The Tasting Panel Magazine holds an annual tour of selected double-gold medal award winners from that year’s San Francisco World Spirits Competition, which is a select group when you realize that over 1,000 spirits were entered in the competition. Think of it like a yearly all-star tour of liquor and what’s not exciting about that? On October 4th, Cyrano’s Bistrot and Wine Bar hosted the tour stop in Chicago, Illinois and we were lucky enough to be invited.
Cyrano’s, as a setting, was beautiful in a well-appointed basement room with brick walls, hand-painted art, and rough-hewn tables with that year’s award winners spread out. Snobs (er… professional wine and spirit critics) along with journalists were spread out across the room armed with notes, pads, tasting glasses, and hors d’oeuvres of bread, cheese, and salami. Water was in generous supply.
It’s a fascinating adventure to drink among such company. Tasting events are usually heavily hosted affairs with booths, pretty people in the booths, marketing all over the place, and bartenders doing their flair. But here, there is none of that. There are no bartenders—in fact, no mixing at all. You assess the spirits neat. There are no marketing agents, and very few people associated with the brands—you taste the spirit unvarnished by anyone’s opinion. There are no shakers and no cocktails—you pour right out of the bottle. It’s you versus the spirit, poured all by yourself in whatever volume you like at room temperature. It felt a bit like the Hunger Games and we were examining the Horn of Plenty for its various wares.
All the wine is on one long end of the room and the spirits are on the shorter end. In the beginning, you mill about, making furtive eye contact early and then, as alcohol begins to lubricate the vocal cords, conversation with fellow critics ensues. There are many learned people and very interesting conversations. You’re liable to see and hear all kinds of interesting things. People find flavor notes ranging from leather, to flower, to tropical fruit, to seawater, to mineral—and they announce these proudly and earnestly. One young lady openly wondered what grape varietal served as the base for the whisky from Taiwan. (Whisky is made from grain—in this case barley—and she was confused by the sherry cask finish on the label.) Another announced “This is wonderful,” tossed back an anejo tequila like a shot, dove and spit it all out in a bowl, then grinned and gave a big thumbs up. (This looked as incongruous as it sounds but remember that many critics will savor the taste and spit it out to avoid having their senses dulled by alcohol.) Another fellow assured us quite sincerely that mezcal—and this occurs if and only if you drink mezcal and mezcal alone—provided a far mellower buzz, different than anything else, that is almost hallucinogenic, and puts a smile on your face that hurts to try and remove. It’s a fascinating journey made all the merrier because you have wine people drinking whiskey, tequila people sneering at gin, and liquor geeks like us staying away from the wine like the line separating the two is the Berlin wall of Soviet Russia in the height of the Cold War lest we say something foolish.
We tasted over a dozen different spirits at the event—all representatives of the best offered at the 2012 San Francisco Competition. As in 2011 and 2010, we’d like to offer specific notes on those we found to be particularly compelling and interesting. We most decidedly did not spit anything out (though we tried to taste judiciously). We moved from clear to aged and low proof to high. Here are the 9 best of what we tasted in Chicago listed in the order that we tasted them; all spirits we would recommend to anyone.
- Platinka Vodka. This is an interesting spirit that is filtered through platinum and the label admonishes “best when chilled.” Well, it was about 90 degrees here at Cyrano’s so too bad. Pros smell and look for flavor notes. Smelling, we found—let’s try and match pretension here—notes of citrus and wet stone. The taste had a mild tang to it with more light citrus flavors mixed with grain. For a vodka, it had an impressively lingering finish. In fact, do we taste metal? Are there traces of platinum here in the spirit? We’d never have guessed it was distilled from rye given the mild flavor… almost more eau-de-vie. It was a very soft and very impressive spirit. If you’re going to bother to get a premium vodka, this has the taste to match the spend
- Krogstad Aquavit. This is made by House Spirits of Oregon and named “best aquavit” in the competition. One doesn’t get the opportunity to taste many aquavits, a Scandinavian spirit usually drunk in shots from the freezer and characterized by caraway. Sorry Krogstad, no freezer here; room temperature for us. Krogstad has a nose that’s full of anise (black licorice) with only a hint of caraway. Tasting, it’s wedding-night lingerie smooth, almost impossibly smooth for 80 proof. That’s a tribute to the distilling and kind of begs for wild, Viking parties with people shooting it repeatedly and scoffing at the proof. Quite extraordinary and awesome to think of Oregonians shaming all Scandinavia by beating them with their own spirit. If one wants to experiment with aquavit, this is a great place to start.
