Blog: Whiskey Festival of NJ 2015
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The 2015 Whiskey Festival of New Jersey kicked off Thursday night at Taphaus, set against an unbelievably clear backdrop of the New York City skyline across the Hudson River in Jersey City. Amateurs and connoisseurs alike mingled with a crowd of bar owners and retailers, sampling whiskeys and other spirits from near and far. Traditional producers from Kentucky and Scotland were set up next to brave local newcomers from New York and New Jersey where the diverse group of samples and appreciators created a casual atmosphere with a healthy dose of whiskey education.
Larger producers like Jack Daniels and Johnnie Walker were on site with both popular selections and rarer bottles, displaying options for multiple tastes and budgets. While Johnnie Walker Blue Label was the predictable standout of the table, the Select Casks bottle showed a classic scotch taste with a clear influence of rye (also predictably as its label indicated a rye cask finish). At the Jack Daniels table, the Old Forester 1870 Original Batch was made to reflect the unique attributes of the referenced vintage, down to seasonal and atmospheric influences. A more refined take on its more popular brand, its tobacco and pie spice notes were present and balanced from the nose to the finish. Across the room, it was no surprise that the Macallan Rare Cask quickly disappeared, but generous pours of the Macallan Single Malt 21 Year Scotch kept the table’s crowd quite pleased. A splurge for most, it’s a refined, more balanced version that highlights the best of its 12 year old edition with added complexities that mellow the typical sherry sweetness of the brand. Our other favorite larger producer was Glenmorangie, running an unofficial tutorial on the distinct qualities of cask finishing. Offering 12 year old single malts in straight oak, sherry, or port cask finishes, they provided a delicious intro for newcomers and favorite options for those already familiar.
On the other end of the spectrum, the far from traditional Compass Box Scotch Whiskymaker showed the full potential of blending when one is not limited to what one’s already made, but can borrow from others. While following traditional rules, the Whiskymaker tastes over 1000 options a year before deciding on components and the associated aging methods. Displaying some of their blends that helped earn five Innovator of the Year awards from Whisky Magazine, Compass Box’s Signature Line was distinct and memorable with something for all tastes. Spice Tree meanwhile, showed off careful American and French Oak aging, while The Peat Monster was not as peaty as one might think, instead toeing the line of smoky earthiness that didn’t run over the gentler aspects of the drink. Their Great King Street Artist’s Blend is an affordable way to enjoy the small producer’s vision, but candidly, their Hedonism is where we’d spend our money. A sophisticated grain whisky, it could convert anyone who believes grain to be only a filler.
One of our favorite local producers, Widow Jane, was also set up nearby with both booze and chocolate, which automatically earns them some votes. Its neighbor and occasional collaborator in Red Hook, Brooklyn, Cacao Prieto provided dark chocolates replete with ingredients like coffee and see salt. After our brief chocolate palate cleanser, we first enjoyed their signature bourbon with caramel and vanilla on the nose and a mellowed out rye component despite its high content. Similarly gentle, their Rye Whiskey is a good introduction to rye for those hesitant to try it. Despite being aged only six months, its heat was balanced by fall spices, making it perfectly appropriate for concocting a distinctive and stiff ‘Manhattan.’ Speaking of ‘Manhattans,’ Angel’s Envy bourbon was poured neat on its own, on the rocks, and finally in a delightful ‘Manhattan,’ giving guests three different options to sample. From Kentucky (where else?), the bourbon is finished in a port cask, which lends more to the toasted, maple nose than sweetness on the palate. Recently completing an American oak tree planting drive, Angel’s Envy is committed not only to producing delicious bourbon but to the education and conservation of the spirit as well. Providing a delicious drink doesn’t hurt that cause, either.
On the sweeter side of things, we enjoyed William Wolf Pecan Bourbon, a dangerously sippable flavored bourbon that was as easy to imagine in an array of cocktails as on its own. If you’re scared of brown liquors, try this gateway drink. The producer plans to release unflavored versions later in the year. Just a few steps away, Cavalry Bourbon Whiskey did the recipe imagining for us, shaking their bourbon with elderflower liqueur and cranberry juice, instantly cuing up visions of a very happy Thanksgiving. The sweet and tart cranberry and floral elderflower mellowed out the bourbon while playing off its inherent sweetness. They happily pointed us to their website for other seasonal cocktails (and we happily visited).
Not to be totally outshined by the whisky offerings, other local producers showed off their tastings beyond the brown booze. Busted Barrel from Jersey Artisan Distilling, the first distillery in New Jersey to open up after prohibition and pave the way for others, served up light and dark rum. Cooperstown Distillery, open for only 14 months, poured a young bourbon that earned some street cred but will certainly benefit from their plans to open up an aging facility to further develop its flavor profiles. While it may be taboo to mention, their gin was one of our favorite sips of the night. Smooth and abundantly aromatic – think lavender, eucalyptus, with a distinct but not overbearing star anise finish – it was surprisingly expressive and refined for such a young brand.
The many diverse offerings at the Whiskey Festival of New Jersey were enough to please any whiskey snob and welcome all newcomers and casual drinkers. The evening showed the promise of new distilleries alongside the simultaneously reliable and innovative old favorites. With something for everyone (even rum drinkers), the presenters shared the passion that has made whisky part technique and part art form, beloved worldwide for its tradition and its ongoing imagination.
- Mallory Sullivan