Every fall as the football season begins and the baseball season ends, the tour of winning spirits from that year’s San Francisco World Spirits Competition (sponsored by Tasting Panel Magazine) makes its way to Chicago. This year, we were once again fortunate enough to get invited.
As we’ve said before, if you get a chance to attend an event like this, then go! Obscure spirits, expensive spirits, international spirits, boutique spirits, aged spirits that aren’t supposed to be aged, infused spirits infused with weird stuff… all kinds of exotica are likely to show up and it’s fascinating to try them all. All accompanied by press and trade folks who get increasingly friendly as the tasting flows.
Oh, and there was some sort of wine… but, well, you know. Wine. That’s what we have to say about that.
The other fascinating thing about the event is you’re tasting award-winning spirits decorated by a large, distinguished panel of judges that took place over the course of days. Except now you’re doing it with a bunch of half-drunk Chicago locals tasting over the course of hours. And nobody feels particularly deferential to that distinguished panel. Opinions fly freely about and that’s perfectly representative of what we love about the spirits world: there’s a taste for everyone and these awards, while interesting, are valuable only up to the point of when you, personally, taste it.
Every year there are some spirits that make us go, “What were they thinking?!” But then there are those that go on our “must buy” list. With that as context, we like to shout out a list of those spirits that we think you should put on your own buy list. Here follows the best stuff we tasted in Chicago in the order that we tasted it:
- Tepoz Silver Tequila: one of the most delicious blanco tequilas we’ve ever tried, in a world of “smooth” this actually fulfills. It’s aroma is a subtle breath of floral without the harshness that sometimes exudes from tequila; there’s absolutely no bite or needle on the palate; we overheard one critic tell the producer (who was on site pouring), “Sir, your tequila is not aggressive!” almost like an accusation as if they’d pulled some sort of switcheroo. For those who enjoy shooting tequila, this is one of the few shots that we countenance.
- Ferdinand’s Saar Gin: this is a fascinating gin that is infused with Riesling wine! To us, this ended up tasting like a kind of pre-made classic Martini cocktail. And it worked. They claim to use over 30 botanicals and the complexity is probably what makes the Riesling work. Even at 88 proof, we claim you can chill and pour right from the bottle enjoying it thoroughly.
- Master’s Dry Gin: Spain with another gin… who knew that the Spanish knew so much about making great gin? This is straight up classic juniper with a citrus kick. We overheard one person announce, “This smells like cologne and English ladies” for whatever that’s worth. We found it dry without bitterness and a long, lingering finish. We speculate it would be spectacular in tonic water.
- Maracame Anejo Tequila: one of the great revelations at tasting events is how good tequila can actually be. Maracame comes with a great story—named for the mystical figure of the Huichol tribe who participate in decorating the bottles—and aged for a full 18 months. The spirit itself smells of honey and tastes almost like a light brandy with the agave flavors. We drink it in ceremonial settings with friends as a light, glad spirit ready to italicize the world around us.
- Wemyss 12yr Hive Blended Scotch: the bottle promises a honeyed profile and a smooth 80 proof. On the taste, it sings of lighter bodied whisky and what can be accomplished on softer side of the liquor world. It lacks the fruit character often seen in younger whisky, though a little water brings out a touch of cherry. We drink it gladly, eagerly, and without hesitation, undue contemplation, or assigned sophistication. It is a whisky to drink among friends.
- Villa de Varda Amaraone Riserva Grappa: grappa is not well-known and few people seek it out. Based upon this, they should. It is aged for 5 years in a lighter toast barrel and smells exactly of dried, sweet grapes. Tasting, it’s a beguiling mixture of almond butter, lemon, grape with a smooth, languid, dry finish. We salute Italy, endorse the recommendation to serve neat, and declare the bottle fit company for the most elite of French cognacs.
- Talisker 10yr Single Malt Scotch: this is a scotch from Diageo that burst onto the scene to wide critical acclaim and it doesn’t disappoint. It smells of smoke and sea… just as it should. Perhaps a sherry finish on the palate? There’s a wine-like sweetness. We stand astonished at the tasting table that they can get so much flavor out of a mere 10 years for this scotch, which easily overmatches spirits 50% greater in age. It is precisely what a big distillery backed by big money can do. Still, we name this the “girl-next-door” scotch… it’s pretty without being intimidating, alluring without being perilous, and—best of all—obtainable. Most important, it was this bottle at the end of the affair that we went back to and poured a proper glass to compare notes and discuss all of our results.
- Lagavulin 16yr: this is a scotch we're familiar with... expecting gorgeous, we got it. It is every bit the Marine in dress uniform: you know he's deadly—all that island smoke is there—but he's behaved and dashing in this particular setting. You cannot thoughtlessly drink this whisky... you have to consider it, commit to it, and ultimately surrender to it. This is an example of what single malt scotch can truly be.
Our hearty and enthusiastic congratulations to the award winners, not to mention our gratitude at their joining the tour.
by Neal MacDonald, editor