Every big name in the spirits and cocktail industry comes down to the city I call home (okay, so I live 15 minutes away) to partake in a week-long event known as Tales of the Cocktail, a spirits & cocktail convention held yearly at the Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans. There are tastings, seminars, private events, networking and a whole lot more. Although all spirits are celebrated, Tales is a whiskey lover’s paradise. A lot of whiskey brands, major players and craft distillers alike, are represented. Besides tasting whiskey, the best part is meeting and talking to whiskey makers and/or brand ambassadors. There were definitely some whiskey-geek moments during my time there.
Here are some whiskey-related adventures during my first year at Tales:
1. The new Four Roses Master Distiller (or soon-to-be Master Distiller as of this post) Brent Elliot is one of the friendliest, most down-to-earth, and knowledgeable people I’ve met. At an intimate Four Roses event, Brent and I talked bourbon for about a half-hour. I’m glad he shares Jim Rutledge’s “no flavored whiskey” thinking. I did pass along the idea that a Four Roses Rye would probably be outstanding. Only time will tell if that idea ever becomes something solid. To add to what was an already exciting evening, they were pouring Four Roses Limited Edition 125th anniversary and 2014 Small Batch. Outstanding stuff. Too bad I couldn’t get my hands on a bottle when they first hit shelves.
2. Barley matters! Whiskey writer Fred Minnick moderated a panel only whiskey & beer nerds would appreciate. Ninety minutes of pure barley geekdom – the science of barley floor maltings, breakdowns of the grain, breeding different strains of barley and more. Don’t say I didn’t warn you about the geek factor. The speakers were Wayne Carpenter of Skagit Valley Maltings; Emerson Lamb, president of Westland Distillery; Brigid Meints, a PhD student at Washington State University; and Scott Ungermann, vice-president of production for Anchor Brewers & Distillers. Wayne and Brigid stayed on the scientific and technological end of the spectrum. Scott talked about the role barley plays in brewing beer, while Emerson stressed the importance of barley in distilling whiskey. One things that stood out to me was the number of different variations of barley. I’d love to see more advertised barley experimentation in the whiskey world. We sampled Westland American Single Malt, BenRiach 12-year-old, Glendronach, Glenrothes Vintage Reserve and Kavalan Single Malt (from Taiwan).
3. If you don’t label your sourced whiskey correctly, Wade Woodard will hunt you down. In a rousing panel entitled “The Audacity of Sourced Whiskey,” led again by the hardest working man in the whiskey business, Fred Minnick, panelists talked about Alcohol and Tobacco Trade & Tax Bureau (TTB) labeling laws and why the modern whiskey-drinking public now seems to care when folks decades ago were quiet on the subject. I’m referring to one specific law that says the State of distillation must be shown on the label. Non-distiller producers (NDP) are companies who source their whiskey from a distiller and sell it as their own, and a lot of those NDPs don’t label a state of distillation or disclose their source. One reason is they have a non-disclosure agreement with the distiller, or they have multiple sources, or they plain just don’t want to.
Wade Woodard, a whiskey enthusiast, is driven to enforce labeling laws on bottles of sourced whiskey. He’s one of the more vocal guys in the industry, and sort of kick-started a movement to get whiskey companies to follow the law. How? He simply talks to the distillers, and if nothing is done he goes to the TTB. People want the truth. John Little, VP and Head Distiller at Smooth Ambler, quickly corrected his brand’s labels to comply with the TTB early on. One can’t mention sourced whiskey without referencing Midwest Grain Products (MGP) of Indiana. MGP is a large distillery who supplies all of its whiskey to NDPs to bottle and sell. David Dykstra, VP of Alcohol Sales and Marketing for MGP, gave attendees some great history of MGP. Did you know MGP produces 13 different mash bills? Yikes! MGP is releasing its own first product, Metze’s Select Bourbon, in the summer of 2015. In between speakers, we sampled some delicious whiskey from Smooth Ambler.
4. I got to blend bourbon for Jimmy and Eddie Russell of Wild Turkey. No seriously, I GOT TO BLEND BOURBON FOR JIMMY AND EDDIE RUSSELL! As part of their #NeverTamed tour, Wild Turkey’s bus made a stop in the French Quarter. Once inside, I was greeted by Eddie and Jimmy (or Mr. Jimmy, as I called him). Eddie seated us in front of barrel-proof bottles of 6-year-old Wild Turkey (WT), 8-year-old WT and 12-year-old WT. We were instructed to blend the three to recreate the small pour of Wild Turkey Rare Breed we were also served. Wait a sec, I’m to do in minutes what’s taken these two whiskey makers decades to master? I took the task very seriously. I started by smelling and tasting my sample of Rare Breed. Instead of just diving into the sample, I thought of it from a price perspective. A bottle of Rare Breed costs about $50. That’s too cheap for a 12-year-old barrel proof bourbon, and a bit pricey for a 6-year-old barrel proof bourbon. I figured the blend was built around the 8-year-old WT. Using the 8-year-old as the body, I carefully added some 6-year-old WT for some freshness & vibrancy and some 12-year-old WT for some darker & smoother caramel notes. When I was done blending, I wrote my name on a label and slapped it on the glass. Jimmy and Eddie both smelled, tasted and jotted down some notes. Once everyone was finished with their blends and the judging was completed, Jimmy and Eddie offered up a pour of the new Wild Turkey Master’s Keep, a 17-year-old limited release. This stuff’s delicious. Think of the Wild Turkey flavor profile with the chocolate and citrus notes ramped up. After the tasting, Eddie announced that he and Jimmy thought the “blender” that came closest to Rare Breed was me. My jaw hit the floor. I was presented with an autographed bottle of Rare Breed as a prize. The ultimate bourbon geek out!
5. …and then there were the parties. Diageo, Bacardi, William Grant & Sons, Edrington, and Pernod Ricard all threw late night parties that featured their biggest brands, craft cocktails, food and music. There was even a Storm Trooper DJ. I swear. There were lots of great drinks, and I got to catch up with some old whiskey friends and made new ones. A couple of the parties seemed a bit cold and forced, but overall they were entertaining. Check out a few pictures from the events below.
6. The Tasting Rooms. There were tasting rooms that featured a great experience in addition to sampling whiskey. The Larceny Tasting room let visitors fill empty Larceny bourbon bottles with corn, barley and wheat. Heaven Hill Brand Ambassador Bernie Lubbers was on hand making sure guests got to taste Larceny. Meanwhile, the Johnnie Walker Select Cask tasting room featured a sample of the new Rye cask finish (review to follow soon) as well as creating your own blend of Johnnie Walker. I also got to meet WhistlePig’s Master Distiller Dave Pickerell and taste the recent WhistlePig Old World release.
All in all, I had a fantastic time. Word of advice, Tales is a marathon, not a sprint. Take your time, drink lots of water and be responsible. If you have a chance to come down to New Orleans next July, do so. The whiskey geek inside you will thank you for it.