Every year I look forward to Whiskies of the World (WoW) on the San Francisco Belle docked in the Bay, held this year on March 29. Although it is one of the big whisk(e)y events in the country (also in San Jose, Atlanta and Austin), it remains more intimate than others; packed, yes, but more like a big party than a corporate hotel space, with this year’s pour list for SF 9 pages deep.
Only-at-WoW-highlights include the rousing Bushmills Pipe & Drum Band walking through the festivities and the boat’s rooftop deck (with inspiring SF and Bay Bridge views) that doubles as a cigar lounge. Yes, one of the huge benefits of WoW over any other large whisk(e)y tasting event is the ability to smoke cigars, given away at the annual cigar and whiskies pairing class held on the deck.
Taste highlights are many, from bourbons and ryes to Japanese whisky and Scotch. I make a beeline for the few I haven’t tried so there are many “bests” I’ve tasted numerous times over the years, but for the sake of a few I have not shared with you before, I call out these three (I also loved Speyburn 25 year Scotch and High West’s limited edition Midwinter Night’s Dram):
LOST SPIRITS UMAMI from MONTEREY, CA
Lost Spirits makes some of the most unique spirits anywhere, including their ever-fascinating, experimental whiskies. I’m already nuts about their unique overproof room, which I told you about here. One thing I love about WoW is that small producers like this – in this case, a little operation in Monterey, CA – can be exposed at a large whisk(e)y event (they tend to be priced out of other such events). Pouring both their Leviathan whiskies at WoW, as well as the rum, it is their now already sold-out Umami Single Malt that blew my mind. I’ve never heard of any one doing anything like it.
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Distiller Bryan Davis uses Canadian peat and locally-sourced barley in this whiskey … and salt water from the mighty Pacific ocean which he ferments with the whiskey, then ages in Oloroso sherry-seasoned French oak barrels. While this level of experimentation could easily go too far, Davis’ precise, scientific knowledge keeps it in balance. The result with Umami is a briny, salty (but not excessively so), smoky and robust whiskey. I can’t wait to see what he’ll do next.
KAVALAN SINGLE MALT from TAIWAN
Kavalan is the first whisky out of Taiwan, which can have a hotter, muggier climate than other famed whisk(e)y territories like Scotland, Ireland and Japan. But akin to Kentucky, the heat and moisture ensures a faster maturity and unique flavor profiles to the whiskies. I’ve tasted through the line three times, including at Whiskyfest 2013 last fall and this year’s WoW, as well as a recent dinner with Master Blender Ian Chang out visiting from Taiwan.
Because of the sweet vs. the dry aspects (I prefer a bit of the latter), I sometimes can be drawn to bourbon cask-aged Scotch more often then sherry cask (not counting the meaty spice of my beloved Mortlach 16 year Scotch). So it surprises me to find that my favorite of the Kavalan line is the Solist Single Cask Strength Sherry Cask ($117). I am a big fan of cask strength whiskies so that part adds up. Roughly 7 years of age, this whisky is fascinating, funky-but-elegant, nutty with spice and a long, uber dry finish.
Out of their seven whiskies, my other favorite is the utterly elegant, rare Kavalan Fino, also cask strength and going for roughly $450 per bottle. It is matured in fino sherry butts with no chill filtration, has already won numerous awards and is dry yet graced with subtle chocolate and citrus notes.
BALBLAIR 1969 from SCOTLAND
Since my travels in the Scottish Highlands, I fell in love with Balblair, particularly their younger 2000 and 2001 whiskies. I wrote about their 1975 Scotch from Whiskyfest 2013, but I love their 1969 even more. This rare, non chill-filtered treasure sells for 1300 pounds in the UK so it’s far beyond my reach, but thankfully WoW provided the opportunity to breathe in its complex spice, pear and toffee aromas, and to taste its layers banana, green apple, with whispers of smoke and toffee. A stunner.