The NRA show, the “world’s largest food service and hospitality event,” hosted by the D.C.-based National Restaurant Association, was in town Saturday through Tuesday at McCormick Place. The event drew 2,150 companies exhibiting everything from industrial flooring to raw seafood and 74,000 restaurant and food-service professionals from around the globe, clamoring for free hot dogs and samples of bacon salt (which is vegan, oddly enough). 

Monday kicked off with a speech from Republican presidential nominee John McCain (perhaps he mistook the event for a different kind of NRA show?) and marked the debut of the first annual International Wine, Spirits & Beer event. The IWSB expo was sequestered from the rest of the show, held in a black-swathed VIP lounge restricted to those “involved in the decision-making process to purchase beverage alcohol in a food service operation,” and required a special badge that cost twice as much as a regular NRA Show pass. The IWSB ran Monday and Tuesday only, and was three hours shorter than the main event, presumably an attempt to prevent orgies of drunken revelry. I’m not sure how well this tactic succeeded–I found myself proclaiming “Oh my god, I am SO DRUNK!” to random attendees in a way I haven’t since college. 

The IWSB event was markedly swanky compared to the rest of the show, with lounging areas on the sidelines and tuxedoed staff scurrying about–though the cheese table was demolished by the time I arrived. With more than 60 exhibitors showcasing and offering samples of wines, beers, and liquors from around the world, it was difficult to know where to begin. I decided to start my trek in the spirits section, following the old adage “liquor before beer, you’re in the clear” (I’m not sure where wine falls in that equation). Slow-food loving, Green Party-registered lush that I am, I made a beeline for the organic vodka. 

Square One Vodka comes in a rectangular bottle adorned with, no surprise, squares, and like most organic foods, it just tastes better. Made from organic rye, its relative purity means it can be filtered once and retain the natural flavor of the rye without being harsh. I tried the cucumber-infused variety (which was light and refreshing instead of tasting like body spray) and an incredible basil gimlet prepared by the on-site mixologist. These guys know what they are doing, and as a vodka lover I would definitely spend the extra bucks to pick up a bottle next time I’m at Sam’s. 

I was lured over to the Marani Vodka table because of the honey sticks they were giving away, in hopes that ithe stuff would taste like a smoother version of the Polish honey vodka Old Krupnik, much beloved by me. No such luck: Marani is a winter wheat vodka distilled with honey and dried milk, but while it is smooth and delicious, it didn’t taste like honey.

Some of the vodka companies were less focused on the content of their spirits and more on gimmickry: the Zodiac “luxury potato vodka” booth (now there’s an oxymoron for you) was shrouded in a miasma of dry ice, with an array of vodka bottles inscribed with the twelve signs of the Zodiac. I was served a miniature dirty martini out a shot glass adorned with my sun sign (Taurus) and a coaster explaining my love compatibility with other signs. Another company working a shtick was Saint Charles-based Al Capone Distributing, who sell “dangerously smooth” vodka and tequila in bottles shaped like tommy guns, promising to bring the “taste of the twenties” to your dining establishment. As the “taste of the twenties” was denatured alcohol served out of someone’s bathtub, I took a pass. 

Although I’m not much of a tequila drinker, I couldn’t resist the Oaxacan bar snacks on offer at the Scorpion Mezcal booth: chapurrines, air-popped grasshoppers seasoned with salt and lemon (chapulines, the traditional Oaxacan preparation with chile and lime, are fried). While living in Japan I became a devotee of inago, grasshoppers braised with soy sauce and sugar, and I can assure you that the crispy chapurrines were equally delicious. They’re rumored to go great with guacamole.  Barbara Sweetman, the VP of Caballeros, Inc., took me on a tasting tour of the various mezcals and tequilas, all of which come with a scorpion exoskeleton in the bottle (“You never drink alone with Scorpion Mezcal,” Barbara joked). The Scorpion Mezcal Gran Reserva (which goes for $80 a shot at some establishments) was truly impressive, aged seven years and so smooth that it tasted more like a cognac than a tequila (though at that price you might be better off just buying cognac). 

Having lived in Japan, I was eager to check out the two sake companies in attendance at the event. Midorikawa (Green River) Sake imports its traditional cold sake from the snowy region of Niigata, Japan. The company’s still looking for distributors, so it may be a little bit difficult to get your hands on their product, but the snow-aged rice wine was very good. Dewey Weddington, a rep from the more-widely-distributed Oregon-based brewery and importer SakeOne, was on hand with a line of gold-medal-winning Momokawa ginjo (premium) sakes ranging from sweet to dry, as well as its fruit-infused Moonstone line. I was particularly impressed by the Moonstone Plum, which tasted like a lighter, crisper version of the typically sweet and syrupy umeshu plum wine, and the Moonstone Coconut Lemongrass, the first-ever infused nigori sake (unfiltered sake with a sweet, creamy taste), which would go nicely with spicy Thai or Korean dishes.

I’d arrived rather late in the day, and the show began winding down before I could attempt to tackle the vintners and breweries. (I was also experiencing the effects of mixing too many different types of alcohol–another flashback to college.) On the way out I made a deliberate detour around the Crown Imports beer tent, where a nubile dirndl-clad fraulein dispensed plastic cups of Saint Pauli Girl while a guitar-wielding balladeer played covers of Johnny Cash and Led Zeppelin. Why pay $195 for that when you can get the same thing for a lot cheaper in Wrigleyville?