Sunday, February 24, 2013

Go Whisk(e)y Weekend 2013 Grand Tasting

Today was a murky, gray, wet, cold day...barely suitable for leaving the house, but not a bad day to ramble up to Westborough, Mass for the Grand Sunday Tasting, the culmination of Julio's Liquor's yearly Go Whisk(e)y Weekend. The usual anticipation started on Friday night, as the big list was released...I spent several hours pouring over the whiskies, weighing're given a bracelet at the door with ten tabs, each redeemable for a tasting of your choice. As in past years, vendors are casual about collecting tabs, so in actuality, I got to try pretty much everything I wanted to, and even revisited an old favorite or two. On to the hits and misses!

  • The Diageo table continues to be a disappointment. For the world's largest drinks company, they show up with an unvarying and rather dull range of expressions, especially given the huge range of amazing whiskies the company owns. JWB, Oban 14, Lagavulin 16 (certainly far from a bad dram, but how about something a little less standard?). As Jacob has noted in the past, you get the feeling Diageo senses themselves above such a "bush league"event, a sentiment thankfully not shared by any other distiller or distributor.
  • A big let down was terrible rep at the Balvenie/Glenfiddich table. Balvenie has a new 12 year single barrel and a 17 year version of the Doublewood that I was eager to try, and of course to spend some time at the table chatting about the various expressions as I have in years past. Not only did I not get to chat, the table was staffed by the worst rep I've ever come across, who pointedly ignored me standing right in front of him making eye contact. My friend, seek a new line of business.
  • I was looking forward to trying independent releases of Old Pulteney (21 year from Gordon and MacPhail) and Clynelish (15 year from Douglas),both coastal Highlands, and felt that both kind of fizzled. I've read solid reviews of similar expressions from both distilleries; perhaps these two bottles are better suited for more quiet circumstances than a crowded tasting. I do think I made the reps at both tables happy, since a lot of folks automatically go for the oldest bottle at the table (I saw a 36 year Glen Grant at the Douglas table).
  • Glenmorangie and Ardbeg each had their yearly or so "special releases," the 19 year virgin oak aged Eleanta from Glenmorangie, and the Marsala finished Ardbeg Galileo. The Eleanta was excellent. I expected an older version of the first fill bourbon cask Astar, but the Eleanta was something else altogether, big, oaky, and spicy, with less of the familiar Glenmorangie profile. Quite good, but also a pricey bottle at $125. The Galileo was way too sweet for my taste, candy and sugar overwhelming Ardbeg's wonderful notes of smoke and salt pork.
  • After missing them last year, the local craft distiller Berkshire Distillers was represented. I got to sample their bourbon, which was decent but a touch young, and their Ethereal Gin, which changes recipes from year to year (they also do a standard "London Dry" style). The gin was what I believe is known as New World Style, with less of an emphasis on juniper and more citrus and fruit botanicals. It's aged in former Heaven Hill bourbon barrels, giving the gin an unusual pale brown color and some further extra flavors. I really dug this stuff; it's a unique and excellent product, and a good sipping gin, which is kind of unusual.
  • Whistlepig Rye, a 100% rye aged in Vermont (from Canadian whisky, though the company is nearing completion of their own distillery) was excellent, though maybe not as remarkable as I'd hoped, and probably not worth $70 price tag. Still, clearly a high quality rye and very enjoyable. I've read less laudable reviews of the 11 year old 111 proof release, and stuck instead with the 10 year.
  • Having enjoyed Tomatin 12 in the past, I was interested to try the 18 year and their rather novelty "Decades" release, vatted from barrels from each decade since the 60's. The 18 was unremarkable but pleasant, while the Decades fell kind of flat...seems kind of a waste of what are probably some special barrels.
  • Kilchoman's limited release suffered the same fate as the Ardbeg Galileo, too much sugary sweetness knocking the smoky profile out of whack, while High West's Campfire whiskey, blended from bourbon, rye, and an undisclosed 8 year old peated Speyside, was a nice dram, with the flavors mingling better than I might have guessed. I'm not sure I'd run out and by a case of it, but it worked well enough.
  • The highlight of the day was the Balcones table. Balcones is a unique Texas distillery, who put out a single malt, a rum type product known as the "Rumble," and several corn whiskies made from blue corn. We deliberately saved this table for last, and I'd read a lot about this stuff, much of it pretty glowing, so anticipation was high. Happily, I think even if every other table had let me down, the day would still have been a success thanks to Balcones. The rep was friendly, knowledgeable, and very enthusiastic, clearly taking a lot of pride in his product. I liked the each expression more than the last, trying first the single malt, which was very much a thick rich malted barley whiskey, with some unique flavors. The Baby Blue was even better, 46% ABV, made from 100% heirloom blue corn, while the True Blue is a cask strength version of the same and better yet. Last and best was the Brimstone, again 100% heirloom blue corn, 53% ABV, and uniquely smoked...rather than smoke the grain, Balcones instead used Texas scrub oak to smoke the finished whiskey, which results in a really different mix of flavors. I left the event with a lingering taste of sweet barbecue...quite a nice way to end the day. The rep and I agreed that smoothness in whiskey is overrated, and that whiskey should be big, and have a bit of a kick to it, and he pointed out that the company avoids age statements, instead opting to vat barrels for a consistent profile, not unlike the solera system used to age sherry. Balcones finally began distribution in Massachusetts in November, available I think only at Julio's and often sold out. This is great stuff, and I'm excited it's finally available up here!

