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Drink Fri Apr 03 2009
>Picture a ballroom full of booze and you with a tasting glass in your hand. You look around and hundreds of people (some in kilts) crowd around tables, getting tastes of the best whiskies in the world. This is WhiskyFest.
After thinking about going for several years, I finally attended my first WhiskyFest. While the event was a bit overwhelming, I came away with a different impression of both whisky and the event.
First off, there's no way you'll be able to try all the whisky that's available. The event had 68 exhibitors, most pouring more than one option at their table. If you wanted to talk to the distillers and maybe get a bite to eat, you had to map out your evening pretty carefully.
Secondly, I was really surprised to see the amount non-whisky options. Gin, vodka, rum, absinthe, and beer were all available, which means that even someone who doesn't fully appreciate whisky can find enough to enjoy at the event.
Thirdly, the Midwest could very well become a power player in niche, small-batch alcohols. Sure, the fest was dominated by Scotland, Ireland, and Kentucky, but some local distilleries had some amazing and unique offerings as well. Read about them after the jump.
Did you know Chicago now has a distillery? Koval opened its doors this year with an unusual product portfolio. Robert Birnecker and his wife Sonat are third generation distillers and are now recreating their Austrian familiy's recipes in Chicago using organic products in a kosher facility. They make rye, vodka distilled from rye, a grain spirit distilled from wheat, rose hips liqueur, ginger liqueur, and "Bierbrand," which is distilled with beer from their neighbor Metropolitan Brewing.
The rose hips and ginger liqueurs both tasted amazing--the rose hips was soft with a beautiful floral bouquet, while the ginger was really sharp with loads of ginger flavor. Both would make great cocktails. Their distribution is starting to pick up a little bit, and you can currently find their line at some Sam's and Binny's locations.
For a distillery that's only been producing commercially for four years, Lake Bluff's North Shore Distillery is making quite a name for themselves. This company is another husband and wife duo, Derek and Sonja Kassebaum, who loved cocktails enough to try making their own liquor. Sonja told me they originally wanted to make gin and absinthe and never thought they'd be able to sell the absinthe.
Now their multiple award-winning product line includes the now-legal absinthe, vodka, a Tahitian vanilla vodka, aquavit (a Scandinavian spirit), and two different gins. They also brought out their 2009 limited release at the fest. Called Mole Poblano, it's a spirit made with 20 ingredients, including seven types of peppers. It's really like nothing I've ever tasted, with complex roasted flavors that weren't overpowering. They've only made 500 bottles of it though, so you'll have to hurry to get your hands on one. If you miss out, wait for their first attempt at making whiskey, which is currently distilling.
In Wisconsin, Death's Door Spirits is boosting the economic outlook of farmers on Washington Island, just across from the Door County peninsula, by buying wheat and juniper berries from them. This process has helped revitalize the island and given Death's Door some quality ingredients for their vodka, white whiskey, and gin. In fact, you can help pick juniper berries at their annual picking festival, traditionally held the first weekend in November.
Finally, Templeton, Iowa, has an interesting Chicago connection. During Prohibition, Al Capone took a shine to the rye whiskey made there and started distributing it. With that history, it's interesting to point out that Templeton Rye has only been legally made since 2006, and it's currently only available in Iowa and Illinois.
This rye is really worth drinking--at a tasting seminar Templeton was a part of, I was glad nobody sat next to me because I ended up drinking a second sample of Templeton because it was smooth, softly sweet, and had a lovely complexity. As Templeton's founder and president Scott Bush explained, they don't cut corners when it comes to making their rye. They use their original recipe and age it in charred new oak barrels. Although it's great on its own, try this in a Manhattan or a Sazerac, and you won't be disappointed.
Even though I spent my night at WhiskyFest with the local distillers, I certainly found enough spirits worth imbibing that I'll handily be able to stock my liquor cabinet until next year's fest.