Weekend in Chicago: Whisky Fest


My boss (and friend), Steve, is an aficionado of whisky, including scotch, Irish, and bourbons - he's got an outstanding collection at his house, and I've had the privilege of trying a select few. He has previously invited a bunch of my coworkers over to sample some of his stocks, and when I had my house-warming party a few months ago, he was kind enough to gift me an extremely nice bottle of bourbon.

Sometime around October of last year, we discovered an event known as Whisky Fest - it's hosted by three cities in the United States: New York, San Francisco, and Chicago. Without much hesitation, we decided to purchase VIP tickets and attend. We bought our tickets as soon as they went on sale, and it's a good thing we did - the entire event sold out within a few days, VIP and all.

Whisky Fest is a whisky-lovers dream. It attracts more than 100 distilleries from around the world, offers more than a dozen educational classes, serves-up delicious food, and provides a chance for people to rub elbows with some of the world's finest whisky makers and master distillers.

The actual Whisky Fest event was held this past weekend, so we loaded up our cars and drove to the outskirts of Chicago, where we parked and boarded "the El" (Chicago's train system). I insisted that we stop for some lunch along the way, and what better place than Big Star tacos in Wicker Park?


That's a view of the Wicker Park neighborhood as seen from our train. Wicker Park is one of my favorite areas in Chicago - it has a lot of cool houses, quaint neighborhoods, and awesome shops. It also has one of the best taco joints I've ever been to... so, we met-up with my friend Steve W and we gorged ourselves on tacos. Here's one of the plates we enjoyed:


Clockwise, from lower left, we have: pork belly taco, pork shoulder taco (with pineapple), another pork belly taco, and a fish taco. They're all so simple, so clean, and so tasty. It was great to see Steve again, and we were lucky to have Sandra (his wife) join us as well! I hadn't seen Sandra in almost 10-years, so it was great to catch up with her and Steve together.

After chatting and eating at Big Star, we boarded the El again and made our way into the downtown loop, which is where the event was hosted. We made a quick stop at our hotel and then walked the mile-or-so to the Hyatt Grand Regency.


Once inside, we were directed to the lower ballroom; two escalator flights later, and we arrived to discover a significant waiting line:


That was the "pre-entry" line for the VIP folks. We arrived a full 45-minutes early and were shocked by the number of people that had accumulated out-front. After about 30-minutes of waiting, we were allowed to enter into the registration area.


The registration area is where you exchange your ticket for your gift bag and sampling glass. While standing in line for our turn at the window, we observed some really nice appetizer tables - there were incredible cheeses, gourmet crackers, ice sculptures, and more. This was going to be a solid event - definitely more fancy than the local beer tasting festivals...

We made our way to the registration window and within minutes, I had my gift bag and sampling glass.


With glass in hand, we made our way to yet another waiting area, located just outside of the grand ballroom. The time was nearly 5:20, so we had to kill 10-minutes or so. We reviewed our plans - the VIP ticket allowed us to enter the event one hour prior to the general admission ticket holders, and also allowed us to sample some really exotic (and expensive) beverages.

Before we knew it, the doors opened, and the race was on - literally. Our plans went completely out the window as hordes or people rushed past us and literally mobbed the various distillery booths.

Who knew that so many middle-aged, overweight, business types (complete with $2500 suits) could move so quickly? I guess when there's a $1700 bottle of whisky to be sampled, they don't hesitate.

Our first stop was to the Classic Malts booth. Classic distributes many different scotches, whiskeys, and borubons, so we figured it would be a good first stop. Here we are at their booth:


I'm not even sure what I sampled at this booth; I asked for their VIP-only offering, and was poured a 0.25-ounce sample of it. WOWZER - it was smoky! I forgot that I normally "enjoy" (that's a generous word) my scotch/whisky/bourbon with a touch of ice to help dilute it a bit. Tasting it "fully leaded" reminded me of just how potent that stuff can be, even the good stuff. :-)

From the Classic Malts table we made our way to the Glenmorangie table, where we sampled two truly outstanding beverages - the Signet and the Quarter Century.


The Signet sells for around $200/bottle; the Quarter Century around $600. Both were excellent - very smooth, very drinkable, and not at all like the first one I had sampled. I actually appreciated both of these.

We chatted with the folks from Glenmorangie for a bit, thanked them for the samples, and wandered over to Dalmore.

Dalmore had one of their finest available for sampling, the "King Alexander." The bottle was quite cool, as was the presentation box. This photo is a bit blurry, because this booth was extremely popular; I was getting jostled about while trying to photograph and sample the single malt scotch.


