The 2010 Philadelphia Whiskey Festival

Last night I attended the seventh annual Philadelphia Whiskey Festival put on by Philadelphia Magazine. This was the first time I'd attended this event, and my first surprise was the crowd - apparently Philadelphia has a lot of whiskey drinkers and they have no problem coming out on a Wednesday evening. After waiting in line for half an hour to get to the check-in table I finally got a wrist band and made my way into the crowded Ballroom at the Ben - a lovely venue for sippin' whiskey.

Philadelphia's Whiskey Festival isn't all about whiskey - there are also plenty of vodkas, rums, and even a few gins and liqueurs available for tasting. I tried a couple amazing rums (Mount Gay 1703 Old Cask and Ron Zacapa stand out) and a disgusting (to me) local phenomenon known as Root, but I mostly stuck to the whiskey (and some whisky) of which there was plenty.

Some of the tasting booths in the crowded ballroom were manned by knowledgeable regional sales reps, at other stations drinks were poured by eye candy - for lack of a better word, but a few tables were manned by actual distillers who really knew their product. I note this distinction because although i tried to be objective about my tastings, I think we can all agree that whiskey tastes better in certain company, and usually tastes best when you're sipping it while talking to the distiller who crafted it. While the bustling atmosphere of the whiskey festival wasn't ideal for taking tasting notes, I'll do my best to recall my favorites.

1. Wild Turkey 10 Year Russel's Reserve - This was a delicious whiskey, and I had already decided it was one of my favorites before they gave me a sweet Wild Turkey baseball cap. Very smooth, but still with a spicy complexity and all the right bourbon tastes in just the right proportions. I tasted it back-to-back with Wild Turkey Tradition which retails for nearly triple the price of the Russel's Reserve ($99.99 vs. $35.59), and the 10 year old stood up incredibly well against its older brother, and appealed much more to my personal tastes.

2. Angel's Envy Bourbon - If you read this blog you might have noticed that I like craft-whiskeys made by real people (as opposed to big corporations). Well this bourbon won my heart because the guys who make it seemed like real down to earth folks, and because it is delicious. It's just now being released, but when you see it hit shelves in your area grab one of the uniquely shaped bottles and taste what real delicate, hand-crafted bourbon tastes like.

3. Redbreast Irish Whiskey - This 12 year old Irish whiskey from the Irish Distillers Group (maker's of Jameson, Powers, etc.) has been on my list of whiskeys to try ever since I read 99 Drams of Whiskey. I'd heard that it was much heartier than you're average Irish tipple and it lived up to that billing. Redbreast is smooth and easy-drinking, as you'd expect from triple-distilled Irish Whiskey, but it has a bit more texture to it than Jameson or even my old standby Bushmills.

4. Laphroaig Quarter Cask - I had a hard time peeling myself away from the bourbons in the room, but I did try a couple of Scotches and the Laphroaig Quarter Cask stood out as a unique one that hit all the classic Islay notes but with a little twist to it. After a long period of aging in standard Laphroaig barrels this peaty gem spends about 13 months in quarter-sized casks created to replicate the whisky casks of 200 years ago. It's good to see the use of smaller casks validated by one of the most vaunted names in Scotch, and the resulting whisky speaks for itself.

5. Old Overholt Rye - I've been reading a lot about the history of whiskey in Pennsylvania lately thanks to a certain website I wrote about last week. Old Overholt is one of the most famous Pennsylvania whiskeys that still survives today (in name only - it's now made in Kentucky by Jim Beam). I tasted it back-to-back with another Jim Beam rye whiskey - (ri)1- and I think I surprised the brand rep when I told her I preferred the spicy, slightly raw-tasting Old Overholt ($17.79) to the much smoother, and pricier (ri)1 ($45.99). If you're looking for an everyday rye to keep around I'd say you can't go wrong with Old Overholt - definitely my pick for the best bargain in the room at the Whiskey Festival.

6. Hudson Manhattan Rye Whiskey - On the rye theme, I also tasted this craft-whiskey from New York's Tuthilltown Spirits, and although it was very good it's hard to justify $42.99 for a 375mL bottle when the Old Overholt is out there.

7. 1792 Small Batch Bourbon - This has just recently become one of my favorite bourbons, and I'll be posting a full tasting soon, but let's just say they had some of the friendliest people working their table, and the cocktail they were serving, a recipe from the Oyster House here in Philly, made this great bourbon even more delightful.

So that's what I really enjoyed at the festival. Drink-wise, the only thing I had that I really did not like was Whitetail Whiskey - a caramel flavored whiskey made back where I come from in Western KY (it's from Bowling Green to be exact). The idea of flavored whiskey turns me off in general, but a few of them manage to be tasty - this one was not. I didn't even bother trying its sister product - Bird Dog Blackberry Whiskey - which sounds like it could be good and does have a great looking bottle. Maybe I'll get another chance to try that one sometime.

My other gripes with the festival are that it was too darn crowded, and that the on-site liquor store had a very poor selection. I had been looking forward to finding whiskeys for sale that I wouldn't normally find in a PA state store. They did have some things that aren't standard state-store fare, but only in the high end price bracket. I think they should have made an effort to have anything represented in the tasting room available in the on-site that too much to ask?

Overall the 2010 Whiskey Festival was a great time, and I'm sure I'll brave the crowd next year to taste the next big things in whiskey.


Whiskey Man said...

I love the article and fully agree with you on all but one detail. The Whitetail Whiskey (caramel flavor) is a solid 9 outta ten on my scale. It has a sweet after taste with no bite at the end. Appreciate that you didn't destroy it's image, but it is a great drink.

Perhaps ya should give it another try.