Speed Dating: The 2011 Celebration of American Distilling

Speed Dating: The 2011 Celebration of American Distilling

Imagine speed dating.

Not the creepy kind of speed dating in a worn-out bar and participant list suspect in both hygiene and gainful employment. Instead, imagine speed dating with every movie star you had a half-decent screen crush on in the last 5 years. I mean all of them: dark or fair; muscled or slender; charming or dangerous... they all have their moments and, more importantly, they're all here.

Best of all, imagine that all of these movie stars, every one of them, already love you. They love you so much there's not even any competition. They're all potential suitors and they're wooing you with open arms and ready smiles.

Oh, and one last thing-we'll whisper it because it's a little bit unmentionable in polite company but you're really going to be interested in this part- rules of monogamy don't apply here. They're all willing to share you with each other. You can have some of the best vodka, the best gin, the best whiskey, and the best liqueur in the world and there's no expectation of commitment.

Interested? Do we have to ask?!

The distillation equivalent of this most awesome form of speed dating took place in Madison, Wisconsin where the Edgewater Hotel hosted the third annual Celebration of American Distilling. And trust us, the stars of America were definitely out and shining. Jim Beam and their whole small batch collection was there, including the new Single Barrel Knob Creek (we found it to be a luscious, charry bourbon). Buffalo Trace Distillery was there with their entire highly decorated antique collection of whiskeys, including the Thomas H Handy Sazerac Rye (a meticulous, classic rye overflowing with John Wayne levels of confidence). Four Roses Distillery brought their Single Barrel bourbon along with the rest of their collection. Kentucky Bourbon Distillers brought their great line of bourbons including the Willett Pot Reserve. Let's not forget to mention Austin Nichols and their entire line of reserve whiskey including Russell's Reserve 10yr Bourbon.

Just in that last paragraph alone you're looking at 22 of the best whiskeys in the world for a total retail value of $1,029. And after you've tasted all of that, you still have 33 more distilleries to visit! That was only half of the available whiskey and we haven't even gotten to the vodkas, gins, aquavit, absinthe, and other exotica on display. In this game of speed dating, there's no commitment, beauty everywhere, love is in the air and the night is just beginning.

We humbly suggest that's a pretty good value for a $55 ticket (that also includes food).

The glamorous stars of the whiskey world were there in all their finery. Bourbon enthusiasts could travel a total distance of 30 feet over the course of 3 hours and still come to the end as happy as they've ever been in their lives. But look a little further-look kind of off-Broadway if you will-there are other beautiful and/or handsome aspirants looking on, waiting for their chance at the Big Time (or, in some cases, staying firmly committed to the indie movement and scorning all things Big Liquor). You like them goth? You like them Exotic? Hippie? Nerdy? They're all here... everybody's here.

It would be impossible to mention all of the various spirits available from the 30 distilleries at the event anymore than it would be sensible to try and taste each of the scores of bottles on offer. The best we can do is mention some of the more memorable spirits of the night, stipulating right away that we're helplessly omitting some great things we didn't try, some great people we didn't get a chance to meet, and general late-evening fogginess getting the better of us.

  • Madison Locals. You were well-represented by the craft-distilling world if you're a patriot of Madison. But if you're looking for one of the centers of the movement, Yahara Bay is there. Promoting local produce, crafting for local markets, and recently redesigning their bottles to celebrate local architecture-not to mention sponsoring an art gallery for local artists on site at the distillery-it's hard to find someone more invested in the community. Building on their success, they're releasing their first whiskey: a young tasting spirit with a 4-grain mash of corn, wheat, barley and rye.

  • Aviation Historians. Lindbergh fans, you now have a home distillery in the aptly named Spirits of St Louis operating out of Square One Brewery and Distillery in St Louis. They're brand new in 2011 with a line of spirits that include a single malt whiskey made from their own malted barley from the brewery. The whiskey is smoked in cherry wood and hickory before distillation giving it an exciting and unusual characteristic. Keep your eyes out for JJ Neukomm Missouri Malt Whiskey.

  • You ARE Seeing Faces in the Glass. Some of the coolest bottles around come from New Holland Distilling of Ohio. A clear glass frame on the front highlights a face that's etched in the back of the bottle. The liquor inside creates a highlighted, magnification effect on the etched image. Bend over and peer into the bottle and you'll see someone staring right back at you. This is especially effective in their Hatter Royale Hopquila, which is made from their own pilsner beer and features a leering, jolly-but-unsettling, Mad Hatter. The spirit has a, we'll kindly call it "interesting," aroma but tasting it is like drinking the best beer you've ever had.

  • Horseradish? Seriously? Yes, there is a horseradish infused vodka and it is called Referent Vodka. Made for the best Bloody Mary around it had one of our partnership exclaiming loudly and earnestly to anyone who would listen: "You've got to try the [bleeping] horseradish! You've just got to! Go [bleeping] try that horseradish [bleep] right now!" Yes, critics can extol the taste of river stone, the scent of dew kissed meadows, or the hints of vanilla-infused toffee from the shady side of the North side of a given hill in Madagascar that is harvested only at twilight... but is there ever any more musical praise to the distiller than what our partner so sincerely uttered?