With four quarter-ounce samples under my belt, I decided to take a little break. True, the VIP event was only an hour, but I'm definitely not a seasoned imbiber of whisky, so I needed a breather. I grabbed a table near one of the food tables and then took a browse of the food offerings. This was one of the tables near me:


It featured prime rib (done to a PERFECT medium rare), sushi rolls, potsickers, chicken wings, General Tso's chicken, succotash, grits, pulled pork, and a number of other goodies. I made myself a little plate, as shown here:


The plate featured (clockwise, from left): shrimp potsticker, poached salmon, tuna sushi rolls, a Peking duck pancake, and prime rib (center). Yum. It hit the spot - everything was of super high quality, and was hot and fresh.

Here's what the VIP event looked like, in terms of people in the grand hall (remember this for later in the entry):


After sitting for a bit, I made my way back to another booth or two. I liked how all of the distillers wore traditional Scottish apparel - kilts and all. Here's one of the distillers pouring a sample for someone:


I also loved all of the accents - there's something awesome about a thick Scottish accent - although anything beats my nasaly midwestern accent, I suppose.

By the time 6:30pm rolled around, I had sampled my fair share of expensive scotch and whisky, and I knew one thing was for certain - I'm not a connoisseur of single malted beverages. While the Glenmorangie and Dalmore offerings were truly delicious, the others tasted simply "good" or "bad." It wasn't like a wine or a beer, where I can pick-out distinct flavors.

When the bell struck 6:30, the really good stuff was put away, and the masses moved in. Here I am at the same location as before, but with the general admission folks in view:


One of the booths that we just had to visit was the Rip Van Winkle booth. The Van Winkles operate a very small, family owned-and-run distillery in Kentucky, and they produce some superb bourbons. Their flagship offering is the 23-year old Grand Pappy Van Winkle, at $220 - $240/bottle. If you have an opportunity to try it, do it. Here's the father and son, pouring samples and chatting with people:


By 7:30pm the event was so full that it was difficult to navigate around. There were so many people in the ballroom, and the booths were so close together that it made for tricky maneuvering. Thankfully, the last item on our agenda was to attend one of the educational classes.

We decided to sit in on the 8:30pm session hosted by two master distillers from the Classic Malts group. The class would teach you how to pick-out and identify unique scents and flavors in various common scotch and whisky offerings.

We grabbed a front-row seat and settled-in for the class. Here are the distillers, in their kilts, with our sampling glasses lined-up in front of us:


The glasses were filled with five different beverages: pure grain alcohol (the base for all spirits), a 10-year old scotch, a 12-year old scotch, a 14-year old scotch, a sherry cask-aged scotch, and a peat-aged scotch. There was also a bottle of water and a spittoon.

The distillers were great guys - very funny and informative. They made the hour-long class fly by, and I learned a lot in the process. One of the funnier moments was when they were demonstrating what "not to do" when tasting a new beverage:


They said that while it's important to look at the color of your beverage and to take a strong smell of it, it's does no good to hold it up to the light, swirl it in a clockwise motion for minutes on end, and then comment that you detect "notes of citrus, grass, and flower" - doing that is guaranteed to make you look incredibly obnoxious:


...as shown above (they made us all imitate them before telling us it was all fake/wrong).

With the class complete, we made one last quick pass through the hall, where we snagged a few dessert offerings - this table was the "chocolate decadence" table, and featured brownies, flourless cake, opera cakes, truffles, and a slew of other goodies.


After the Fest was over, we walked over to a restaurant for a proper dinner, and then back to the hotel for some well-deserved rest. Here's the Chicago Tribune building at night. I wish the streetlight hadn't been dead-center in my picture... oh well.


The next morning arrived and I felt great, thanks to my very light imbibing and the buckets of water I drank throughout the event. We got ready and then boarded the El for our return trip to where the cars were parked. After picking-up the cars, we stopped for a bit of breakfast - the kitchen goofed-up my order, and I wound-up with a Belgian waffle (not my favorite item)... :-(


Oh well - it was the only downside to the entire event, so I can't complain too much. I did get a kick out of this video store, which was located near the breakfast place. I wonder if the owners felt that adding the word "cobra" to something would make it more edgy and/or cool? In most cases, it probably does - like the Ford Mustang Cobra - that sounds really cool. For this venue, however; I don't think the effect is as solid.


--- unrelated ---

I made some stellar meals this weekend, including some french toast, steak, and dessert. Here are a few photos:


That's cinnamon french toast on challah bread with roasted Neuske's applewood bacon.


Hickory-smoked and grilled fillet, with oven-roasted purple fingerling potatoes (dressed in shallots and black pepper), rosemary-roasted portobella mushrooms, and nutmeg-dusted roasted parsnips and zucchini.

And lastly:


Grilled pineapple slice with Sassy Cow ice cream and maple syrup and rum caramel.

...and yes, I made all of the stuff from scratch.

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This page contains a single entry by Steve published on March 26, 2012 11:30 AM.

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