For the second year in a row, we had the opportunity to attend the Tasting Panel Magazine’s tour stop in Chicago where twenty-four double-gold medal winning spirits from the 2011 San Francisco World Spirits Competition were on display for examination. Or to put this in more plainspoken terms: one afternoon’s chance to try some of the most expensive and exclusive spirits in the world. Chicago happens to be the third of thirteen cities visited by the tour and it provides a great opportunity to try some of the spirits that made famous last spring. (For the curious, see our write-up from last year.) However you look at it: the best of the best or the snootiest of the snooty, we would never turn down an invitation to try new and interesting liquor. (They bring wine as well but… well, it’s wine so it largely escaped our notice.)
Chicago’s Rustic House restaurant and bar played host to the event, which was a very intimate space for a lineup of so many different wines and spirits. Bottles on white tablecloths formed a large capital letter “J” spanning one entire wall and circling over to the bar. Just like the tour was a stop of 13 cities the participants on the tour get to do their own migration through 24 stations of liquor, loosely grouped by category. As for the Rustic House itself, we will say this: the event should be an opportunity for them to expand their inventory, because from what we saw not a single tour representative was actually on the shelf of the working bar. Hey, Rustic House: check out our notes below and pick up some of this stuff!
As background, remember that the San Francisco competition is one of the most revered and credible of international spirits competitions. This prior year it had over 1,000 entries and its largest judging panel yet. Judges, heavily screened to be experts in what they’re tasting, are invited to award spirits a bronze, silver, or gold medal (and also, a “not-recommended” designation that receives no mention—approximately 12% of all spirits). The medals correspond with a general “good, very good, and spectacular” impression. Those spirits where the judging panel unanimously awarded a gold medal receive a “Double Gold” designation. A selection of those double-gold award winners comprise the Tasting Panel Magazine tour, which should serve as a critical consensus about the best the competition had to offer.
Excited? Yes we were. Just like a 17-year old computer nerd getting to meet the Miss Universe contestants at the after-party.
One of the most interesting things about the event was the first-hand viewing of the “Expert Opinion vs Personal Palate” dichotomy that we often find so compelling. Proof66 is founded on expert opinion. In fact, the San Francisco competition has been a bulwark of our scoring algorithm since inception. But we’ve always maintained that a strong expert consensus is reason to try a spirit and not necessarily a mandate to enjoy it. The only opinion in the world that matters once the liquid meets the person is that particular person’s opinion. After all, one might become aware of a movie or book because of strong critical acclaim but that doesn’t mean they’ll like it and buy the thing on Blu-Ray. The same is true for spirits.
Never was that collision more apparent than this particular tour stop. Here are double-gold medal winning spirits—the best of 2011 out of hundreds of entries picked out by large panels of experts—and they may as well have been competing ceramic angels at a travelling flea market for all that mattered to people once they actually tasted the spirit.
In one corner of the room:
“The whiskey’s great but that label sucks,” intoned one participant, glaring reprovingly at the Power’s 12 -Year Irish Whiskey. “It looks like Mad Dog.”
“This is paint thinner!” announced another over a double-gold winning vodka.
“No, the vodka’s ok, I guess, but I’m more a Grey Goose man myself,” uttered another in response (to the utter dismay of craft distillers everywhere).
And so forth.
Impolite? Maybe. But we say this kind of commentary is a good thing… a very, very good thing. It’s distinctly American to listen to a professional’s opinion and then brashly exclaim one’s own, learning and credentials be damned. And certainly there was plenty of praise and insults to go around. A humble Camus VS cognac was on display and was declared lovely and honest by one person only to have it denounced by another. The Tyrconnel Irish whiskeys finished in Madeira and port casks were congratulated as spectacular by some and criticized as a bafflement by others. This is truly the essence of what the spirits world and the personal palate are all about: exploring, finding, discussing, arguing and—best of all—drinking. Seeing the lack of consistency in palates in that room over a mere three hours makes one wonder at the consensus-building that must take place over 3 days in the actual competition.
Did we have our own opinions? Why yes we did. After all, now that the experts have rendered their judgment and the Chicago press has answered, we’ll toss in our own impressions. Here are some notes we had on what we felt were the standouts and surprises at the tasting.