There was a somewhat smaller turnout this year, probably due to the weather, which was actually pretty nice from a taster's viewpoint. Shorter lines and smaller crowd meant more time chatting with reps, which is usually pretty rewarding. All in all, I'm happy; I got to try more than a couple whiskies I've spent the last year or so reading about (and drooling over). Can't wait til next year!


  1. Great write-up! Sorry to hear about some of the disappointments, particularly the Balvenie table. The Balcones Brimstone sounds particularly interesting.

  2. Thanks! It was odd going with just one other person after our big groups of years past, but I'm pretty glad I made it.

    I wasn't surprised by the Diageo table, but the bad rep at the W.H. Grant table kind of threw me...first of all, how/why did he end up in that job if he fails so spectacularly at it, and secondly, how could you not love every second of that job?!

    The Brimstone was really something else. I'm actually hoping that Balcones does a Whiskey Wednesday tasting sometime not too far off. I'd love to spend a little more time on their whiskies, and I'd really love to try their Rumble (rum-like stuff made from honey, raw sugar [I think], and mission figs, then barrel aged). They also have a cask version of that that's apparently really something special.

  3. The Diageo table had four Distiller's Editions on the table during the Meet & Greet.

  4. I know, one of these years I need to make it up to some of the Saturday stuff. For some reason, my wife thinks its unreasonable to devote an entire weekend to whiskey. =/

  5. I'm lucky, my girlfriend is interested in whisky. Just to let you know, you were not the only one who had complaints about the rep at the Balvenie/Glenfiddich table. I heard second (third?) hand about him not being that nice.

  6. Last year's Diageo table was similarly poor, though the rep at the table was very friendly. In previous years though they typically had a couple nice and interesting drams, such as Lagavulin 12 CS. One year I received a surprisingly large sample of Brora 25, which was top notch and well appreciated.

  7. If you like the Balcones Brimstone, you really ought to try their Single Malt. It's a bloody monster.

    1. I was fortunate and got to sample most of the range...everything aside from the Rumble. The Brimstone stood out by a lot, but it was also the last dram after a long afternoon of sampling. I suspect those big smokey, meaty flavors that made it stand out would actually make it a "once in a while" dram were it sitting in my liquor cabinet, while the single malt might be more of a goto. But really, I'd rather just wax enthusiastic about everything Balcones does than try and pick a favorite =)