As anyone who has fallen victim to my angry rants about whisky festivals can attest, I hate whisky festivals. The 100+ attendee events I’ve been to were raucous and crass, with banquet snacks whose greasy mediocrity was matched only by their ability to inflict immediate gastric distress. The unbearable noise, the crowds, the (indoor!) bagpipes, all so awful, the whole thing devolving into a drunken, violent chaos of pointing and grunting within 10 minutes of the doors opening. Subtract whisky from the picture, and these events come as close as I can imagine to a picture of hell.

Perhaps not surprisingly, things are done differently in San Francisco, for the Whisky Advocate sponsored WhiskyFest.

The Show

The event is hosted at the lower level of the Marriot Marquis Hotel, centrally located, right off Union Square. Despite arriving early-ish to the event, there were no crowds or bottlenecks going down the escalators to get tickets scanned. At the landing of the 2nd basement, a gaggle of listless staff members behind the counter fought for the chance to hand me my spotless Glencairn glass, admission badge, and goodie bag. Passed the gates was a long, wide lobby filled with excellent snacks on tables down the middle, and a series of salons to the right and left. On the left, individual salons were cordoned off for master classes, and the salons on the right were opened into one big room for the grand tasting. This layout made it easy to quickly escape the fracas of the grand tasting if desired, into the quiet lobby, and made re-entry uncomplicated. Inside, the vendors were set up in four sectioned rows that divided the expansive room into manageable corridors with good flow that seldom felt ‘packed’, and probably also worked to keep the noise level down. The whole event had a feeling of ease that came from the fact that all details, large and small, had been attended to.

On entering the main salon, I had to check myself. No braying masses. No pointing and grunting. A PA system sufficient for the space it was meant to address. What’s going on here? Might this thing actually be enjoyable?

Immediately to my right, stood Compass Box founder and master blender John Glaser. And when I say immediately, I mean immediately. Like, within hugging distance. Not that I even thought about that. Ah, ahem. Ok, and so I spy George Grant from Glenfarclas, and David Perkins from High West, all in eye-shot of the salon’s main entrance. And with over 300 whiskies open for the event, there was surprisingly little filler on the whisky front. For the beginner whisky drinkers, there was lots to try, and get feet wet with. The more advanced whisky drinker had a spread of about 50 rare whiskies that traced a circuit around the room & more than justified the ticket price. What really stood out was the opportunity to have a casual chat with the knowledgeable & professional booth workers, who often came directly from the represented distilleries. I only heard a couple booth reps say “sorry, I don’t know”, which was impressive, because I listened in on a lot of extended conversations. I only caught one rep bullshitting (“Bourbon must be from Kentucky!”). Quickly called out by a taster, red faced, he was satisfyingly shamed.

The Whiskies

The show featured a modest selection of Scotch, mostly from the big distilleries and brands. Clearly, the focus at WhiskyFest is on American Whiskies. The Van Winkle booth was pouring their 10, 12, 15, 20, & 23 year releases. As such, the queue was roughly 20 anxious geeks deep, notebooks in hand, all night long. The seething scrum around the Suntory booth was a many-tentacled Kraken of skinny jeans, hipster haircuts and carefully waxed beards, oohing and aahing. If you watched closely, occasionally a tall bottle of dark whisky was furtively whipped out, 1/4oz poured, and immediately re-hidden under the table. So fast I could barely read the label… A big, lustrous, golden kanji character. Yama something-or-other. A hearty meh, and bollocks to all of that. My favourites of the show were:

Heaven Hill’s Elijah Craig 18 and 23. Both very excellent, and admittedly different bourbons, that each masterfully struck a sophisticated balance between boldness and drinkability.

Compass Box’s Hedonism Quindecimus. Tasting it in advance of the festival, I already knew that it might be one of the finest whiskies I have ever tried.

Westland Whiskey’s Sherry Wood was very impressive, as was their Peated whisky, and the pair of single cask, cask strength bottlings they had open. The reluctant pourer assured me they were “not really available anywhere”.

Finally, my top pick of the show was a whisky produced by Sonoma County Distillers. I had the pleasure of meeting & briefly chatting with their laid-back, straight shooting head distiller, Adam Spiegl, a couple weeks ago in Edmonton, so a visit to his booth was already high up on my list. At the show, he was pouring his full line up: the Rye, 2nd Chance Wheat, Cherrywood Rye, their cask strength editions, as well as a teaser for their cheeky ‘West of Kentucky’ Bourbon, which is tough to find, even in California. Cool whiskies, distilled in Alembic pot stills, fibres of the cognac tradition woven into nearly every one of Sonoma County Distillers’ practices. The stuff is rustic, affordable (at least in the US), and well balanced. On any given day, are they my favourite whiskies? No. But!

I spot Adam at his booth, sporting an unpretentious black Sonoma County Distillers bowling shirt and bright red trucker cap. We exchange hellos, and he pulls me off to the side and says ‘Hey, do you remember that thing I told you about a couple weeks ago? The thing that was just in the works?’. I smile and nod. I have absolutely no idea what he’s talking about. Then Adam pulls out an unmarked bottle & pours me a mystery dram of dark amber spirit. The stuff is absolutely amazing, and like nothing I’ve ever had before. Not intense, but immaculately balanced, something magical. Adam raises his eyebrows, as if to ask, rhetorically, “Right?”. I tell him it’s “fucking awesome”. He says thanks, sincerely, but with a knowingness that tells me he’s also aware that it’s ‘fucking awesome’. Details are scarce, but what I do know, is that for the very small 18 gallon batch, Spiegl shaved almost $8000 of black Périgord truffles into the whisky. Enough said.

A quick thought: of all the whiskies I’ve ever tried, I can say one thing without question, and one thing only. A single, incorrigible, indestructible fact. Whisky from a hidden, unmarked bottle, poured by the confident hands of the person who painstakingly crafted it, is the best whisky in the world.

The Trends

The two most visible new trends were laid right on the table, out for everyone to see.

First, was the impressive amount of cask strength whiskies from small distilleries. In fact, there wasn’t but a handful of small distilleries that didn’t have a cask strength bottling of some description. And I’ll admit, I go straight to the cask strength liquid. The booth reps were usually reluctant to pour the cask strength bottles first, but after some prodding, they would, and admit that cask strength is something more and more consumers are demanding.

Transparency was a word that went mostly unsaid, but was a feeling that shot through the whole WhiskyFest, like humidity in the air. Larger agencies like Brown-Forman (Jack Daniels, Woodford Reserve, Old Forrester), Beam-Suntory (Bowmore, Macallan, Suntory brands) tend to fall back on their distilleries’ rich and storied histories before talking about the hard facts, if they even decide to talk about facts at all. All that hubbub, even amid vanishing age statements. Smaller distilleries like Sonoma, Westland, Koval, and Long Island Distillers were happy to disclose absolutely everything about their whisky, literally from grain to bottling any anything in between. After recently getting some fame for telling consumers ‘too much’ about their “This is not a luxury whisky” blend, Compass Box was handing out ominous, matte black leaflets of the offending material. To be frank, I have enough faith in Compass Box’s craftsmanship, in both whisky and marketing, that I’m still not entirely sure the trouble Compass Box faces from the Scotch Whisky Association isn’t some sort of brilliant self-inflicted publicity stunt. But, good on them either way, for getting the issue way out into the open. Expect to hear the word ‘transparency’ crop up in whisky discussions for some time to come.