by Neal MacDonald
It really is just about the taste!
At Proof66, we spend a lot of time with numbers. We worry about ratings, weighted averages, prices, proofs, rankings… and we think that’s worth something. But it’s all a very poor substitute for actually getting to taste it. No critics and no numbers: just deciding for yourself.
That’s the glory of Distill America, now in its 5th season. Growing every year, it’s now up to 45 distilleries with over 250 different products to sample.
We’ve said it before in prior years: Distill America is speed dating for spirits. Having a favorite liquor is like having a romantic relationship. It’s safe; it’s nice; it works. But in the back of your mind, you know there’s more out there. Distill America lets you speed date all of those spirits that you think just might be better. But it’s more than your standard, chain restaurant speed dating locale with all the divorcees and dead-beat dads washing up with hopeful but unrealistic expectations. Instead, you’re speed dating supermodels… ballroom dancers… sports heroes… intellectual giants… liquor bloggers. There is a spirit to answer for every taste, all laid out with open arms and willing hearts. Monogamy is not required.
The event is exceptionally well run and the price is more than fair. There’s abundant food and water available. Your bracelet / entrance ticket serves as cab fare with the phone number in very large, bold-face, unmistakable font. For $55 you get the best America has to offer in spirits in an unlimited setting. Even better, the crowd is great—collegial, friendly, and in an astonishing variety of age and gender. We saw everything from paternalistic elders to bright-eyed ingénues. By the end of the event, people were downright amorous. Will you consider attending next year? You should!
For those unfortunates who couldn’t attend, we’ll try to recap.
First, let us say that the big whiskey players were there in all their splendor and glory. By that, we mean the big whiskey houses of Jim Beam, Buffalo Trace, Heaven Hill, Four Roses, Brown Forman, and Kentucky Bourbon Distillers. Between these distilleries, they make some of the greatest whiskey on earth. Period. The whole event could really be spent at these six tables and you’d go home elated. That’s some serious speed dating potential with great opportunity for lifelong, polyamorous matches.
This year, we didn’t spend much time at those booths. This year, we went off Broadway a little bit. We went for the proverbial girl next door. The sexy librarian. The nice guy with the 50 Shades of Grey tastes marinating with vampire lust simmering just beneath the surface of his boring haircut. This is to say, we put together a list of 10 spirits that we feel stood out like beacons in a crowded field. These are spirits you’ve probably not heard of and may otherwise pass by on the shelf. In short, we’d date these and we’re willing to share.
In alphabetical order:
Corsair Ryemageddon. Out of Tennessee this amazing little rye whiskey is a blend of malted rye and chocolate rye. The chocolate comes in big and strong and complements the whiskey beautifully. In a Mint Julep cocktail, this tasted like the Girl Scouts made their thin mint cookie for whiskey lovers. It’s striking; it’s different; it belongs in a rye whiskey bar.
Door County Gin. Tiny Door County Distillery, undoubtedly the pride of Door County Wisconsin (population 28,000) showed up at the event with a table full of interesting spirits. We tried a number, but were particularly smitten with its gin. It had a great combination of botanicals-heavy on the citrus notes-that perfectly complemented the ever-present juniper. We suspect that this would be an extremely mixable gin.
Few Aged Gin. Coming out of the Evanston-based distillery, this is a hybrid of a whiskey and a gin and it just… shouldn’t… work! You can’t mix whiskey with gin! But it does in every sense. The nose is all juniper and the finish is all whiskey. It’s outstanding on its own but really shines in certain whiskey-based cocktails, like an Old Fashioned but is also terrific in a Negroni. In the nascent class of aged gin, this is a standout and belongs in the gin bar.
High West Campfire Whiskey. We’ve been big fans of High West for a while and they come through again with two new whiskeys. The first is this astonishing blend of scotch, bourbon, and rye. The smoke from the scotch comes through just enough to add a bass line to the dance groove of the bourbon and rye. It’s as finely balanced a whiskey as anything we’ve tried. It is scotch for the American whiskey enthusiast.
High West Prairie Bourbon. Another High West offering is the Prairie bourbon, named in honor of and supporting a vast expanse of wildlife preserve in Montana. Despite hearkening to a burly, massive, boundless countryside the whiskey itself is porcelain delicate. It’s a very mild and smooth bourbon that swirls and dances across the tongue for a clean, light-wood finish. We find it one of the most approachable bourbons we’ve tried and absolutely delicious.
Koval Lion’s Pride 47th Ward Whiskey. Distilled in a European brandy style that celebrates the grain, the Lion’s Pride label of whiskey features a range of single grain whiskey. The 47th Ward is the exception being a blend of four grains. In a universe of young whiskey struggling to compete with the big players with large inventories and plenty of time and capital, this was a brash whiskey with tremendous body, huge flavors, and notes of tropical fruits. It’s a whiskey that begs to be sipped neat and a cross between a long-aged whiskey and a brandy.
North Shore Silver Lining Krauters Liqueur. You can’t buy this… sorry. It was a limited edition put out in the year 2012 by North Shore and it will not be seen again. We were told at the event it’s sold out. Sad for you (and us), because it was easily the most outstanding liqueur we’ve tried in years. A perfect blend of spice and sweet… this would shape and endow any cocktail it touched with class and depth. Just goes to show: if a local craft distillery of good repute makes a limited edition, it’s probably worth a gamble. North Shore: please start producing this regularly?
Quincy Street Water Tower White Lightning. Quincy Street is a newer distillery that offers several products we liked very much. The star of the show was the White Lightning unaged whiskey. It had a beautiful balance of corn with barley and rye. It finishes very much like a good bourbon but without the aging, which should appeal a great deal to those who like robust flavors without the woody characteristics that come with oak. This would really wake up vodka-based cocktails as a replacement.
Yerlo Reserve. For the second year in a row, we can’t help but recommend this high-proof spirit. It’s all sweet on the front of the palate, due to the Jasmine rice that is its base, and incredibly smooth for such a high-proof (120!) liquor. In a world of shooters where people seem compelled to treat high-proof spirits like a hazing ritual, this is a sipper/shooter that actually tastes good and can hold up (obviously) in many differently styled cocktails.
One of the fascinating things about the craft distillery movement is that they try things that no bigger company would dare and the results can occasionally be outstanding. Appealing to those seeking alternative drinks, we offer the mention of a couple of spirits from Journeyman.
Journeyman Billberry Gin. This is a modern American gin that declares itself so strongly for the “billberry” (think blueberry / huckleberry) that it’s almost-but not quite-a berry flavored gin. Outstanding in tonic water they particularly recommend it with a muddled lime. Where the flavored vodkas are only getting crasser, the billberry gin is all class.
Journeyman Humdinger. A jalapeno pepper flavored spirit! Pepper flavors are on the market and can often be found in tequilas. But what makes the Humdinger so special-aside from its awesome name-is that it really does have spice without the heat. It is perfect for a Bloody Mary and is a worthy try for those elite who particularly adore the spicy tomato cocktail. It’s a considerable adventure for the daring mixologist who’s up for the challenge.
Making a list is foolhardy in a way. We did the best we could but out of 250+ different spirits across 45 booths, we collectively tasted maybe a third of that. In no way is our list comprehensive. It is impossible (or even more foolhardy) to try and taste everything. To drive home the point, we asked several people for their top 3 choices of the evening and they were all different.
This is the beauty of Distill America and why one should take advantage of these events when they arise. It’s an elusive chance to catch that special someone… er, bottle… that appeals to you and you alone. Don't let true love pass you by. Make plans for Distill America 2014!