I’m a decent fan of bourbon—an interest I picked up from my father. So Friday’s first annual Sarasota Whiskey Obsession Festival at Michael’s On East made for a great father-daughter outing.
The first thing Pa and I did was sample some Ardbeg, a Scotch that, the young woman at the table promised, was even Scotchier than all other Scotches. She also noted that, of the three varieties she had, one had notes of Tabasco, while another was exceptionally strong in “diesel.” My father seemed genuinely intrigued and impressed. A man of few words, he raised his eyebrows and half-smiled with a “…wow.”
That’s one way to kick off an evening.
All told, the event garnered about 450 attendees, sampling selections from big-name distilleries like Johnny Walker, Jim Beam and Crown Royal, to bold upstarts like Ardbeg and Fireball (?!), to higher-end labels like Buffalo Trace and Macallan. Representatives were eager to discuss the finer points of their offerings, explaining the origins of flavors and textures eked out of the distillation process. A woman at the Jameson booth sounded like she was auditioning for an all-Irish theater company; at the Laphroaig table, a man in a kilt with an easy Scottish brogue gave us raw barley to chew and held a lighter to a hunk of peat to explain Scotch’s distinct flavors. (By the way, the famed Scotch-making island Islay is pronounced with a long I and no S—“Ai-lay.”)
And speaking of vocabulary, I did a brief write-up about Macallan a few years ago, and the rep I worked with clarified for me: Scotch is “whisky.” All other varieties are “whiskey.”
I already knew that bourbon’s grain mixture had to be at least 51 percent corn, and that it has to be aged in brand new charred oak barrels. But I learned that bourbon can be made anywhere in the U.S.—not just Kentucky. One woman explained to us that Kentucky is simply known for its ideal bourbon-making environment; the temperature variances cause the barrels to swell and shrink, which helps extract flavor from the wood.
I already knew that bourbon makers sell their used barrels to Scotch distilleries, among others. (In fact, Sarasota’s Drum Circle Distilling sometimes uses Maker’s Mark barrels for its rum.) I never before considered, though, that these other whiskeys have to be aged longer in part because it takes longer to get flavors out of the used barrels.
I learned that Early Times was revoked its “bourbon” certification for reusing barrels. And that Four Roses maintained its distillery through prohibition by being authorized to sell bourbon “for medicinal purposes.”
We also sampled several Scotches as I tried to figure out that flavor that continues to baffle my sensibilities. (I’m not big on Scotch. Scotch-drinkers will tell you that good Scotch tastes like “a campfire.” I tend to think it tastes like licking a bog. But I’m working on educating myself.)
We heard a lot about peat, from where Scotch derives its unique flavor. While peat is not unique to Scotland—one vendor told us that Finland has an exceptional natural supply—Scotch, by rule, must be made in Scotland. (So the Finns just make bog-flavored whiskey.)
Bonus points to those booths offering pre-printed cards with tasting notes and other information. (And bonus points to Michael's On East and event organizers for putting a food table with meat and pasta offerings at the center of the room; this is not an event for empty stomachs.)
Overall, the Whiskey Obsession was incredibly educational, and we were amazed at the range of flavors presented there.
Still, when I saw my dad again yesterday, the first thing he said to me was, “I still can’t get the taste of that Scotch out of my mouth.” Point to you, Ardbeg.
For more from Hannah Wallace, read her Health and Fitness blog.