WhiskyFest Chicago 2013 Recap

April 30 2013 - 9:00 AM


All of our Whisky Week coverage was leading up to this past Friday’s main event, WhiskyFest. As the city’s largest gathering of whisky producers, ambassadors, and aficionados, there were nearly 100 booths featuring several hundred different pours. Every style of whisky imaginable was available, plus a couple of beer, cognac, rum and liqueur options thrown in to boot.

The sheer volume meant there was no way to taste it all (or even very much of it), but with a little careful planning and an ear to the ground, attendees could find a lot of new and interesting things. Many of my favorite brands were there, but I instead spent my time looking for the new and exciting. Here are a couple of my favorite finds.

Nikka Japanese Whisky
Nikka - Taketsuru 12 and Yoichi 15Japanese whisky is about to hit the U.S. big time. Really. Lovers of Single Malt Scotch balk when told that others are trying to emulate their style, but the Japanese have been quietly perfecting their method for decades and with today’s whisky boom, they are finally ready to export and convert.

Previously, U.S. offerings were limited to those from Suntory (the Yamazaki and Hakushu single malts as well as the Hibiki blend), but Suntory’s rival Nikka has just come to the scene. And wow! Their flagship pure malt blend is called Taksturu and while the 12 year is lovely and light, the 17 year is the true star: drying, spicy, complex. The company also is introducing the two single malts which go into Taksturu. The Miyagikyo 12 year is nice, but I’m currently saving up to buy a bottle of the Yoichi 15, a slightly peated powerhouse of flavor with a finish that goes on and on and on.

Bastille French Whisky
Bastille WhiskyWhen we think of France, we think of wine or cognac. We do not think whisky. But the Bastille 1789 French Whisky is aiming to change that. From the southwest of France, this malted barley and wheat blend is light, delicate and smooth, yet still flavorful and complex. It is distilled in pot stills, but the unique mashbill and softness differentiate it from mainstream categories. At a very affordable $30 retail, it makes a great anytime sipper.

Kavalan Single Malt WhiskyThe island of Taiwan has a climate as far removed from Scotland as imaginable (fewer sheep, more palm trees), but that has not stopped ambitious upstarts Kavalan from trying to emulate the Highland’s classic style. Only seven years old, this distillery is already producing 1.2 million liters per year (about the output of Ardbeg, for comparison) and attracting 1 million visitors a year to their visitor center. The company’s highly efficient operation and exacting standards have led them to earn a number of awards across the world and their whiskies will be entering the U.S. market soon.

I wasn’t able to taste the full range, so I’ll reserve judgment on the quality, but Kavalan is putting out a very interesting lineup. Because of the warm climate on the island, casks age quickly (typically 2-3 years) and lean toward a fruity style full of complexity. In addition to their standard Kavalan Single Malt, there is a series of single barrel releases under the name Kavalan Solist including ex-bourbon casks (Ex-Bourbon), ex-red and white wine barrels (Vinho), and ex-fino sherry butts (Fino). If even half the audacious claims of greatness about these whiskies are true, this is a brand to watch closely over the next few years.

Few Spirits
Few American GinPaul Hletko, master distiller Evanston’s Few Spirits, is an amiable fellow. He and I chatted awhile about his fourth grade daughter’s aspirations to become a mathematician and whether or not even one in 49 like Jeppson’s Malört as the bottle claims (doubtful). But thankfully, his spirits go down as easy as his conversation.

WhiskyFest or not, it was Few’s gins that had me smitten. The American Gin is American mostly in the sense that it is NOT London dry and it reminds me of the Dutch genever style with a malty base and notes of vanilla and lemon. On the other hand, their 114 proof Navy Strength Gin is much more classic in profile. It has big juniper, but also a great brace of fennel and hops (which Hletko grows in his own garden).

And while Few may not be quite ready to talk publicly about this yet, Hletko did let me in on a secret new project. Let’s just say he hopes more than one in 49 likes his version…


Spiced Beet Cocktail

Country of Origin: USA
Main Spirit: tequila

tequila, mezcal, beet, ginger, lime, lemon, brown sugar

Love ’em or hate ’em, beets are a staple of spring farmers markets. And though they don’t appear in cocktails very often, the earthy little buggers actually pair remarkably well with grassy, vegetal tequila.

In this recipe from Market-Fresh-Mixology: Cocktails for Every Season, the two come together with some ginger spice to make a bold, dark stunner of a cocktail. Using a little bit of mezcal as suggested below will provide a complex layer of smoky goodness, but if you don’t have a bottle handy you can round the tequila up to a full 2 ounces.

Read more about market-inspired cocktails here and make sure to check out our chat with this drink’s creator, Bridget Albert.

Spiced Beet Cocktail
Bridget Albert with Mary Barranco, Market-Fresh Mixology: Cocktails for Every Season

  • 2 oz spiced beet juice (see below)
  • 1 1/2 oz silver (blanco) tequila
  • 1/2 oz mezcal
  • 2/3 oz lemon juice
  • 1/3 oz simple syrup
  • 1 beet leaf, garnish

To mixing glass, add silver tequila, mezcal, cooled beet juice, lemon and simple syrup. Add ice to tin. Shake well. Strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with a beet leaf.