  • Molecular Distilleronomy. If there is a poised and precise experimentalist in this group it is certainly the artisans at the Koval Distillery in Illinois. Strictly organic, they try their hand at all kinds of fragrances (rose hip for one), grains (spelt among others), and essences (ginger). Tonight we tried their Chrysanthemum Honey Liqueur. It had a beautiful aroma sweetened as if by the very kiss of Mother Nature herself. Probably hard to find outside of Illinois, if you can find one of these spirits, you'd better buy it.

  • Make Your Own Damned Infusion. Right next to Koval sat the man from Tito's Vodka, one of the very first and most successful craft vodkas on the American market. "Tito's makes the best infusions!" he announced. Then he proved it. In three different vessels of glass so plain and unrefined that marketing consultants would stiffen in reproof at the merest sight, he poured out a homemade cranberry, orange, and cinnamon infusion... one of several that he brought along. "We're just going to keep making great vodka rather than try and bottle all this stuff." To help you along, their website has a whole set of recipes for different kinds of at-home, do-it-yourself infusions.
    • Rogue Nation, You Have a Competitor. Many cocktail enthusiasts have been aware of the various, well-regarded spirits coming out of Rogue Spirits in Oregon. But the Pacific Northwest has a brand new up-and-comer in Dry Fly Distilling Company. After winning best vodka in the 2009 World Spirits Competition, they followed it up with a 2010 release of their first wheat whiskey, aged for 2 years in American oak. Made with 100% Washington wheat, we were earnestly entreated to take the whiskey with a cigar.

    • Friendly Faces. We're familiar with North Shore Distillery and it's always a welcome sight to see them. Not only was their Sirene Absinthe on display replete with the French absinthe service but they had a full run of their annual limited release flavors on display for the VIP hour-everything from mango gin to mole spirit was available.

    • Garage Band's New Release. In the fall of 2010, we had a chance to taste the Cane & Abe Freshwater Rum from the Old Sugar Factory in Madison. We liked the rum a lot and called the Sugar Factory the equivalent of a garage band on the way to stardom. Well, they have a new release for the new year and it’s ouzo. An ouzo from Wisconsin? Yes, an ouzo from Wisconsin. It turns out the master distiller is half-Greek and made the ouzo from Wisconsin beets in honor of his grandfather. As a rule, most of the partnership of Proof66 doesn’t care much for ouzo. Amazingly-and we never would have tried it under except we were at this Madison event, which just goes to show how important it i-we loved the Americanaki Ouzo from the Sugar Factory. Only in Madison.
    • You're Charging How Much For This Again? Heaven Hill Distilleries was present with their line of whiskeys, including the Elijah Craig 18yr, which won best bourbon in the 2010 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. And it sells for $36. There we are, an ambassador from Heaven Hill's in front of us, and we blearily (it was late) tell him, "You should charge 50% more for this whiskey and I bet you sell twice as much!" Sorry, bourbon world. It was a moment of weakness. If the price for Elijah Craig suddenly goes up, let the hate mail come. But seriously, 36 dollars for this whiskey!? That is a steal among steals.

    • Tennessee Authenticity. There's someone else out there making Tennessee whiskey besides Jack Daniels (conspicuously absent from this event). That would be George Dickel. The booth was run by a charming southern woman who had the most adorable southern accent we've heard since Scarlet O'Hara was putting on the charm in the first half of Gone With the Wind. Their Tennessee whiskey, we were told, is the only Tennessee whiskey that is chill filtered, creating a crystal clear whiskey and a smooth, sharp finish. "It actually tastes better in winter than it does in summer," she promised us. Good news because it was about 20 degrees outside. And indeed, the #8 Whiskey was a very nice, winter-sipping whiskey that changed our whole attitude about the state of Tennessee.

    • Thank You For Saving Our Lives. We would be entirely inconsiderate if we didn't mention 45th Parallel Spirits. Not just because of their vodka-we tried it last year and already knew it was very good-but because of the extraordinary act of kindness at the end of the evening. After the celebration closed at 11:00pm, the distillers feel like they're getting off work. So what do they do? They go out to visit the bars in Madison. One of our Proof66 partners decided to go with them... foolishly without a coat. Remember that it's February in Madison. 45th Parallel provided the sweatshirt-complete with their own Grain to Glass logo-to said partner that probably saved his idiot life when he walked home to the hotel at 1:00am in the morning. That Proof66 continues as a going concern is directly attributable to the kindness of 45th Parallel. We're not aware of many events where so many excellent spirits are gathered in one place for the general public to try. It would be beyond cost-prohibitive to do this on your own... and that's without hearing the stories of craftsmanship and production firsthand from the distillers themselves.

      At Proof66 we hear the occasional complaint about putting too much emphasis on a critic's opinion and highlight too much the numerical score. Our usual reply is, "Oh yeah? Well, the other thing you can do is try 150 different vodkas all by yourself. If you can't afford to do that, then you need to look to the critics."

      That's a practical reply because, who has the leisure and the money to try 300+ spirits? Well, in Madison, for one glorious (non-driving!) night, you can do exactly that. For one evening, you can try all the things you've wished you could try ($100 bourbons!); all the curiosities you'd never thought were made (American ouzo!); and stuff you've never dreamed of trying (horseradish vodka!). This is the night where the critical score is overrun by the most important judge of all: you.

      Whatever you can do, try to fly, hitchhike, or teleport to Madison in 2012. It's like kissing all your favorite movie stars and it's an experience absolutely not to be missed.

    Published by Proof66.com