Tasting Report: WhiskyFest San Francisco 2013

WhiskyFest 2013 is now in the books, and my what an embarrassment of riches this show was. While I heard grousing about the show not having as many hits as usual (most of the independent Scotch bottlers like Samaroli were absent), I managed to find a ton of them. Driven this year perhaps by a ruthless attempt to avoid lesser products (one industry bigwig, with all seriousness, suggested I give Johnnie Walker Red Label a try), it didn’t take much doing to suss out some really great whiskeys being poured. Who can complain when Julian Van Winkle is pouring his best stuff, after all?

It was quite the global event this year, with numerous whiskeys from Japan, Canada, and Ireland on tap that you don’t normally see at shows. And more and more craft distillers, like Masterson’s and Smooth Ambler, are taking to shows to give people a taste of something new.

Anyway, as usual it was a great evening with old friends and new ones – both of the whiskey and the human variety. Thoughts follow.

American Whiskey / Bourbon
Smooth Ambler Old Scout Ten / A- / some menthol, caramel with a dusty finish
Masterson’s 12 Year Wheat / A- / big wood, cherries, a fun whisky
Masterson’s 10 Year Barley / C- / funky mint and rubber notes, unripe banana, not at all to my liking tonight
Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit / A- / lovely sweetness without being saccharine, tried just to say hi to Jimmy and Eddie Russell, both pouring
Jack Daniel’s Sinatra Select / A- / a new limited edition from JD, the same spirit but aged in barrels that have been “grooved” with extra cuts to expose more wood surface; as expected, this is like JD, but woodier; not bad at all
Pappy Van Winkle 15 Years Old / A / still maturing, with a little burn
Pappy Van Winkle 20 Years Old / A+ / Pappy at its best, raisins, wood, big body… just perfect
Pappy Van Winkle 23 Years Old / A / you can finally see the age on this spirit at 23, where the balance is just starting to turn toward too much wood

Scotch Whisky
Glen Grant The Major’s Reserve / B / chewy barley and rubber bands
The Balvenie Single Barrel 12 Years Old / A- / cake, nuts, smoke, malt
Bruichladdich Cuvee 382 La Berenice / A+ / best spirit at the show, aged in American oak for 21 years, then finished in Chateau Yquem barrels; liquid gold, sweet and savory in perfect balance
Bruichladdich Black Art 3 22 Years Old / B+ / always a funky expression, bristly and huge this year, with a smoky, old-world character
Bruichladdich Octomore 5.1 / A- / is Octomore losing its ability to shock me? This struck me as plenty peaty but not overdone, with evergreen and charcoal notes
Buchanan’s Red Seal / A- / Buchanan’s first WhiskyFest; a peaty blend with some citrus and sweetness, good balance
Cutty Sark Prohibition Edition / B+ / a new release from Cutty; very mild, surprisingly malty, with fresh grain and wood notes
Glenfarclas Family Cask 1973 / A / hearty sherry character, drinking beautifully
Glenfarclas Family Cask 1983 / B / dusty with lots of wood; couldn’t be more different than the ‘73
Compass Box Great King Street Artist’s Blend / B / overcooked, unthrilling
Compass Box Delilah’s 20th Anniversary Limited Edition / B+ / bottled as a tribute to a famed Chicago area bar, matured partly in new oak barrels (rare for Scotch); bourbon-like character, peppery with lots of wood, caramel notes

Irish Whiskey
Jameson’s Rarest Vintage Reserve / A / always a standout, this beautiful bottling (~26 years old) features lovely spicy notes beneath a sweet core
Midleton Barry Crockett Edition / A- / a vatting of 7 to 22 year old spirits; more rustic than the Jameson, chewy grain notes, still fun

Canadian Whisky
Wiser’s 18 Years Old / A- / mellow, well developed, sultry finish
Lot No. 40 / B- / a 100% rye bottling, a powerhouse of rubber, pungent basil and cherry notes

Japanese Whiskey
Hakushu Heavily Peated / B+ / not at all “heavy” in my mind, good balance with citrus notes
Nikka Taketsuru 17 Years Old / B+ / ample cereal notes
Nikka Taketsuru 12 Years Old / A / great balance of grain and honey, a standout

Brandy
Gran Duque De Alba XO 18 Years Old / A- / Spanish brandy; big coffee and licorice notes; intriguing and powerful
Gran Duque De Alba Oro 25 Years Old / B+ / a little overblown, same character as the XO, but just too much, too hoary

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