*A sincere thank you to MG and Whiskey On Ice for providing me with the media pass and the opportunity to attend the event as press.
Well, the second annual Whiskey On Ice has come and gone. Last year’s inaugural event was the first large-scale whiskey show in Minneapolis since…well, pretty much since forever. As far as I can tell, 2015’s Whiskey On Ice was the first big whiskey show these Twin Cities have ever seen. Like last year’s, the 2016 Whiskey On Ice was once again a great time, definitely a welcome event for the burgeoning food and drink scene here.
This year’s version was nearly an all day event with masterclasses starting at 1:30 and the last call sounding close to 8:00pm. I’m not ashamed to admit that in the past I’ve tried and failed (sometimes spectacularly) to be a relatively clean-living, responsible adult at events like this, but this time, I think I finally achieved that hard-to-manage, razor-thin balance that allowed me to drink whiskey for 6 hours and still put the kids to bed with an entirely appropriate, even respectable level of sobriety.
But enough back-patting, here are a few somewhat organized, but kind of random highlights…
- Masterclasses. The day started at a masterclass which featured a semi-blind tasting of eight Diageo brands led, of course, by a Diageo ambassador. I say semi-blind because, though the pours were blind, we all knew what the eight whiskies were. I don’t have the opportunity to taste blind often enough, and I’ll echo what pretty much every one else says about blind tastings, which is, “do it!” It’s a great and often surprising way to challenge one’s preconceptions and palate. I am happy to say I did fairly well, correctly guessing six of the eight…though, to be fair, there was only one Islay malt – Lagavulin, so that was a gimme, and that Haig single grain was easy to pick out because it’s just so awful. I’m not ashamed to admit that I guessed wrong on the Bulleit bourbon, which is often one of the house Bourbons here at Chez Casks. That kind of blew my mind, and goes back to what I mentioned about challenging one’s preconceptions. After that masterclass came another masterclass, this one focusing on the sense of smell and led by representatives from the Glencairn Glass and the Aroma Academy. While the subject was interesting and presented with a lot of humor (at times, too much), it still managed to be a somewhat dry hour. It did manage to serve as a good coaching session on how to handle a large tasting.
- Irish Whiskey. Relatively speaking, there was lots of Irish whiskey. It’s no secret that the style is experiencing a bit of a boom and it was definitely evident at the show. Alongside a large representation (15 expressions) of the three major distilleries (Middleton, Bushmills, and Cooley/Kilbeggan) there were no less than 10 expressions from five different “independent” brands that are currently sourcing their whiskey from the aforementioned big three distilleries.
- The most impressive offerings from the distillery brands were the Powers John’s Lane and Powers Signature. Both were great examples of the single pot still style, especially the John’s Lane. As good as they were, I had the opportunity to taste them side by side with the Redbreast 12 year old and I have to say I still prefer the Redbreast. Regardless, it’s great to see more single pot still Irish on the shelves.
- Of the independently bottled stuff, there were two standouts. The Writer’s Tears which is an interesting blend of single malt and single pot still whiskeys, and the new take on the very old, storied brand, Kinahan’s, especially their 10 year old single malt.
- Unfortunately, one of the biggest gaffes of the evening was related to Irish whiskey. While tasting the Kilbeggan 18 year old, the rep, obviously full of blustery knowledge, proclaimed that the whiskey was made at the famous Kilbeggan distillery. I didn’t have the heart to deflate his macho grande-ness by telling him that Kilbeggan stopped producing in 1957, and only recently started back up in 2010, thereby making an 18 year old from that distillery impossible. Little hint for ambassadors: don’t make shit up about yer product.
- Big, Corporate American whiskey. There was lots of it, from the usual ubiquitous suspects from Jack Daniels, Heaven Hill and Jim Beam, to less ubiquitous suspects like Henry McKenna and Old Forester. The best of the bunch was the pretty damn excellent, lush, complex Jim Beam Distiller’s Masterpiece. Sadly, the price ($200+) for this 8-12 year old bourbon finished in PX sherry casks is just ridiculous. Honorable mentions go to the interesting red wheat version and rice version from the Jim Beam Harvest Collection.
- Smaller “Craft”/not-big-corporate American Whiskey. There were quite a few “craft” distilleries present, and a couple of their whiskies left an impression. Along with interesting ones like Corsair’s cask strength Triple Smoke, and Copper & Kings CR&FTWERKS spirits (and their white absinthe), easily the best one of the evening was High West’s Yippee Ki-Yay. Basically their Double Rye finished in Vya Vermouth and California syrah barrels, this one was oddly yet pleasingly disjointed, alarmingly complex and novel, and surprisingly really, really good. As always, chapeau to High West for continuing to be an innovative blender of American whiskey.
