• Santina Croniser
  • Carl Akeley’s fighting African Elephants, Sue the T-Rex, and a pterodactyl presided over the Lively Water Whiskey Festival

With the popularity that whiskey is enjoying these days, there appears to be plenty of room for multiple whiskey festivals in Chicago. After all, WhiskyFest Chicago regularly sells out months before the event (in fact, tickets for next spring’s event went on sale yesterday, and VIP tickets are already gone). Red Frog Events has stepped in to fill the void, and the inaugural Lively Water Whiskey Festival took place Saturday at the Field Museum.

It’s no WhiskyFest—both in number of distilleries and number of whiskeys offered, Lively Water is less than a third the size of the older event—but at $65 for a general admission ticket it’s also less than a third of the cost of WhiskyFest’s comparable early-bird tickets. The other major differences were that Lively Water is an hour shorter than the three-hour WhiskyFest (and the VIP session is a half hour rather than an hour), food is available but not included in the price of admission, and the lines were much longer (if you exclude the mad rush for Pappy Van Winkle and other rare whiskeys that happens at the beginning of WhiskyFest’s VIP hour).

Two hours might seem like plenty for tasting whiskey, but half an hour in, the lines at nearly all the booths were long, and an hour in, some of the distilleries had already run out of whiskey and abandoned their tables. I overheard another attendee comment, “If there’s not a line there’s no booze”—and it seemed to be true. I was interested in trying the single malts from Australia’s Lark Distillery but never located the booth, so they either ran out early or never showed. And Hudson Whiskey finished off its last bottle just before we reached the front of the line.

There were bright spots, though. I got to taste the excellent WhistlePig Rye again, and found that the apple-forward Clyde May’s Conecuh Ridge Whiskey measured up to my memory of it from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s Whisky Extravaganza. Oregon’s James Oliver Rye Whiskey, a peppery, smooth four-year-old whiskey made from 100 percent rye, was a standout as well—and pretty affordable at $30 a bottle.

  • Santina Croniser
  • The crowd around 8:30 PM

And during the VIP session, before the lines got long, I managed to try all of the whiskeys (plus an applejack) from Holland, Michigan’s Coppercraft Distillery, which started selling vodka and rum late last year and has gradually introduced gin, whiskey, and applejack. Both the wheat and rye whiskeys were rich and buttery; the wheat had notes of soft cocoa and butterscotch, while the rye was spicier and woodier, with hints of dark chocolate. I didn’t care for the hot alcoholic burn of the corn whiskey, but distiller Walter Catton had warned us that it needed a little more time in the barrel. The applejack was lovely, though I don’t seem to have taken notes on it for some reason. Coppercraft will release a bourbon next spring, and based on its other whiskeys, I’m betting it’s going to be excellent.

The event didn’t end until 9, but by 8:30 I was tired of standing in line and decided to taste one last whiskey before heading out. To make sure that my last sample was a good one, I chose Koval (it could just as easily have been Few, but I only wanted to wait in one line). By the time we got to the front of the ten-minute line, the selection was limited, but I got a pour of the millet whiskey, which was nutty, soft, and easy to drink, a nice end to the evening.

Julia Thiel writes about booze on Thursdays.