Spiced Beet CocktailSpiced Beet Juice
(makes about 2 ounces)

  • 1 beet (peeled and sliced)
  • Juice of 3 limes
  • 2 barspoons brown sugar
  • Pinch of ground ginger

To saute pan, add sliced beet, lime juice, sugar and ground ginger. Cover and simmer on medium heat for about 10 minutes, or until beets are tender. Stir occasionally. Remove beets. Let liquid cool.

Photo and recipe courtesy of Agate Publishing.


Warding Circle

Country of Origin: USA
Main Spirit: rye whiskey

rye whiskey, amaro, sherry, salt

Mike Ryan’s chocolatey broVo Amaro No. 14 is great for mixing, adding a rich depth and a layer of savory thyme. This Manhattan-ish drink will drive the last of the winter chills away.

For the rye, Ryan suggests using something 90 proof or above “with some backbone” like Wild Turkey 101 or Bulleit and for the sherry, he suggest Lustau. “Garnish,” he says, “with a roaring fire and a blanket and a view of a chilly mountainside.”

Learn more about the broVo Spirits Amaro project here.

broVo Amaro CocktailsWarding Circle
Mike Ryan, Sable, Chicago

1 1/2 oz rye
1/2 oz broVo Amaro No 14
3/4 oz pedro ximenez sherry
1 very small pinch of salt (kosher, not iodized)

Stir all ingredients together with ice and strain over a large chunk of ice, or serve up in a chilled cocktail coupe.


Bitter Giuseppe No. 16

Country of Origin: USA
Main Spirit: Amaro

Amaro, sweet vermouth, lemon, orange bitters

Stephen Cole – one of the forces behind The Barrelhouse Flat and Lone Wolf – originally constructed this curious drink using Cynar, an artichoke-based amaro with rich flavors of chocolate and light citrus. As one of his favorite amari, Cole authored his broVo Amaro No. 16 as an homage to it, but with unique additions such as sandlewood and oris root as well as a spicy peppercorn finish.

Using Amaro No. 16 in place of the Cynar changes the drink a bit, but both liqueurs are built to expand when mixed; those tight complex flavors gain a bit of space to spread out and shine.

Learn more about the broVo Spirits Amaro project here.

broVo Amaro CocktailsBitter Giuseppe No. 16

Adapted from a recipe by Stephen Cole, The Barrelhouse Flat and Lone Wolf, Chicago

-2 oz broVo Amaro No. 16
-1 oz Carpano Antica sweet vermouth
-1/4 oz fresh lemon juice
-6 dashes Regan’s Orange Bitters
-lemon peel, garnish

Stir ingredients with ice and strain into a rocks glass over fresh ice. Garnish with a lemon peel.


The Embittered

Country of Origin: USA
Main Spirit: Irish whiskey

Irish whiskey, lemon, simple syrup, Angostura bitters, wine

Irish whiskey can sometimes be so light and easy-drinking that it gets covered up and lost in a cocktail. But the more robust varieties – like those we recommend as our top picks – can stand-up well when mixed.

This highball from Hubbard Inn in Chicago is a play on the New York Sour, a classic traditionally made with full-bodied Scotch and a float of wine. Here, barman Jason Felsenthal swaps in Jameson Black Barrel for a sweeter, lighter base, but adds a few heavy dashes of Angostura bitters to make things snap.

When mixed, the drink should have a lovely two-tone effect… the dark wine and bitters creeping their tendrils into the lighter cocktail below. Stir to combine. Or not.

The EmbitteredThe Embittered
Jason Felsenthal, Hubbard Inn, Chicago

2 ounces Jameson Black Barrel Whiskey
1 ounce lemon juice
1 ounce simple syrup
1/2 ounce Malbec wine
2 dashes of Angostura Bitters

Combine the whiskey, lemon and simple syrup in a cocktail shaker with ice and shake until cold. Strain into a highball glass with fresh ice, then dash in the bitters. Carefully pour the wine over the back of a bar spoon held just above the drink so the wine floats on the surface, creating a nice two-tone effect.


North Shore Gimlet

Country of Origin: USA
Main Spirit: gin

gin, lime, lavender, Bittercube Door County Hops bitters

Nick Kosevich & Ira Koplowitz of Bittercube Bitters recently helped launched the cocktail program at Blue Jacket in Milwaukee, WI. On the debut menu is a lovely, light riff on the classic gin gimlet using Chicago’s own North Shore gin and Bittercube’s floral, bright limited edition Door County Hops bitters.

Blue Jacket makes this drink with Mighty Gin, a 110 proof powerhouse that’s available to restaurants and bars only, but you can substitute your favorite London dry to nearly equal effect. But if you want to really stay true to the name, swap in one of North Shore’s other two more available gins. Go with Distiller’s Gin No. 6 if you want to ramp up the citrus and floral notes or pick Distiller’s Gin No. 11 is you want to play up the juniper.


