The biggest flask at WhiskyFest Chicago (possibly the only one)
  • Julia Thiel
  • The biggest flask at WhiskyFest Chicago (possibly the only one)

Calling WhiskyFest overwhelming is almost an understatement. There are 80-plus booths, most of them offering four or more whiskies, which adds up to more alcohol than you could drink in a week, much less a few hours (the official website advertises more than 300 whiskies, but I’d estimate it’s closer to 400). The event is so popular that tickets sold out in seven hours this year—considerably less than the seven days they took to sell out last year.

Even more daunting than the whisky list is navigating the mad rush to the booths when the doors open for VIP hour. I headed for the Buffalo Trace table first, hoping to try the George T. Stagg bourbon—as did about 100 other people with the same idea. That mass of people blended quickly with the mob headed to the Old Rip Van Winkle table nearby; half the people at the tasting must have been crowded into that one corner of the room.

I successfully secured a small pour of the Stagg without getting knocked over and retreated to an unoccupied table nearby to taste it. Bottled at barrel strength, the 15-year-old bourbon clocks in at 128 proof—and the 2013 release is actually lower alcohol than usual (it’s often more than 140 proof). The first sip revealed only sweetness and an intense alcoholic burn, but adding a little water opened it up considerably and I tasted vanilla, caramel, toasty oak, and peach—it’s an incredibly complex whisky (American whiskeys are usually spelled with an “e,” but for the sake of consistency I’m going to stick with “whisky” in this post). I overheard a guy heading away from the Buffalo Trace booth, presumably with his own Stagg, say “that’s some fucking alcohol.” Also true.

As I finished the last of the bourbon in my glass I noticed that the crowd around the booth had disappeared, and heard someone say that they were out of the George T. Stagg. Eight minutes had passed since the doors first opened. I headed over to the Old Rip Van Winkle booth to see if there was any 23-year Pappy Van Winkle left. There was; I watched the last few drops disappear into the glass of the guy in front of me in line. They had brought two bottles of it, the rep behind the table told me, and went through the first one in four and a half minutes. Eleven minutes after the tasting started, the second one was gone too. I settled instead for the 20-year Pappy Van Winkle, which wasn’t a bad consolation prize at all, silky smooth with notes of dark fruit and toffee. (According to one reviewer, the latest 20-year is nearly indistinguishable from the 23-year released in 2012).

I’ve been hearing a lot about Japanese whisky in the last year or so, and noticed while flipping through the WhiskyFest program ahead of time that there would be two Japanese companies there: Suntory and Nikka. Not coincidentally, those are also the only two companies that sell Japanese whisky in the U.S.—and Nikka has been available here for less than two years. Japan has had commercial whisky distilleries since the 1920s, but all of a sudden, people are paying attention. In the past several years both Suntory and Nikka whiskies have won a plethora of gold medals at the World Whiskies Awards; at the 2012 awards Suntory’s Yamazaki 25-year whisky was declared the world’s best single malt, and at this year’s awards Nikka’s Taketsuru 17-year won for world’s best blended malt.

Despite the increasingly good reputation of Japanese whiskies, neither of the booths were nearly as mobbed as the Buffalo Trace and Old Rip Van Winkle tables were; it may be a while before they get that kind of name recognition. I started at the Suntory booth with the peaty, spicy Hakushu 12-year—but that was nothing compared with the Hakushu Heavily Peated, which was like drinking a campfire: sweet, toasty, and, of course, incredibly smoky.

Japanese whisky is often compared to Scotch in style, and it’s easy to see why after tasting it. Masataka Taketsuru, who worked for the first commercial distilling company in Japan, Kotobukiya (which would become Suntory), and later left to start his own company—Dai Nippon Kaju, which eventually changed its name to Nikka—had previously studied distilling in Scotland. Aside from the Hakushu Heavily Peated, though, there weren’t a lot of smoke bombs. In fact, if anything characterized the Japanese whiskies I tried, it was that they were remarkably restrained, smooth, and well balanced.

Taking notes at tastings is notoriously difficult, what with juggling a glass, a pen, and a notebook while trying to stay out of the way of other people who also want access to the table. And, of course, there’s the fact that your palate is being overwhelmed by a series of highly alcoholic whiskies in fairly quick succession. I did my best, but have only brief notes on the Suntory whiskies, and even less from the Nikka table. The Hibiki 12-year (by Suntory) was one of my favorites, slightly spicy with a distinct butter cookie flavor; the Yamazaki 18-year (also Suntory) was another, a peaty, complex, intense whisky.

At the Nikka table I tried one of their newest offerings, Coffey Grain, which has only been on the market for about six months. It’s a grain whisky rather than a malt whisky (meaning that it’s not made exclusively from malted barley—in this case it’s 100 percent corn), distilled in Coffey stills (also known as column stills). Both the grains and the stills used for the Coffey Grain are typical of bourbon, and it does taste quite a bit like a bourbon, smooth, rich, and malt-forward with pronounced caramel flavors.

Next to the Nikka booth was Kavalan, Taiwan’s first whisky distillery. It’s just been released in the U.S., though it’s not yet available in Chicago; a representative said it’ll arrive here in the next month or so. I tried the clean, fruity, slightly spicy Classic, followed by the spicier Concertmaster, which offered notes of darker fruit. The style is very different from the Scotch-inspired Japanese whiskies; I didn’t taste smokiness in any of the Kavalan whiskies, though there was plenty of fruitiness. In Kavalan’s Solist series, the same whisky is aged in different barrels, and the differences were striking. The sweet, heavy sherry cask whisky was less boozy than the bourbon cask version, which tasted practically flammable. My favorite was the Vinho Barrique (wine barrel-aged), which offered the complexity of wine and the booziness of whiskey.

One note about the Japanese and Taiwanese whiskies I tried: while they were all excellent, not a single one was inexpensive (at least not by my reckoning). The cheapest ones are around $60 a bottle, most top $100, and a few hover right around the $200 mark.

And that huge flask in the first photo? That was at the FEW Spirits table, where I was tasting their excellent single malt whisky when another attendee reached out to touch the flask sitting on the table. “You touched it, now you have to drink it,” said the rep behind the table. The guy asked what it was but she refused to tell him, instructing him to hold out his glass while she hoisted and tilted the enormous flask. He took a sip and guessed: “Malort?” As it turned out, he was right—though because of a recent trademark ruling in favor of Jeppson’s Malort, they’re not allowed to call it that anymore. For now, it’s known as Anguish and Regret. (I decided to spare my taste buds then, but when I stopped by to try it later they’d run out.)