Whiskey Week began soberly enough last Monday evening at Delilah’s, as a great bearded bear of a man poured wee samples of scotch around the pool table for the dozen or so people attending “Scotch School.” Martin Duffy is a spokesman for Johnnie Walker and the Classic Malts, a series of single-malt whiskeys representing the various scotch-producing regions of Scotland. He was in town for Whiskey Week, which climaxes with WhiskyFest–spelled the Scottish way, without the e–a three-and-half-hour free-for-all tasting of some 200 spirits in the Hyatt Regency Grand Ballroom.
This is the fifth WhiskyFest in Chicago. The event, sponsored by Malt Advocate magazine, started in New York eight years ago. Like many of the other “brand ambassadors” who descend on the city each year, Duffy is garrulous, personable, and wearing a kilt. There’s a good deal of ribbing among the various pushers of Scotch, Irish, Japanese, and American whiskey over whose spirits are superior and which country has the hardiest drinkers (or sorriest drunks). In his introduction Duffy deadpanned that there was a time when the Irish drank whiskey only when they were sick, but “the Scots decided they were sick all the time.” Duffy, who’s actually American, led the group through five whiskeys, explaining the general regional differences. Talisker 18 Year Old from the Isle of Skye is intensely smoky, peaty, and peppery, characteristic of the island malts, while Clynelish from the Highlands is typically sweeter, lighter, and more fragrant, and so on.
After an hour or so, Duffy raffled off Johnnie Walker T-shirts and a Lagavulin fleece blanket, upholding another tradition of Whiskey Week: the distribution of copious amounts of swag.
The following evening the Twisted Spoke hosted “The Legends of Bourbon,” during which a handful of bourbon makers poured tastes of their special spirits, some not available on the market. If the Scots are vaguely cartoonish in their tartans, quipping endlessly in heavy brogues, the Kentuckians are exemplars of the genial good ol’ boy. Fred Noe, great-grandson of Jim Beam and the public face of premium bourbons like Knob Creek, Booker’s, and Basil Hayden, spent the evening leaning against a window, languidly pouring samples of a deep amber 127-proof from an unlabeled bottle he’d filled at the rackhouse that morning in Bardstown, Kentucky. “That’s something my daddy and I made,” he said, referring to the late Booker Noe, who ran Jim Beam’s distillery and was the company’s spokesman for decades before his death last year. According to Noe, about 98 percent of the world’s bourbon comes from a 60-mile radius around Bardstown. “I don’t know where the other two percent comes from,” he says. “But I wouldn’t drink it.”
Many scotches and bourbons are marketed with old-world or down-home images, but most are owned by huge multinational corporations. “All these really massive global liquor companies–it’s a combination of people who are really passionate and people who are counting nickels,” says Mike Miller, who owns Delilah’s. Fred Noe has a big hand in the quality control and selection of his bourbons, but he spends a good deal of his time away from Bardstown, taking his show on the road.
Later at Delilah’s, which serves as the unofficial epicenter of Whiskey Week, the bar celebrated the opening of its 5,000th bottle of Maker’s Mark by raffling off Maker’s Mark T-shirts, a Maker’s Mark fishbowl, and a Maker’s Mark golf bag, whose winner announced he would sell it on eBay. Meanwhile Dave Pickerell, the brand’s master distiller, floated around the bar, chatting up the ladies, who included a group in skimpy red dresses hired for the evening as go-go dancers.
Last year Whisky magazine named Delilah’s one of the top five whiskey bars in the world. Miller stocks bottles you can’t find anywhere else in Chicago, like pre-Prohibition Old Mock ($30 a shot) and Wild Turkey Sherry Signature, and he’s become pals with many of the guys behind the products. When Bill Samuels, whose father founded Maker’s Mark, has a layover at O’Hare, Miller picks him up and they go out to a bar or just drive around and talk. When Miller goes to Bardstown this fall for the Kentucky Bourbon Festival, Fred Noe will put him up in his daddy’s house, the house his great-granddaddy Beam built. “There’s just something about the whiskey industry,” Miller says. “You find a lot of nutty guys who have a lot of soul. They have a weird gleam in their eye.”
