Journeyman Distillerys O.C.G. apple cider liqueur
  • Julia Thiel
  • Journeyman Distillery’s O.C.G. apple cider liqueur

The Chicago Independent Spirits Expo is one of my favorite events of the year; the offerings from the hundred-odd distilleries that participate always include new spirits from distilleries I already know and like, new spirits from brand-new distilleries, and well-established spirits from well-established distilleries that I’ve just never happened to taste before. The next day, though, regret always sets in: a product not of overimbibing the night before (not usually, anyway), but of looking again at the list of participating distillers and realizing what a small percentage of their spirits I managed to try before I reached my limit.

Which isn’t to say that I didn’t get to taste a lot at this year’s fourth annual Indie Spirits Expo. Two of the standouts for me were new releases from established local(ish) distilleries. Journeyman in Three Oaks, Michigan, has been making excellent whiskeys for several years now, and has had a cocktail with white whiskey and apple cider on the menu in their tasting room for quite a while. Just recently they started bottling a modified version of it, which like the original cocktail is called O.C.G. (Old Country Goodness), and it just arrived in Chicago last week. It’s ten percent alcohol, but the white whiskey fades into the background behind the sweet-tart apple and warm cinnamon flavors. And while I had it over ice, it would be equally good served warm.

Chicago distillery Rhine Hall, which opened about a year ago with apple brandy and grappa, has a new special release: another eau de vie, this one distilled from 100 percent mango. I was surprised how strongly the essence of the fruit came through; it was a little like eating dried mango, but less sweet.

I was excited to see Riverside’s Quincy Street Distillery in attendance, because when I went out there this spring to interview owner Derrick Mancini for a story I was writing about local distilleries, it was 10 AM and I didn’t try any of his spirits. I liked the spicy, in-your-face Steamship Rye, and enjoyed his four-month-old Bourbon Spring (which he likes to call a “teenage bourbon”) more than I expected; while it wasn’t refined, all the flavors were pleasant, and I can see how it would go well in cocktails. In a couple months Mancini will release his two-year-old bourbon, at which point he’ll retire the younger version.

On the other end of the age spectrum from Quincy Street’s “baby bourbon” was WhistlePig, the ten-year-old rye from Vermont (currently made in Canada, but the brand is now starting to make its own whiskey). Incredibly spicy and complex, it tasted like honey, oak, and blackberry, with less of an alcoholic burn than I’d expect from a 100-proof whiskey—though as I sipped, the burn quickly increased. They also had the soon-to-be-released Boss Hog, aged for nearly 14 years and bottled at about 120 proof. This year’s version, called the Spirit of Mortimer after owner Raj Bhakta’s recently deceased pig, is sweet and smooth—again, surprisingly smooth given the high alcohol content, with more vanilla and a toasty maple syrup flavor.

One of the more unusual things I tried was 79 Gold Caramel Spirit, owned in part by rapper Rich Dollaz. The other owner, who unlike the rapper was at the expo (though I forgot to ask her name), said that the grain-neutral spirit, distilled from Idaho wheat with caramel added after distillation, could have been classified as a vodka, liqueur, or a distilled spirit but they decided to just call it a “spirit.” It tastes exactly like caramel—not in the way that bourbon often has notes of caramel, but like drinking liquid caramel. There’s not a ton of complexity to it, but I liked it more than I expected for something so sweet, and it could work well as a mixer.

I was disappointed that one distillery turned out to be a no-show, however. After all the outrage in the past few months over the fact that factory distillery MGPI in Indiana makes whiskey for many craft whiskey brands, including Templeton Rye, I was intrigued to see that they would have a booth at the Indie Spirits Expo. The table that was supposed to be theirs, though, was unoccupied, so I never got to find out what they might have been pouring.

Julia Thiel writes about booze on Thursdays.