Whiskies of the World 2011

There’s always fine pours to be had at the (12th) annual Whiskies of the World (a.k.a. WoW) — held March 26th — particularly from smaller distilleries. Bourbon, rye, scotch, Japanese and Irish whiskies all flow freely. As I said in my coverage last year when it was held at Hotel Nikko, the downside was tight, body-to-body crowds. This year, that was remedied in the still packed but ample space of the SF Belle.

Atop the SF Belle’s deck

Classes and panels are a highlight at WoW, though this year there was some confusion about where they were held since most were actually on a neighboring boat. But the riverboat setting with cigar pairings, smoking deck, Bushmills rousing pipe and drum band, and convivial spirit set it apart among whisky events.

1. Whiskies on a boat

A little bit Reno and a whole lot of Mississippi, Hornblower’s SF Belle evokes a classic riverboat with pleasingly dated kitsch in casino-reminiscent carpeting and gold brass. As our docked home for the 5-10:30pm event, climbing aboard for dinner and whiskies was transporting. The dispersion of buffet dinner on the bottom floor, spirits on second and third levels, and cigar bar on the top deck, allowed for proper flow and plenty of diversions. Though walking up and down steep steps on a gently rocking boat while whisk(e)y tasting could be hazardous (and was for some), it certainly was great exercise.

2. Small, craft distillers

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Bushmills Pipe & Drum Band

Whiskyfest may have more whiskies and all those special pours (like 30 and 40 year old scotches during VIP hour), but WoW showcases (alongside bigger names) smaller distillers that may not be able to afford a booth at Whiskyfest, like Corsair out of Nashville, or Bend Distillery in Bend, OR. This year I noticed newer Northern California distillers making white whisky or rye, like Petaluma-based Wylie Howell Spirits or Fog’s End near Salinas. Award-winners like Copper Fox from Virginia had unaged versions of their rye and single malt alongside the aged product. Distillers showcased latest releases of established product. As ever, I take pleasure in sipping the latest from local treasures like Old World Spirits (try their rye or brandy!), or returning to Prichard’s for delightful rum or double barrel bourbon.

Cigar bar on top deck

There were a few fine cocktails on hand during the event from the likes of the Bon Vivants and Rye on the Road. Jon Gasparini of Rye served his frothy, bright Royal Warrant with a peaty punch from Laphroaig 10yr scotch, balanced by Earl Grey syrup, lemon, egg whites, kumquat bitters and bergamot zest.

3. Cigars on the top deck

Here’s the magic you can’t get at any indoor drinking event in California: on the riverboat’s top deck was an open air cigar bar replete with stunning views of the water, Bay Bridge and city skyline. Sure, cigars ran out early (complimentary, thanks to Rocky Patel — though I fear some attendees did not play fair, as I saw guys walking by with six in their coat pocket). But some of us shared, reveling in the crisp night air and twinkling lights before heading back for more whisk(e)y tasting.