North Shore GimletNorth Shore Gimlet
Nick Kosevich & Ira Koplowitz, Bittercube

2 oz North Shore Distillery Mighty Gin
3/4 oz homemade lavender syrup*
3/4 oz fresh squeezed lime juice
14 drops Bittercube Door County Hops Bitters
thin slice of lime, garnish

Shake the ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Float a thin slice of lime on top as garnish.


*Homemade Lavender Syrup

1/2 teaspoon dried lavender
1 cup sugar
1 cup water

Combine sugar and water in a pot over medium heat and stir until just dissolved. Reduce heat to low and add the lavender, simmering for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool. Strain through a fine mesh strainer. Lavender syrup will keep for one week in a sealed container in the refrigerator, or you may add 1 oz vodka after you strain as a preservative to extend the shelf life.

Read more about Bittercube Bitters here. Image courtesy of Bittercube.


Rosehip Daisy

Country of Origin: USA
Main Spirit: tequila

tequila, lime, Koval Rosehip, Bittercube Jamaican #2 Bitters

The daisy category of drinks is one of the most fool-proof and easily riffed-upon styles. Combine a healthy slug of spirit with sugar, liqueur and citrus and it almost always works.

This cocktail is a play on the most familiar daisy of them all: the margarita. Instead of accenting the tequila with an orange liqueur, here Koval’s rosehip liqueur takes things in a more savory direction with hints of baking spice. This is further ramped up by topping with Bittercube’s Jamaican Bitters #2 which complement with grapefruit and hibiscus notes.


Rosehip Daisy
Nick Kosevich & Ira Koplowitz, Bittercube

1 1/2 oz tequila
3/4 oz lime
1/2 oz Koval Rosehip Liqueur
3/4 oz simple syrup
14 drops Bittercube Jamaican #2 Bitters

Shake and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

Read more about Bittercube Bitters here.


Enjoy the Silence

Country of Origin: USA
Main Spirit: Armangnac

Armangnac, peach, Bittercube blackstrap bitters, Bittercube Jamaican #2 bitters

Cognac is the world’s most famous brandy, and there are plenty of delicious options out there. But Amangnac – made a few regions away, but still in France – is actually a lot more fun. Whereas Cognac aims to be smooth, Armangac aims to be flavorful and robust. It’s a little funkier, a little earthier and a little livelier. But perhaps most importantly, it’s also a little cheaper.

This variation on a Sazerac cocktail plays up the funky notes with Bittercube’s Blackstrap and Jamaican #2 bitters, while bringing out the inherent fruit with the peach liqueur.

Enjoy the Silence CocktailEnjoy the Silence
Nick Kosevich & Ira Koplowitz, Bittercube

2 oz Armangnac
1/2 oz peach liqueur
1/4 oz simple syrup
11 drops Bittercube Blackstrap bitters
Bittercube Jamaican #2 bitters, rinse

Rinse a small, chilled rocks glass with Bittercube Jamaican #2 bitters and discard any excess. Stir the ingredients in a mixing glass with ice and strain into the prepared glass.

Read more about Bittercube Bitters here.


The Erudite Scholar

Country of Origin: USA
Main Spirit: vokda

Karlsson's vodka, vodka, vermouth, Cointreau, absinthe

The Erudite ScholarThis martini variation plays to old fashioned flavors. The orange liqueur and absinthe blend seemlessly with the complex blanco vermouth to provide a curious, yet enticing flourish to the viscous and rich Karlsson’s Gold vodka. And don’t skimp on the garnish! Expressing lemon oils over the drink really cements this one together.

The Erudite Scholar
David McCowan

2 oz Karlsson’s Gold vodka
3/4 oz blanco vermouth
1/4 oz Cointreau
1 tsp absinthe
lemon twist, garnish

In a chilled coupe glass, add the absinthe and rotate to coat the glass. Discard any excess. Stir the remaining ingredients over ice and strain into the rinsed coupe. Garnish with a lemon twist.

Learn more about Karlsson’s and get other cocktail ideas here.


Karlsson's Garden & Tonic

Country of Origin: USA
Main Spirit: Vodka

Karlsson's vodka, vodka, elderflower liqueur, maraschino liqueur, celery bitters, cucumber, mint, lime, mint, tonic

Garden & TonicThe Garden & Tonic was created as a gin and tonic variation that skewed savory. Potent celery bitters pop and compliment the other green flavors of cucumber, lime and mint. Here, I’ve swapped Karlsson’s Gold in for the gin since it is a particularly forceful vodka that can stand up to all the vegetation.

Karlsson’s Garden & Tonic
A variation of the “Garden & Tonic” from Wayne Collins and Naren Young

1 1/2 oz Karlsson’s Gold vodka
1/2 oz elderflower liqueur (such as St. Germain) or maraschino liqueur (such as Luxardo)
2 dash celery bitters
2 lime wedges
2 cucumber wheels
1 sprig mint, and 1 more for garnish
1 cucumber wheel dusted with ground black pepper, garnish

Build the drink over ice in a highball glass and top with tonic. Garnish with a cucumber wheel dusted with ground black pepper and a large sprig of mint.

Learn more about Karlsson’s and get other cocktail ideas here.