To bourbon nerds, guys like Pickerell and Noe are rock stars, and they have their own fans and groupies. Jimmy Russell, the seventysomething master distiller for Wild Turkey, was seated at a table next to a much younger blond woman, whispering to her about yeast extracts and barley percentages. The woman said she was writing a book about distillers. Pedro Martinez-Fonts, a youthful marketing rep for Wild Turkey’s parent company (Pernod Ricard USA) and Russell’s minder for the evening, shook his head in admiration. “Every story that I’ve heard about him is that he continuously outlasts the people that are there to host him.”
Whiskey Week is dominated by scotch producers, but this year bourbon makers had a larger presence than usual, and even a few Scots showed up to pay their respects at Delilah’s on Tuesday. Toward last call, another guy in a kilt was leaning weakly against the wall. Martin Duffy slung the man’s arm over his shoulder and led him out the door.
At 5:30 on Wednesday afternoon press dogs and industry VIPs began circulating among the tasting tables at the Hyatt, lapping up free booze in the relatively uncrowded ballroom, while those who had paid for $95 tickets lined up outside. At 6:30 the doors were opened and the rabble stormed the room. The sort of person who pays that kind of money to drink unlimited sips of whiskey for three and a half hours is usually male. There are industry types in suits and sport coats, potbellied guys in golf shirts, the ubiquitous kilt wearers, and a handful of punks. They bunch in front of the tables clamoring for sips of Suntory and Glenlivet, ignoring fruity oddballs like Black Star Farms pear eau de vie. Most of the few women in attendance work for the whiskey companies as marketing reps or models hired to do the pouring.
For some, the impulse to slurp down their money’s worth is too much to resist. Last year a thin, beaming elderly chap in a red plaid suit went from table to table giving everyone a jolly hail-fellow-well-met. By 10 PM he was sitting in the corner with his head in his hands. Others are intent on stuffing their bags full of Knob Creek hip flasks, Jim Beam golf shirts, and other customized pens, glasses, playing cards, bottle openers, gimcracks, and doodads.
It’s difficult for me to discern the subtleties of various whiskeys after tasting a half-dozen or so. At that point it’s just booze. But toward the end of the night at last year’s fest, when my tongue had all the sensitivity of a tire tread, I was offered a sip of a 50-year old Macallan that made wings burst from my back. A woman seated next to me took a taste, slumped in her chair, and exhaled deeply. “I’m gonna go up to my room and have a cigar,” she said.
For whiskey geeks, or sots who just need to take a load off, there are seminars in small meeting rooms down the hall from the ballroom. Some can be rarefied affairs involving tasting charts and descriptors like “leathery” or “grassy.” Others, especially those held later in the evening, can get pretty rowdy.
The big draw this year was a “debate” between Fred Noe and Richard Paterson, master blender of the single-malt scotch the Dalmore, titled “Scotch . . . or . . . Bourbon?” and moderated by Jim Kokoris, a novelist and a publicist for Jim Beam Brands, which markets both the Dalmore and Noe’s Small Batch Bourbon Collection. Jim Beam Brands, headquartered in Deerfield, is in turn owned by Fortune Brands, which makes Titleist golf balls and Moen faucets. Attendants handed out miniature American and Scottish flags to the SRO crowd and passed out plastic cups of Knob Creek, Booker’s, and the Dalmore to those who didn’t get seats and glassware.
Fred Noe sat to the left of the podium, bulky and half-bald, in a rumpled sport coat. His deep, marble-mouthed drawl can fill a room. “Before we start I just want to say I got nothin’ against scotch whiskey,” he bellowed. “It’s Richard I don’t like.”
On the other side of the podium, Paterson looked a bit prissy with his kilt and neat little mustache, until he stood and began haranguing Noe in a cannonball brogue. “Hello, fellow alcoholics, how are we?” he asked the crowd, who hooted and laughed. “I’ve got nothing against bourbon; after all, it is a bit of a new drink. Jim Beam was established in 1795–that was 300 years after we, in fact, had the first distillation.”
In the end Noe, who had home-court advantage, got the most applause, but, as Kokoris pointed out, “here in America the popular vote doesn’t always matter.” He called it a draw, and the opponents set about signing head shots for the crowd.
Soon it was last call in the ballroom, and most vendors, anxious to begin their own drinking, packed away their bottles. A few autographed them and passed them out to clamoring fans, who then drifted woozily out of the hotel wearing their new Wild Turkey ball caps and Old Potrero tie tacks.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Elizabeth Gomez.