Tales of the Cocktail – sounds lovely, right? And it IS lovely. Upwards of 20,000 people – bartenders, brand ambassadors, distillers, people like yours truly – descend on New Orleans in July to mix, mingle, shake and sip our way through six days of liquor, craft cocktails and education. It was my first time attending (though I felt like wearing the “Tales Virgin” pin on my shirt was a bit much) and it was quite an adventure. While whiskey is my personal favorite, I had a chance to sample my way through things like “ByeJoe” (Chinese moonshine, basically – I wouldn’t recommend it), Sotol (not tequila, not mescal, but something related – I HIGHLY recommend Sotol and I’m not a fan of tequila usually) and various versions of gins, vodka and liqueurs. If you want to read more of that, check out my post on LikeYourLiquor.com. But for whiskey – read on!
With six days of alcohol, most days starting at 10am (!), it was important to have a plan – and a bottle or six of water. I’d spent some serious time with the conference guide, making a list of all the brands I wanted to check out. My budget doesn’t always support a $100-$200 bottle of hooch, so I wanted to make sure to sample what I could. Since there was SO much going on, and so very many whiskeys, both foreign and domestic, I’ll hit my favorites/unusual sips here.
Four Roses– I have t-shirts that I had made that say, “Sometimes small is better….small batch, that is”. It was created with all the new craft distillers in mind, but some of the big names are also making small batch whiskey. Small batch is a whiskey made from a relatively small number of barrels, typically somewhere between 10-20. Four Roses marries four different mashbills (recipes) of bourbon to make their small batch whiskey. They have different expressions (a fancy term in whiskey that basically means version) but the small batch and single barrel are my favorites. And their yellow label is always a good choice – a versatile bourbon for things like punch, with a price of about $20, you can’t go wrong.
Heaven Hill’s Parker’s Heritage Collection – according to their website, “Parker’s Heritage collection is a series of rare, limited edition American Whiskeys offered as a tribute to sixth-generation Master Distiller Parker Beam for his 45+ years of distilling experience.” Last year’s was called a Promise of Hope. Heaven Hill master distiller emeritus Parker Beam was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) so this expression was created to raise awareness, with $20 from each bottle sold going to the Parker Beam Promise of Hope Fund established through the ALS Association. This year’s expression is a 13 year old straight wheat whiskey made using the first stocks of Bernheim whiskey produced back in 2001. It’s cask strength, too – a whopping 67.5% (135 proof). For being that high, it was remarkably smooth, owing in large part to the high wheat content. Normally needing a few drops of water to open up the flavors and lower the proof slightly, this cask strength was actually a good sip without water.
Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky – Nikka is a Japanese brand of whisky. I tried their 10 and 12 year old single malts, but my favorite was the Coffey Grain Whisky. Distilled in a Coffey still that they imported from Scotland, this whisky is made from imported US corn. Bourbon is made from at least 51% corn, but like Scotch, unless it’s made in the US, you can’t call it bourbon – so grain whisky it is! Smooth and a little sweet, I definitely recommend it if you like bourbon. Price ranges from $70-$150 a bottle, so if you see it on a menu, trying a pour would be worth it.
Kavalan Whisky– Kavalan is a Taiwanese brand of whisky. Named after the aboriginal people that inhabited the area where the whisky is made, Kavalan matures more quickly than its US and Scotch counterparts because of the warm, sub-tropical weather. Kavalan is matured in a variety of different casks, including ex-bourbon, sherry and American oak wine barrels. The use of wine and sherry casks (Kavalan isn’t the only one to do that, many distillers do) adds a layer of sweetness and flavor that you don’t always find in new barrels. Another whiskey on the higher end ($80-$200 a bottle), I’d suggest trying it if you see it at your favorite whiskey bar.
Speaking of trying whiskey, I also met Francis Schott while in NOLA. He’s the guy behind The Restaurant Guys radio show and several NYC- area restaurants. Check out The Spirits Project at Catherine Lombardi in New Brunswick, Thursdays at 6:30. The whole bottle might not be in your budget – but the Spirits Project pours single drams, sometimes for the same cost as your morning latte! I also met the folks behind Sweet Leaf in Long Island City – one of their locations on Center Blvd serves craft cocktails in addition to tasty coffee.
I think that about wraps up my Tales of the (whiskey) Cocktail – I’ve definitely got it on the schedule for 2015 because not only did I get to try some great drinks, I heard some fabulous music (Guitar Slim Jr, anyone?) and met some truly awesome people. I’d say my Tale was a success! Cheers!
Article by: Jeanne Runkle