Top 5 Whiskies at Whiskyfest SF 2016

It’s my 8th year attending Whiskyfest San Francisco (also held in Chicago and NYC annually) and like any other year, the event held many return sips of favorite whiskies (here are last year’s standouts), from Scotland, Japan, Ireland, Canada, India and the US, in the massive underground ballrooms of the SF Marriott Marquis. Of new releases this year, here were my top 5 standout whiskies:

1. Parker’s Heritage Collection 2016

Parker's Heritage 24yr
Parker’s Heritage 24yr

I miss the days when the great Heaven Hill distiller, Parker Beam, was leading Whiskyfest seminars, when I could chat with him — taking in that slow, Southern drawl — about his incredible Parker’s Heritage Collection, now in its tenth year, of limited, one-of-a-kind whiskey releases each year. His Golden Anniversary (five decade blend of bourbons released in 2009) was a game-changing whiskey for me, a brilliant revelation of the possibility and elegance in American whiskey.

Beam sadly has been suffering from ALS in recent years (Heritage whiskies raise money for ALS research and patient care) but the 2016 Parker’s Heritage edition, a 24-year-old, bottled-in-bond bourbon, still reflects his mastery. Produced in 1990 and 1991 at Heaven Hill Distillery, it’s got a lush richness from fatty acids since it is non-chill filtered and at 100 proof/50% ABV, with a nose and taste profile redolent of cinnamon, oak, chocolate earth and warm complexity.

2. Booker’s Rye ”Big Time Batch”

Starting out at a pricey $300 per bottle as it was released this summer (a number surely already going up), Booker’s Rye ”Big Time Batch” is a bracing beauty of a rye whiskey with a mashbill of 70% rye, aged for just over 13 years, uncut and unfiltered at a bracing 136 proof. Plenty of toasty oak is there, undergirded by subtle wintergreen, dark chocolate, baked apple, brown sugar. It’s a robust thrill of a whiskey for rye lovers, though already tough to find. I’m glad Whiskyfest allowed me to taste it.

3. Westland Garryana

Booker's Rye
Booker’s Rye

Just released this summer from Westland Distillery (a fascinating, focused whiskey distillery in Washington, which I’ve covered since it opened), Garryana is part of their native oak series, experimenting with garry oak, or quercus garryana, a species of white oak native to the Pacific Northwest. At 56.2% ABV (112.4 proof) and in a limited 2,500 bottle run, this American whiskey is fresh, bright, woody, with a whisper of cherries and smoke, layered with earthy chocolate. Westland continues to turn out Scotch-level, quality whiskies with the profile of the Pacific Northwest.

4. Paul John Indian Single Malts

After years of popularity with Indian whisky Amrut, it was a matter of time before more Indian whiskies where imported to the American market. Enter Paul John, from the coastal region of Goa, famed for its seafood, white sand beaches and tropical climate.

I was impressed with the initial line of Paul John, just imported through Domaine Select [Update: as of June 2019, Paul John moved to 375 Park Avenue Spirits as importer]. I especially was drawn to the fruity, spiced, malt balance of the Classic, and the smoky-sweet brininess of the Peated, both select casks and just over 55% ABV.

5. Bruichladdich Octomore 7.4 Virgin Oak AND 7.3 Islay Barley
Golden and peaty, the 7.3 Islay Barley Octomore is elegant and balanced as Bruichladdich whiskies have been more so in recent years — it’s peachy, butterscotch notes give way to Spanish wine and bourbon cask warmth. The 7.4 Virgin Oak Octomore is darker, more robust, with its unfolding layers of chocolate, orange, clove, coconut, smoky BBQ, even pine.

Paul John whiskies just imported from Goa, India
Paul John whiskies just imported from Goa, India