Whiskyfest 2012, SF Craft Spirits Carnival, Navy Strength Rum

Tasting craft beers alongside (expensive) Scotch at Highland Park & The Beer Chicks fantastically fun seminar at WhiskyFest SF 2012 (photo: Daniel Stumpf)


photo source: Plymouth Gin website

Unforgettable: my journey to the south of England in the town of Plymouth and its legendary distillery with Master Distiller Sean Harrison. Possibly the most beautiful distillery I’ve yet visited, I relished drinking Plymouth Navy Strength ($34.99) while in the UK, a bracing version of their classic gin at 57% ABV/114 proof, the preferred gin of the British Royal Navy. Though still smooth like Plymouth gin, Navy Strength packs a greater botanical punch, enlivening cocktails.

The good news is it finally arrived to the US merely weeks ago in September so drink up. It radiates in a classic Pink Gin (2 parts Plymouth Navy Strength, 3-4 dashes of Angostura bitters, lemon twist to garnish), which I enjoyed in the hills above Plymouth made by Harrison using fresh drops of reservoir water from the reservoir we enjoyed tea alongside. 


The sassy, lovely Beer Chicks (photo: Daniel Stumpf)

This year’s WhiskyFest was another memorable one. The hilarious Martin Daraz of Highland Park and the uber cool Beer Chicks, Christina Perozzi and Hallie Beaune (their book, The Naked Brewer, just released), killed it with their laughter-packed seminar. There wasn’t enough room for all who wanted to attend their tasting pairing Highland Park whiskies, all the way up to the glorious 30 year (still a favorite every time I taste it) with well-chosen craft beers selected by the Beer Chicks – a number of pairings went shockingly well together. This seminar should definitely return next year, giving all those who missed it a chance to partake of the joys.

Get him a stand-up comedian gig already! Highland Park’s hilarious Brand Ambassador Martin Daraz (photo: Daniel Stumpf)

Digging further into the independent distillery line of BenRiach whiskies with international Brand Ambassador Stewart Buchanan was a highlight, whether the affordable steal of 10 year Curiositas, a robust, elegant 1995 Pedro Ximenez Cask #7165 (at cask strength, 52.3%) or the otherworldly, perfectly balanced 25 yr. The BenRiach line is a nuanced alternative to an Islay Scotch. Though peaty, these whiskies corner balance, letting the peat shine alongside other layers.

Photo source: Ben Krantz

On the American side, the standout was St. George’s 30th Anniversary XXX Single Malt Blend, a layered blend of whiskies from three generations of St. George distillers, Jörg Rupf, Lance Winters, Dave Smith. This new release (only 715 bottles) is a rare blend of whiskies: Winters’ first single malt distillation, his 1999 single malt aged in Rupf’s pear brandy barrels, a small portion of Lot 12 whiskey, and a whiskey distilled in 2007, aged in a port cask made of French oak. Pear notes shine in this bright whiskey as does ginger, butter, banana, hazelnut and orange peel.
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Another Scotch standout was Classic Malts’ Glen Spey 21 year, a limited edition whisky maintaining a lively profile in spite of age from bourbon casks with notes of coconut, caramel, toffee.


My favorite new taste at Spirits Carnival: Rhum J.M. Millesime 1997

Held this weekend in the massive Fort Mason, the first SF Craft Spirits Carnival was yet another opportunity for the consumer and industry to sample a wide range of international spirits. Though burlesque felt off in the middle of the vast space, acrobatics were more in line as we explored a US craft spirits-heavy selection with a good mix of Scotch, tequila, rum and the like from around the globe surrounded by gorgeous Bay and Golden Gate Bridge views.

While a number of my usual favorites were there (Highland Park, St. George, Old World Spirits, Charbay, Rhum Clement), there were quite a few new releases to taste. Charbay started importing beloved Tapatio tequila earlier this year, one of the best values out there for quality tequila, and at the Carnival, poured Tapatio’s just-imported Reposado and Anejo tequilas. Finally in the States, both are green, bright beauties thankfully allowing the agave to dominate over barrel wood.

Local distiller Don Pilar just released a refined Extra Anejo (aged a minimum of three years). Though I am typically not a big Extra Anejo – or sometimes even Anejo – fan when it masks agave properties with too much oak, Don Pilar manages complexity with agave liveliness.

Spirits tasting in a massive Fort Mason pavilion

Greenbar Collective’s (aka Modern Spirits) spiced rum ($30) from downtown Los Angeles could have been too sweet – as their fruit liqueurs were for me – but the spiced rum is subtle, nearly dry, aromatic with allspice, clove, cinnamon, vanilla, and orange zest, redolent of fall.

Michter’s from Kentucky (I’ve long appreciated their 10 year bourbon and their rye) poured their two brand new releases out this month, a decent Sour Mash (86.6%) aged over 4 years, mixable more than sippable, and a robust, cask strength (114.2%) 20 year single barrel bourbon, aged over 20 years with a definite rye spice, although they can’t disclose any information whatsoever on the grain make-up or distilling location.

Tapatio’s just imported Reposado & Anejo tequilas

The tasting highlight of the weekend belonged to Rhum Clément. Already a fan of their elegant rhum agricoles from Martinique, they just released a fresh, smoky 6 year old ($56), and a cinnamon, wood, vanilla-inflected 10 year old ($73), both aged in virgin and re-charred oak.

In addition, Rhum Cément Cuvee Homere is aged in French Limousin barriques and re-charred bourbon barrels, smooth with tastes of biscuits, almond butter, hazelnut, chocolate, black pepper, while the stately, pricey Clément XO Rhum, is a Cognac-reminiscent treat blending rhums from highly regarded vintages, like 1952, 1970, 1976, complex with fruitcake, toffee, tobacco, leather. My favorite ended up being a cask strength (though still reasonable under 100 proof) 10 year old Rhum J.M. Millesime 1997, unfolding with toasted nut, lemon, sage, passion fruit, white pepper, cinnamon.