- The Local Stuff. I have to say I was somewhat disappointed in the number of local distilleries present. Granted, many of the ones around here are fairly new, and I understand that for many of them, “now” just might not be the right time for the booze, or the right time to shoulder the expense of a show like this, but still…I hope to see more in the future. Of the ones present, it was nice to spend some time with the folks from J. Carver Distillery and taste their promising whiskeys, brandy, and gin.
- Canadian Whisky. Crown Royal’s XR, which features whiskies from the long shuttered LaSalle distillery, and the cognac cask-finished XO were both impressive. Also impressive was Canadian Club’s 100% Rye, not because it was such an incredible whisky, but because for around $20, it was solid, decent enough, and beat the hell of out Crown Royal’s more expensive, much more hyped Northern Harvest Rye.
- Scotch. Most of the expected major players were in attendance, and for the most part, most of them did not have anything majorly exciting to talk about. Yes, there were quite a few expressions on the tables, and that is definitely a good thing, but for me, there wasn’t much to pique my interest. There were two exceptions to all this. The first was Wolfburn’s Inaugural Release. At just over three years old, this whisky shows a lot of promise. It has a certain “northern maritime” feel to it that made me think of both Old Pulteney and Highland Park. The other exception was, as they often are, Compass box. For the VIP hour, they trotted out not one or two but FIVE selections. “This is Not a Luxury Whisky,” Peat Monster Cask Strength, Lost Blend, and Hedonism Quindecimus were all excellent, but for me the most impressive of all was the Flaming Heart. Part smoky Islay, part French oak-finished Highland whiskies, this blended malt was a stunning essay in balance and complexity. If I had to choose, this was probably the best whisky of the evening for me.
- No. Not that this should come as a surprise to anyone, but I did not try anything at the Dr. McGillicuddy’s table. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m sure I don’t know what I’m missing. Maybe next time…
In comparison to last year’s event, this year’s was larger in a couple of ways. There were reportedly nearly twice as many attendees, including the sold-out VIP hour, but the wonderful Depot space handled the crowd well. Even at the height of the event, it was easy enough to move around, and easy enough to find a place to sit down and collect one’s self. I was told that the number of whiskies poured was not much more than the previous year, but to me, it felt like companies brought a few more expressions and there was a broader range of some brands. That’s, of course, a positive thing, but due to who wasn’t there, there also seemed to be a lot of consolidation – three to four tables in a row featuring Diageo or Beam Suntory brands, for example. I missed seeing Anchor Distilling Company’s excellent portfolio, and would love to see them back next year. I’d also love to see small powerhouses like Impex Beverages and Purple Valley Imports involved. Not only do they both carry well-regarded, slightly lesser-known brands, they also import some independent bottlers. I think more of that kind of thing would add depth to the Scotch category.
There were some welcome additions to the event as well. A silent auction of rare whiskies was a fun diversion for those that couldn’t bid (me), and a worthy cause for those that could, raising nearly $11,000 for the Commemorative Air Force Minnesota Wing. There was also a cigar and cocktail lounge outside, which provided an escape for the clamor inside. The cocktails were decent, unfortunately the aloof, almost laughably self-important bros behind the bar didn’t make for an inviting attraction. I suppose it’s easy to get carried away by “mixology”, but when you’re shilling for a huge company (Diageo) by making sweet-ish drinks out of some of their more average brands…you don’t really have much reason to be smug. In terms of the master classes, I enjoyed the two that attended. Three of the four focused on a broader topic, not just one brand, and I think that’s a good thing. You’re able to focus on a brand during the grand tasting, it’s nice to have masterclasses that tackle a wider topic.
It was interesting to note a welcome, subtle change in demographic as well. These observations are far from socio-scientific but I felt there were more women in attendance this year compared to last. Perhaps not during the VIP hour, but definitely during the regular grand tasting. Along with that, it seemed like there were far more women in charge of the booths. Though women are one the whiskey’s fastest growing consumer demographic groups, and there are more and more women involved in all facets of the industry, the whiskey industry is still generally seen as something of a man’s world, so any shift away from that erroneous stereotype is well worth mentioning.
So, for the second year in a row, a great Whiskey on Ice event. The food and drink scene in and around the Twin Cities continues to grow, and the popularity of this event just goes to show that there is obviously a thirsty market for this here. Word is from the organizers that nearly half the VIP tickets for next year are already gone. That doesn’t come as a surprise. See you there on April 2, 2017.