- Cabresto Silver Tequila. This was a silver tequila so good that it makes you wonder why anyone bothers to age it. The story goes that the founder made his fortune in auto parts manufacturing but never forgot his youth in the agave fields of Jalisco. It became his personal goal to offer a tequila that was a true representation of what he remembered tasting as a child. Cabresto is the result. We loved it… as a silver, it’s a tremendous expression of what the agave is: tasteful, understated, sweet, and herbal. It’s exceptionally well-crafted and almost too good to put in a cocktail. Nonetheless, the brand representative suggested an El Diablo cocktail which mixes raspberry liqueur, ginger beer, and lime with the Cabresto Silver.
- Don Julio Real Anejo Tequila. It’s always a pleasure to try something expensive that you’re unlikely to buy on your own unless it’s for a very, very special occasion. At $350, Don Julio Real qualifies in that space. What’s even better than getting the opportunity to try it is this: having tasted something that expensive and see it actually living up to its price tag. As a tequila, this is as good as it gets. Where many spirits announce themselves with a thunderclap of flavor, the Real infiltrates your sense of taste. It’s like a rebellion that starts small and then overwhelms everything in a kind of inexorable rush of total awesomeness. Better yet, when you pay this kind of money you want a bottle that can serve as a vase at your grandmother’s Christmas dinner. The Real gives you that with a gorgeous bottle and a heavy crystal top. We suggest drinking neat with just a touch of water, which we feel opened up the enormous wealth of tastes locked up in the golden loveliness.
- Del Maguey Single Village Chichicapa Mezcal. If you’re into something that would be an alternative to tequila or want to find out what good mezcal is all about, the Single Village products are all outstanding. The Vida, Minero, and Chichicapa expressions were all on display. They’re all good—though be warned that they are scorching hot coming in at over 95 proof! In tasting, the Chichicapa is an amazing experience. Where good tequila is like a museum tour of tradition and excellence, the Chichicapa hits you like a trip on Space Mountain in Disneyland, shoving all decorum aside in a mad, screaming rush of flavor. A little water in the glass opens up a truly magical trip that we can only describe as a “symphony of flowers.” Every possible note is there: from the singing violins to the deep throated trombones to the bashing of drums. One cannot go through life without at least sampling this mezcal.
- Powers 12-Year Gold Label Irish Whiskey. The tour was an embarrassment of riches in Irish whiskey boasting highly-acclaimed (and expensive) whiskey that was, to a bottle, a point of pride in any person’s bar. Yet it was the humble little $35 Powers 12-year whiskey that garnered the most attention. In a bottle that would be at home on the bottom shelf of the grocery store, it held a whiskey that was sweet and pure. It tasted like burnished gold in the mouth, flowery and smooth, with a deep, decadent taste that was remarkable. We wanted to make a specific point of mentioning this whiskey because if competitions and tour stops are good for anything, it is in revealing hidden gems like these. If you come across Powers 12-Year, order it, buy it, whatever… but try it.
- Redbreast 15-Year Single Malt Irish Whiskey. If there was a winning spirit, in our opinion, it would be the Redbreast 15. A bargain for its quality at $75, it is one of the most perfect whiskeys we’ve ever come across. It was dry and arid on the aroma then smooth and sylph-like on the tongue. Indeed, “eldritch” is the best way we can describe this whiskey because it has a mysterious, mesmerizing quality that doesn’t necessarily command your attention but instead makes everything you are paying attention to somehow better. That’s magic indeed.
- The Dalmore 18-Year Single Highland Malt Scotch. If a person needs an example of everything that a scotch should represent with none of the excesses that come with some of the smoky Islays or wine cask finishes, it is the Dalmore 18. It’s pricy for the common man at a $165 and has a very sophisticated aroma but drinking it is a pure pleasure. It has a dusty, earthy taste that is masculine and intense and demands a cigar and an outdoor setting.
These were our selections out of the lineup of 24 different spirits that made up the Tasting Panel tour. As we mentioned, of the 50 or so people present at the event, one could probably find 50 different lists of standouts (though we think the Redbreast 15 probably topped the majority of them). But let this article be a reason to go explore one or more of these offerings. The exploration itself is part of the pleasure.