An experimental Jim Beam product Credit: Julia Thiel

Inside the Hyatt Regency in River North on Friday, I was sitting at a table eating some buffet food when I was joined by some fellow attendees of WhiskyFest Chicago. One woman noticed the notes I was taking, so I explained that I was planning to write about the annual booze-tasting extravaganza. I didn’t mention that exhaustion had already started to set in, but maybe she saw it in my face.

“Oh yeah,” she said. “You’re screwed.” 

As usual, I can report that WhiskyFest offers an embarrassment of distilled riches, hundreds of whiskeys from more than 50 producers—exponentially more than any one person could try in an evening (though some people there were doing their damnedest). I can also confirm that whiskey fatigue is a real thing, and if you’re not careful it can set in surprisingly quickly.
The woman I met while eating was a WhiskyFest veteran of several years, and she had a strategy for VIP hour, when lines stretch across the room for the rarest and most popular whiskeys. As long as you don’t stand in line for Pappy Van Winkle, she said, you can hit all the other special VIP offerings. It’s a pretty solid plan, I have to admit.

I did stand in line for the Pappy Van Winkle, though—but only after I’d taken several trips through the Buffalo Trace line. That wasn’t my plan; after getting a taste of the George T. Stagg, I’d planned to head over to other tables to try out their VIP offerings. But the Stagg isn’t a bourbon to rush through, and as I stood at a small table trying to wrap my mind around everything I was tasting, it occurred to me that I could do the same thing while standing in line for a taste of something else. So back I went for the sweet, caramelly William Larue Weller, then again for the funkier, drier Sazerac 18-year-old rye, which tastes almost leathery.

New Holland's whiskeys
New Holland’s whiskeysCredit: Julia Thiel

By then we were about 20 minutes in, and I decided to see what was left at the Old Rip Van Winkle table. Amazingly, they were still pouring the much-sought-after 23-year-old Pappy van Winkle (though the first bottle had apparently been finished off in seven minutes, and the second was also close to gone). It’s easy to see why people go crazy for it—aside from its rarity, which is admittedly a big part of the appeal, the toffee and vanilla come through like a punch in the face, followed by more refined notes of apricot. I went back for a taste of 20-year-old Pappy, curious about the difference, and found it spicier and more peppery, though still very elegant.

I could have tasted three times as many whiskeys in that first half hour if I’d gone for the less popular tables, of course, but I wouldn’t really have remembered what any of them were like. I don’t regret taking it slow. Nor do I regret moving next to Don Pancho 30-year-old rum, which was like drinking straight molasses, except less sweet—it was unlike any other rum I’ve tasted.

Goose Island's Bourbon County stout and Proprietor's BCS
Goose Island’s Bourbon County stout and Proprietor’s BCSCredit: Julia Thiel

Another highlight was the Goose Island Proprietor’s Bourbon County Brand Stout—which is, of course, also not a whiskey (though it is aged in bourbon barrels). It’s got tons of vanilla, a bit of coffee, some molasses, and a little prune flavor, and is as complex as plenty of the whiskeys I tried. I always look forward to trying the Bourbon County line-up at WhiskyFest, partly because it’s a nice change of pace from the hard stuff and partly because while that table would be mobbed at a beer event, here it’s always relatively quiet. This year, though, there was only the original BCS and the Proprietor’s, so I asked what inspired the change. Apparently last year they ran out of a few varieties towards the end of the evening, and attendees got angry at being shortchanged.

I met up with a brand representative for Jim Beam, who had a few illicit-looking bottles in his jacket pocket that he shared tastes of. Cask-strength Maker’s Mark 46 was surprisingly smooth at 110 proof (a strength at which I usually need at least a splash of water), and I tried an experimental bourbon about which details were vague—all I learned was that it was Jim Beam four-year-old bourbon “with other stuff” and it was still very much in the development stage.

The 2016 Yamazaki single-malt sherry cask whiskey, though, made me forget all the others. I never got a chance to try the 2013 edition, so I can’t say whether this one is still the best whiskey in the world—as Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible declared last year—but it’s pretty incredible. It’s complex and nuanced, with raisin and fig notes from the sherry cask, chocolate, toffee, and a nice balance of sweetness and acidity. Good luck finding it, though; while it was released in February, there are only 3,000 bottles in the entire world.

I’d planned to go to one or two of the seminars, but they seemed to be more popular this year than in the past, and despite waiting in line for two different sessions I didn’t get into either. I wandered around the floor one more time to make sure I hadn’t missed anything important, and noticed that MGP had a table. Last fall they released a bourbon called Metze’s Select, their first whiskey ever under their own label—though of course, MGP has been making good whiskey for years and selling it to other labels. It’s not cheap, retailing for around $75, but I do remember it being a pretty damn fine whiskey (sorry for the lack of detail, but I was pretty much done taking notes by that point).

As usual, everyone seemed to be having a good time; it’s an event where people-watching (and eavesdropping) can be its own form of entertainment. Just before I left, I noticed a couple people who seemed to agree with me: two guys were watching the crowd from an open panel above the doors, apparently just enjoying the scene.