We had the pleasure of attending our third straight Distill America event in Madison, Wisconsin. After 3 years, it just keeps getting better.
We first attended in 2010 and compared it to seeing a collection of movie stars on the red carpet at the Academy Awards. It’s like that for the liquor enthusiast when all these great spirits are literally surrounding you on all sides—very easy to get star-struck. Sure enough, we tried to taste all 100+ products available there (a particularly foolish idea as we were to discover the next morning).
We went again the very next year in 2011 and, in a burst of inspiration, likened the event to speed-dating except with liquor instead of people and without the implicit requirement of monogamy. That’s what it’s like the second time around: get to the stuff you like very quickly and have a good time. We did: we had a great time.
Now it’s 2012 and the Edgewater Hotel once again hosted America’s finest offerings from over three-dozen different producers. Now, on our third year, we greet many of the spirits like old friends at a high school reunion… and check out with extreme interest the new spouses and offspring they’ve brought with them!
The great thing about Distill America for the regular person is that it’s the one chance to try a wide variety of the very best spirits and figure out very quickly what you like. Price doesn’t matter; ratings don’t matter; no expert tells you what you should and shouldn’t like; nothing anyone says matters because you get to try it for yourself and every person’s tastes are indulged. It’s all on display: classic aging, modern “chipping,” various infusions of all kinds of exotica, classic and modern gins and things you never thought could be fermented in the first place. You enter the room and, before the night is done, figure out you like some weird variety like rye whiskey, lemon liqueur, and walnuts (the preferences of one of our group). Or whatever it is you like. Point being, there’s no way of knowing what you yourself like without actually tasting: this is the absolute perfect venue for tasting.
Got plans for 2013 in February? Get Madison on your itinerary.
For our part, we’ve identified 12 spirits (in no particular order) we think were the most noteworthy of the night. These are recommendations for those who couldn’t attend themselves and meant to display the astonishing variety of distillation going on in the US. We want to point out that we concentrated on those spirits we had never tried before—there were many, many old friends that we tasted (and adored) in prior years.
Yerlo Rice Spirit (Lo-Artisan Distillery). Made in Wisconsin (of all places) as an authentic creation of the high proof rice spirits made by the Hmong people in Southeast Asia. It has no specific class though we ourselves suggest comparing it to un-aged spirits like shochu, moonshine, or vodka. We found it intoxicating in every sense—flavor and proof .
New Holland Brewing Zeppelin Bend (New Holland Distillery). In talking with the distiller, we are told that they feel whiskey owes much of its flavor to the fermented barley-the "wash" used often in beer-and that their brewing background makes them sensitive to these flavors and provides for a better final result in their whiskey. We agree, thinking this fine whiskey has rich and full flavors that would appeal specifically for those who enjoy good beer.
Hum Hibiscus Liqueur. This is a brilliant liqueur made from a base of “first strike” molasses and a variety of botanicals. We found it intensely and unusually flavored that would be a marvel in several different styles of cocktails-one of the few liqueurs distinguished enough to seek out for its own sake. It was a marvel with ginger beer.
Koval Sunchoke Spirit (Koval Distillery). This highly unusual spirit is made from a base of the artichoke-like vegetable the sunchoke. Seriously. And it’s great… we unanimously felt it demonstrated a balance, versatility, and unique flavor that would slip easily yet formidably in myriad cocktails-well worth the effort to seek out and try.
Queen Jennie Sorghum Whiskey (Old Sugar Distillery). One of the growing number of rule-breaking and unusual spirits from the distillery, this whiskey/rum hybrid is a mild and refreshing aged spirit perfect for those looking for different styles in iconoclastic cocktails.
Hangar One Vodka (St George Spirits). From California and made from a base of wine grapes. In a spirit class where it's difficult to distinguish one's self, Hangar One's neutral vodka comes out clean, flavorful, and rewards the extra effort to find and purchase.
JJ Newkomm Whiskey (St Louis Spirits). From the brewery/distillery, they told us they make great beer to use as a base for great whiskey and this is supported by the finish of smoke and fruit on this excellent spirit.
High West Bourye (High West Distillery). Described by the distillery as an “adventure” we found the thrill worth the test; a great whiskey for sipping.
Breckenridge Bourbon (Breckenridge Distillery). One of the brash new bourbons coming out of the Rocky Mountains and we felt this was a standout in a room full of terrific whiskey. Smooth and flavorful, it can as easily be sipped and mixed in classic bourbon cocktails.
Madison Avenue Limoncello (45th Parallel Spirits). A new release for 2012 this Italian liqueur is growing in popularity and this Wisconsin-based version rivals just about any Italian import we’ve ever tried and exceeds most… simply outstanding.
Henry McKenna Bourbon (Heaven Hill Distilleries). This is a bottled-in-bond whiskey aged for a full 10 years prior to bottling. We considered it a wild and feisty whiskey for lively occasions.
New Orleans Crystal Rum (Celebration Distillation).This rum was truly a revelation. For all those (like us) who considered crystal rums largely uniform, the New Orleans shouts out in flavor that will sing through in cocktails and we particularly recommend for tiki / Polynesian style drinks.
There it is: twelve of the most outstanding spirits offered in a field of over 100 spirits for the tasting in Madison, Wisconsin: in our opinion, one bottle per month for the next year with these spirits and you could have one of the most outstanding and versatile bars around. Cheers to the distillers for their generosity in pouring and tasting at the event; cheers to the Edgewater and the Madison Malt Society for hosting; and cheers to the lucky scores of people who had the privilege of attending. Till next year when we hope to raise our glasses once again to what has to be one of the better ways to spend a February night across the country.