- Efe Zeybek Raki. What the heck is raki? Raki is a Turkish spirit heavily flavored with anise that might call to mind ouzo or sambuca. That’s a great thing about a tasting event like this one: you get to try raki! The Efe Zeybec had a heavy licorice aroma. Tasting it we got a very oily mouthfeel with a bitter, licorice flavor. The taste was very unusual and very appealing in a curious way. It burned of alcohol but it had a dessert like quality that played well with the burn. It honestly tasted foreign (to our Yankee palates). What we assume are the essences of the spirit coats the tongue and you keep tasting the raki long, long after the swallow. In fact, that coating changes the flavor of the next sip so that it’s almost like tasting something entirely new that evolves and surprises with each subsequent sip. Amazingly curious spirit and definitely recommended for the adventurous who look for the exotic.
- Avion Silver tequila. Avion had a much milder and much softer agave aroma compared to the other tequilas present. It was a soft hand on the back of the neck rather than a bear hug. The taste was equally mild but enveloping with a hint of orange. The finish is a bit harsh but with a tiny bit of water or ice, this smooths out into a wonderful example of what a blanco tequila can be.
- Real Matlatl Reposado Mezcal. This mezcal, made from a base of espadin agave, had aromas of cucumber and citrus on the nose. Maybe a hint of mint? The taste is extraordinary on the finish with a symphony of herbal and floral notes. It’s like swallowing a whole forest. Where we found the joven (blanco) a bit thin at the first taste, the bit of aging on the reposado added a kiss of oak that made it one of the finest spirits we’ve ever tasted. This might even serve as a daring replacement for gin in some drinks. The craftsmanship for a liquor at 96 proof was breathtaking. We’ve had many 80 proof tequilas that tasted much hotter. If there was a winning spirit out of the whole event, we say it is the Real Matlatl Reposado.
- Jimador Reposado. In the land of high-priced and exotic spirits it’s nice to see when a label you can find at many grocery stores for $20 makes an appearance. This unassuming tequila can definitely compete. We think of it as a Romney tequila for Republicans (to the horror of the Mormon church)—perhaps not terribly exciting but steady and sure and scandal-free.
- Dos Armadillos Reposado. It’s a shame to taste so many agave spirits and not mention margaritas (classic ones, not that frozen swill that teenagers pump out at sidewalk shops like a slurpee). Dos Armadillos—resplendent in a beautiful bottle with a twine wrapping the top—had a wine-like finish that we feel would pair perfectly with lime in a very, uber-premium margarita cocktail.
- Kavalan Soloist Sherry Finish Whisky. Kavalan is a line of whisky made in Taiwan, entering an Asian market that has grown massively enthusiastic over fine scotch. Kavalan’s methods are 100% Scottish in the style of making but produce a Taiwanese single malt that in this case was finished in Oloroso sherry casks. Best of all, we’re not aware it’s even available in the US yet—hence one of the great benefits of being credentialed press! The aroma is very interesting… mossy stone? Old piano stools? It’s bottled at over 100 proof and tasted neat it’s all oily heat and a bubblegum finish. But a little ice water unleashes all the flavors in a flood of classic scotch flavors without any of the peat smoke. It is a very special whisky that should enjoy a place in any connoisseur’s shelf.
- Dalmore 18yr Single Malt scotch. Dalmore is one of the most famous of Scottish distilleries with the iconic stag figurehead gracing every bottle. The 18yr has been at the top of our charts for quite some time and is highly decorated over multiple years. Drinking it (with a couple drops of water, naturally) is all grass, hints of smoke, wood, and an uprising of sherry notes. It is a perfectly constructed scotch with universal appeal. There are many special editions out there that blow you off your chair when you drink it they’re so powerful—these take an enormous commitment to drink and you feel you need to take a class before you do. Not the Dalmore 18yr; it has universal appeal and fully deserves its place at the head of the scotch ranks.
For the record, we went from Oregon aquavit, to exotic mezcal, to Turkish liqueur, to Taiwanese “scotch” among others. The Tasting Panel event—and the whole spirits competition in general—is a credit to what truly is becoming a golden age of spirits. Never before have so many well-crafted spirits been on display and obtainable by the great majority of people.