opportunity to chat with distillers and hear about what you were tasting. A lot can happen in a year and the number of whiskies I’ve had since the last WhiskyFest meant this year was a lot of re-tasting and confirming favorites. Of the whiskies I had not tried, there weren’t a slew of stand-outs.

One that jumped out was a special unlisted, under-the-table pour of George T. Stagg bourbon. Toasty, charred oak warms, rounded out by a raisin-vanilla sweetness. Out of many over-hyped whiskies in the 20-40 year range during VIP hour, Bowmore’s 25 year stood out with a robust profile of salty brine and baked pear sweetness. Glenfarclas 40 year made a statement with tobacco, elegant tannins, orange. But it was many of my usual favorites that remained at the top, including Highland Park’s 30 year, Pappy Van Winkle’s 20 and 23 year bourbons, Parker’s Heritage 27 year bourbon, and Charbay’s incomparable Release II 1999 Pilsner whiskey. It was good to see Wes and Lincoln Henderson (of Woodford Reserve fame) with their new, port barrel-finished Angel’s Envy bourbon – I sampled an early version from Wes way back in December. Also on the non-whisky tip, I was happy as ever to sip a couple Germain-Robin beauties, including their complex Varietal Grappa, and oaky Coast Road Reserve brandy.

10/6 CHARBAY SPIRITED DINNERWith a magnificent sunset from atop the Marriott’s View Lounge as our backdrop, Marko and Jenni Karakasevic of Charbay hold an intimate spirited dinner annually. With plenty of time to hang out with the Karakasevics and meet fervent food and drink lovers at the two tables, the highlight was, of course, drinking Charbay’s incomparable spirits. Starting off with refreshing Green Tea Aperitif paired with Kumamoto oysters on the half shell, we then moved to one of the stand-out white whiskeys in existence: Doubled & Twisted Light Whiskey.

We moved on to what qualifies as one of the best things I ever tasted in my life (now, and every time I taste it): Release II of Charbay Whiskey. This was the best food match of the night, paired with slow-smoked Berkshire Farms Pork Belly and a mini-tamale in Lagunitas chili mole. Surprise whiskey barrel tastings followed: the Release II, but aged 12 years instead of the 6 years of the current release. At a higher proof, it’s superb, complex, rich.

A Meyer Lemon Vodka  ice intermezzo was a refreshing palate cleanser over basil ice, imbuing tart lemon with almost absinthe-like notes. Dessert was paired with their Black Walnut liqueur. As with most Charbay spirits, it’s a stunning standard-setter in its genre.

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