One hundred and four whiskey aficionados (and me) packed into The Francis last night for night two of Whiskey Obsession, the annual festival that culminates tonight with a massive blowout at Michael's on East. Last night's affair was less a party than an educational exercise, with a distinguished 10-person panel made up of whiskey experts, distillers and brand reps from around the world. The distillers and brand "ambassadors" each picked two whiskies apiece to showcase, offering one-third-of-an-ounce pours of each to the guests and discussing the history and philosophy behind the spirits.
Even knowing little about whiskey, I found the discussion fascinating. Every speaker's commitment to painstaking craftsmanship was evident, and attendees peppered the panel with educated questions. Here are five things I—a whiskey rube—learned about whiskey last night:
1. Wood matters.
A lot. Many of the panelists discussed the incredible changes whiskey undergoes depending on what kind of barrels are used and how they're prepared. Toasted? Charred? Storage matters, too, and even climate plays a role. Rob Dietrich of Stranahan's Distiller in Denver discussed how the city's high elevation leads to a high rate of evaporation. "The angels do like to drink," he explained.
2. Dynamite helps.
Philip Pepperdine of Beam Suntory told a story about Maker's Mark using dynamite to blow up a Kentucky hill in order to create space for cave-aging. That allows the distiller to age whiskies year-round when ordinarily only the wintertime will do.
3. You got to keep your palate sharp.
Gardner Dunn, also with Beam Suntory, presented a pair of excellent Japanese whiskies, products overseen by a distiller who has literally eaten the same food every single day for the past 29 years. Seriously. Rules for other staffers include no smoking and no garlic consumption during the week. All to make sure their palates stay clean and nimble. That's dedication, homes.
4. There are a lot of rules.
One theme that came up again and again was the conflict between respecting whiskey tradition and venturing into the unknown. Distillers are bound by trade association rules about how they name and label their products. Those rules prevent fraud, of course, but they can also stifle serious distillers' attempts to experiment with new blends and techniques.
5. Ummm... Errr... Something... something...
There was a fifth thing I learned, but I seem to have forgotten it. Did I mention we tried 16 different whiskies last night? Leave me alone.
Whiskey Obsession's climactic party begins at 7:30 p.m. tonight at Michael's on East, 1212 S. East Ave., Sarasota. VIP tickets have sold out. Only a few dozen general admission tickets remain. Click here for details.