A Slob Reviews 20 Fancy Whiskies
Like many, I love whiskey, so when the chance opened up last Thursday to venture through downtown Chicago and partake in Binny’s famous whiskey-tasting soiree, I hazily stumbled toward it.
Now I’m not the much of a counniseurreer–as evidinced by the mangled spelling (and likewise misspelling of “evidenced”), so these reactions should not offend anyone who comes across this looking for a petty error and just salivating to write an even longer piece on how much of a dope I am for completely getting everything wrong about one little piddling thing. Or using “scotch” “rye” and “whiskey” interchangeably. Or reviewing a whiskey that doesn’t actually exist (such as 18-year-old Yukon Beaver, baby!). Other than that, this should be taken as the Gospel set in stone and signed off on by Muhammad, Buddha, Moses, Colonel Sanders, and Judge Joe Brown.
Templeton Rye Small Batch
This booth was tucked away between the Glenlivet booth and the walk-in humidor where the smokers went a-wanting (you can’t smoke in most Chicago establishments, and nothing complements a high-class bender like a whiskey-soaked cigar; breathing in the fumes of the humidor was the best we could do).
The Small Batch had a very powerful bite of anis–licorice flavor–that fortunately didn’t linger, but did rest in your nose a bit. It’s not the kind of thing I go for, but I’m not much of a rye drinker, as the jovial guy with a tweed-ish blazer was quick to leap on. Fair enough.
However, I can appreciate the subtle nuances of the label–especially the “TR” logo that’s ripped straight from the JRR Tolkien symbol and the fact that its proud slogan is “Prohibition-Era Whiskey.” At least to me, that’s one step up from “Brewed in Larry Flynt’s Brother’s Backyard.”
SPECIAL NOTE: Don’t approach the booth with the greeting, “Ah: Templeton! Like the rat!”
Famous Grouse 12-Year
Not much to say about it other than it was very sweet with an aftertaste of paper. I do, however, remember the pourer’s bright pink-and-white cocktail dress.
But while I couldn’t appreciate this, my cohort, however, chose to spend the majority of her time camped out at this booth. And I should note that I’ve never been a big fan of the “Bird” whiskies–Old Crow, Fighting Cock, Surly Grackle, and Flaccid Duck, among them–so my taste in birds is lacking. Then again, birds eat a lot of crap. Also, plastic.
Harsh, but with a tender, flowery taste of vanilla. The pourer, who looked like a young Orson Welles impersonator and sported a neat blazer with a crisp, red tie, was a pro and gave a laundry list of the flavors: honey, spice, honeysuckle, toasted marshmallow…, and I sort of lost him after that. There were some other instructions as to how one must drink it, when one must drink it, and which form of goat sacrifice would most appease it, but I just looked at him blankly and stuttered, “Marshmallow?” and we wisely parted ways.
Bitter but with a tinge of honey, it nevertheless wasn’t too bad. But the highlight was the young Irish pourer/brawler making the scene with the gal slingin’ the Glenlivet B-list. This is the guy I wanted to see rolling rollickin’ drunks from the store. I don’t remember whether he was wearing suspenders or not, but let’s just say he was. And one of those caps. And he described the Gold as, “Loaded with me lucky charms!”
Of course I’m an idiot, and during the course of our small talk, I somehow got on the topic of he should be the guy rolling rollickin’ drunks from the store—especially that one Irish guy who picks a fight with the Chardonney selection and passes out among the snacks, covered in vomit and jalapeno 3-D Doritos.
Didn’t go over too well.
Basil Hayden 8-Year
I have a soft spot for Basil Hayden, as on my last day at work my boss gave me a bottle of it. I have yet to open that bottle, but I’ve since enjoyed a few of my own purchase, and it’s been no-frill delight every time. Especially when Jewel-Costco had the 8-year on sale for $20! Similar in taste to Maker’s Mark, it has a bit of a smokeyness to it. The bottle also reminds me of Christina Applegate’s apron-and-nothing-else outfit from Anchorman. Sexy.
Woodford Reserve Sonoma-Cutrer Finish
I love Woodford’s. Smoother than Maker’s Mark and losing nothing when coupled with water, it’s the perfect whiskey to finish off a long day of shooting or complement an elegant snack tray of garlic-cheese-twists and those little wasabi bits.
Sadly the Reserve Sonoma-Cutrer Finish—in addition to bearing a name that could gloss a Babylon whore, had a load of crap in it and burnt like tires going down. Aged in wine barrels, it’s a flavor overload. I expected something more from the Snazzyola suit and blue tie with a silver clip.
Someone, though definitely not the pourer, a sweaty mound of a man, referred to this as high-quality So-Co. He himself played up the miasma of flavors. To give you an idea, one seller described it thusly:
Distilled from lightly peated barley, Benriach 16 year is full, complex and aromatic, with notes of wildflower, stone fruit, honey, vanilla, spice, caramel, and ripe apple. The palate is round and medium-to-full-bodied, with abundant flavors of vanilla, fresh cream, allspice, toffee and pear.
Personally, I thought it too sweet, too. But come on! How many damn ingredients are they going to put in this? Stone fruit? What the hell is that? While you’re at it, why not toss some eye of newt into the cauldron, too? Perhaps had they added a bit of eel’s tongue or pussy fist to counter the belching marigold, it would have balanced out the incandescent vegetables.
Like the website says, this was both smooth and mellow, but with a bit of a doughy taste. And despite their insistence on history, heritage, the old ways, and whatnot, it seemed odd that the guy pushing it sported a soul patch and was lost somewhere in his 20s.
