As Minnesota’s only really big whiskey show, Whiskey on Ice has, over the last three years, established itself as being an informative, festive, bankable good time. Since the first edition in 2015, the well-run event has grown consistently, adding more brands each year and giving the whiskey crowd here an annual highpoint to look forward to. In no particular order, here are some random thoughts and highlights from this year’s event…
- The day started with a good quartet of pre-show seminars which featured Paul Hletko leading a tour through his FEW Spirits, Robin Robinson leading a tour through the entire history of whiskey, and Lew Bryson discussing age and American whiskey as well as moderating a discussion with a trio of Minnesota distillers. I’d like to take this moment to point out that Lew Bryson arguably has one of the best laughs in the beer, wine, and spirits world. I was happy to attend both of Bryson’s seminars, feeling rather lucky in the first one because the whiskeys being discussed included the Weller 12 Year Old and, impressively, the Elijah Craig 18 Year Old. Those are not bottles I see on the shelves very often, so it was nice to have a few sips of each.
- The second seminar I attended was a presentation of three Minnesota distillers; Far North Spirits, Isanti Spirits, and J. Carver Distillery. This one provided one of the more enjoyable moments of the show for me, at least philosophically speaking. While I already knew that Minnesota grain and Minnesota White Oak was highly sought after by the booze industry, it was inspiring to hear these three talk about the camaraderie Minnesota distillers share and their excitement for the state’s potential as a whiskey producer. There are three cooperages here, farmers working directly with distillers’ grain needs, and a surprising amount of booze making history in the state. With examples like the small art and punk rock husband and wife team at Isanti Spirits, the grain to glass farmstead distillery of Far North Spirits, and the creative range offered by J. Carver Distillery, the wide variety of producers here is hopefully laying a foundation for thriving distilling scene for years to come.
- Craft Spirits were well-represented in general this year. While last year I understood that not everyone was ready to participate in a large show like this, I was still disappointed that there were not more craft distillers present, especially Minnesota ones. This year I was not disappointed. There were five local companies on hand and 21 craft spirits companies overall pouring over 80 different bottles. I’m looking forward to that number growing even larger next year. There were several that definitely raised an eyebrow of approval: 11 Wells’ curiously dark Cask Strength series, Corsair’s Grainiac, FEW Spirits’ Flaming Lips Brainville Rye, and Isanti Spirits’ surprising, untraditional, delicious gin. Yes, gin dammit, gin.
- There were also a few more American single malts on hand, which, I suppose is to be expected as American single malt has stealthily become a style to watch in terms of craft whiskey in this country. Thus far what has set the American style apart is the influence and integration of craft brewing techniques and ingredients. Chicago Distilling Company’s many variations on that theme, and Pine Barrens‘ barley wine-influenced single malts being perfect examples.
- It was nice to see some smaller Scotch companies on hand. Benromach and Tullibardine were there with their relatively affordable high quality lines, as was Douglas Laing with its group of Regional Malts, and Compass Box with its merry band of boundary pushing whiskies. The relatively newish Loch Lomond Group was also present, showing off single malts from distilleries you don’t hear much about like Glen Scotia, Inchmurrin, and Loch Lomond.
- Of course, the bigger Scotch companies were represented as well, though, for my liver’s sake, I steered clear of most the expected, common entries, There were three pours that stood out: a very nice Balvenie 25 Year Old Single Barrel, a surprisingly complex Octomore 7.3, and the always wonderfully bizarre Bruichladdich Black Art 4.1. In general, with Scotch’s trend towards younger NAS expressions that are overly influenced by American Oak, it was good to see a few older expressions present during the VIP hour.
- I also steered clear of many of the big American Whiskey brands. I feel like I’ve been hit over the head with big Kentucky bourbon lately, and while the selection was broad, there just wasn’t much of interest to me from the likes of Beam, Brown-Forman, Buffalo Trace, and Heaven Hill. There were two exceptions. The first was the Four Roses 2016 Elliot’s Select Single Barrel. It seems like Four Roses is often the exception, doesn’t it? The second was the Knob Creek 2001 14 year old poured as part of Lew Bryson’s first seminar. They were both excellent.
- Last year, I felt like there was a big increase in the number of Irish Whiskey brands. This year, while many of those were present once again, there were not many new brands. Perhaps we’ve seen a bit of a leveling off in that category. One can only take so much re-branded Cooley single malt, you know? Speaking of Cooley, one of my favorite whiskeys of the evening came from Teeling’s, though oddly the whiskey itself probably came from Bushmills. Their Vintage Reserve Collection 24 Year Old Single Malt was damn near sublime.
And so, another year, another great Whiskey on Ice. As I mentioned, this is a well-run, well-stocked show that’s been very consistent in its three years, and has steadily improved as the local whiskey scene has improved. Off the top of my head, I can think of four new restaurants and bars with large whiskey lists that have opened around here in the last year or so. Obviously Minnesota is not immune to whiskey’s boom in popularity. I think we can count on the 2018 Whiskey on Ice reflecting that popularity with a pour list that will be even more diverse with more true craft distillers, and some of the smaller Scotch and world whisky companies being represented. As with last year’s event, this year’s also featured a silent auction benefitting the Commemorative Air Force Minnesota Wing, beer from Indeed Brewing, a cigar and cocktail lounge, and a retail sponsor in the form of the great Ace Spirits. New additions this year were a small Tullamore Dew hut…sorry, “snug,” and a Beam VIP lounge, which, provided a nice lounge-y place to eat some dinner. The Depot has been a great venue and a unique setting for this event, however, there’s going to be expansion and construction happening on the old railroad barn soon…here’s hoping that won’t get in the way of next year’s show.
VIP tickets, which sold out relatively quickly last time, have already gone on sale for the 2018 Whiskey on Ice, as have general admission tix. Thankfully, compared to other large whisky shows, the ticket price for this one is still a relative bargain. And, if you buy now, they’re even cheaper. Get ’em while they’re hot, people…