Not much else to say, but it was about this time that I starting wondering if the quality of the booze was indirectly proportional to the attractiveness of the pourers. Makes sense: It’s not that good, so to compensate you stack the booth with a few pretty faces and watch the 60-year-old drunk men go hog wild. I’d do the same on either side of the board. And it’s not like decorum was in full effect–one fellow making the rounds was actually wearing a periwinkle track suit. (This idea, however, is not my own, and comes from my Facebook acquaintance Jacqueline, who, at a beer sampler in Vegas, noticed a similar inverse relationship between the quality of beer and the breast-size of the girl serving it.)
Four Roses Small Batch
I saw a few of my acquaintances high-tailing it toward the Four Roses booth. They said the fellow manning the McClellan booth had tasked them with procuring—for his own consumption—a glass of the Small Batch. Naturally I had to try the whiskey that beat out the McClellan guy’s own stock. And if looks were any indication of quality, the guy pouring out Four Roses looked like a winner: his face plastered in the bitter scowl of a 5th-grade teacher and interest firmly locked on the comely and drunker lasses.
The Small Batch itself was a delight: heavy smell, but very, very smooth. Not something you’d want to taint with mere water. Despite the crotchety service, you came away satisfied.
This booth was manned by the Kentucky distillery’s winners of the Click and Clack Rapport Club, both of them wearing golf tees with some unintelligible logo on it. It was red.
As for the taste, it’s good-old-fashioned Maker’s Mark, and if you don’t know what that tastes like (or who Click and Clack are), you’re a horrible American. Sadly, there was a profound lack of cran-burrie vo’ka.
RoughStock Montana Whiskey
Kind of a let-down, as if the intimidating cowgirl—cowboy hat, bolo tie, and Bozeman accent all—wasn’t an indication.
Not long on words, she poured a stiff ounce or so. Sadly, it had the distinct flavor of cardboard, and, after adding water, I discreetly poured it out.
Tomatin 12-Year and 30-Year
Two very young and attractive girls, one in black blouse the other white, poured, and, both to my surprise, they were good, though I preferred the 12-year to the 30, which was strangely coarse but at least wasn’t soaked in anis.
The highlight—if you can’t guess from the mix of attractive girls and drunk old men—goes to the sweaty mustache in gray tweed and lavender tie:
OLD GUY [ Throwing RoughStock Montana Whiskey Game]: How long you girls been working?
GIRL1: Oh, we’ve been here for about seven years.
OLD GUY: Wow, that’s a long time…you got a daughter?
Arran and Malt 10-Year
Naturally you have to try something from the only guy wearing a kilt, and it was a wise decision. The 10-year’s a sweeter, tender single malt aged in Madeira wine casks. The higher alcohol content gives it a bit more of a bite than you’d expect, but nevertheless very, very tasty.
I didn’t actually try this, but my friend enjoyed it based on her friend’s endorsement: “Drink this shit.”
Laphroaig Quarter Cask, 18-Year, and 30-Year
Despite it sounding like that noise the dog makes when it yaks up soiled waste, Laphroaig’s a fine whiskey. This tasting was by far the most entertaining. The pourer, whose execution of the taste was so good I shook his hand afterwards, began by offering a few grains of barley to chew on then lit a clump of peat under my sniffer to heighten the experience. He poured a healthy serving of the quarter cask, which bore a smoky, spicy flavor. It wasn’t silky smooth, but nevertheless, I was surprised to find that it was 96 proof.
Next came the 18-year. This was sweeter, with a tinge of honey and citrus that was disturbingly easy going down. Also 96 proof.
Finally came the 30-year, which was charmingly kept in a green Wellington boot—and seeing as how the bottles appear to go anywhere from $250 to $850, that small extra bit of precaution seemed smart. The scotch itself tastes of sherry but not overly so. Plain and simple it’s a pure single malt, and deadly smooth.
Like most folks, I’ve been dying to try a whiskey that’s as old as Steve Coogan, and it was the prospect of tasting this expensive (purportedly $600-a-bottle) scotch that sealed the deal of me leaving my apartment to trek into the parts of Chicago unknown.
I texted a college friend who’s since gone on to work as a distributor in Virginia that I tried it, and, though I don’t recall his exact response, I do seem to remember its tone as being somewhere along the lines of “You bastard.”
And rightfully so, as the 38 was a joy to behold. Though I had more fun at the Laphroaig booth, this was my personal favorite. I didn’t taste any overpowering additives, just silky smoothness and a feeling of well being. I’m no connoisseur, so my description won’t give it justice. Suffice it to say that I walked around for about 15 minutes with this in my glass because I didn’t want the experience to end. I should also add that the pourer gave my glass a rigorous inspection to ensure that the taste wouldn’t be marred by any of my previous inferiorities.
This was the last one tried, and probably for the best, because, going over my notes, the name was an epic struggle to spell. After several minutes, I simply gave up and referred to it as “Bruegelsdachsund—some year—3?”
I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t have made a point of serving a 3-year-old, so I’m going to say 12-year because that’s the first image that came up when I typed “BruichLaddich” into Google. I don’t have any record of the taste either, so…
College kid leaving with a jug of wine
This wasn’t actually one of the booths, but after the tasting had closed down and me and my new-found acquaintances had left the building to venture uptown for some pizza, I spied this sight with a smile. My looks may have been compared to Matthew McConaughey on the bus-ride home (something that will never happen again, so I gotta appreciate it when I can), but the thought that somewhere out there, after having sampled some of the finest whiskies in the world, a college kid was getting drunk off Carlo Rossi on a Thursday night seemed the perfect capper.