“And lo, Himself did bestow upon us the heavenly tome of whiskies, and it was good.”
This weekend started as few do: with a purchase of a ticket back in October 2007, setting my vacation date in stone. With work being as busy recently, and my travel up in the air (ha!) at times, preparation for the Whiskies of the World Exposition in San Francisco had been minimal at best. I packed my bag with my tickets, my tasting notebook, and my Whisky Bible, and headed to the airport.
This year was already going to be different from years prior; in this case we would be meeting a much larger number of 3DC in the city. That is to say, this year it would be substantially more people than Raz, Fergus, and me. All said, there were ten 3 Drunken Celts in attendance. The dynamic of the group would surely change…
Cross posted to www.3DrunkenCelts.com
Rather than run down a simple, chronologically based, recap of the weekend, I think I will wax philosophic for a moment here and see where that brings me…
Admittedly, I was a tad concerned that the dynamic I shared with Raz and Fergus the past two years would be torn and shredded with the inclusion of so many others. I was a bit worried that perhaps some of what we have come to cherish would not be attainable this time round. I will say right here and now, I was wrong. My concerns were unfounded and my worries never materialized.
This, I believe, was due to two specific reasons: 1. the three of us made a concerted effort to try and include as many people as possible into whatever we wanted to do, while still allowing for people to run around and do their own thing and 2. the complete lack of solid planning on our part allowed us to be ultimately flexible. If the past few years over the event weekend have taught us anything, it is that our plans will never work. We found early on that plans will always change when in the city, and if that happens, disappointment is soon to follow. With this in mind we quickly adopted an overall method to our madness: plans only include the items we have paid for already (ie. the tasting classes on Friday and the Grand tasting Saturday night), after that we only have ideas.
Case in point, on Saturday morning Raz, Fergus, Justin, and I made our way down to the Blue Mermaid for our traditional Irish Coffee, then off to Lark in the Morning to ogle all the beautiful musical instruments on sale. This backfired on us: the Irish coffees sucked out loud; a huge disappointment. Lark in the morning didn’t disappoint, however. After an absolutely superb Irish Coffee at Fiddler’s Green, we decided that our previous tradition MUST be augmented appropriately to become simply “Irish Coffees Saturday Morning” without specifying a distinct location; such giving us the freedom to go with the flow of the weekend.
The point of this is to say that the lack of planning makes the WOW weekends unforgettable. We have come to rely, a bit, on pure 3DC luck to push us into places we would have never been had we planned out the day, evening, or night. While this meant that we were unable to have the nice dinner at the Boulevard (which I was really looking forward to), it did mean that Mathias, Raz, James, and me were able to find ourselves at Nopa dining on duck and some of the best pork chops I have ever tasted. One of those happy stumbles which ended up taking me somewhere I never would have found myself otherwise. It also meant
I was able to finally introduce James to Sheep Dip, a whisky I have been talking about for years on end now…
But I digress. It was wonderful to see a group of 10+ friends (old and new) get together in such a fashion as to be able to go with the flow of the day/evening/night as the mood struck. Being able to do our own thing without causing hurt feelings was a great thing and allowed for everyone to get something entirely different out of the weekend, while still experiencing the weekend as a solid group and the Whiskies Tasting in pure 3DC fashion.
Friday morning, the electricity of anticipation filled the air as Raz and I made our way to “the Bank”.
There is something about those few hours as everyone arrives in town that makes the event so special. Part of it is the anticipation of what is to come, part is seeing old friends, and part is meeting new ones, but that doesn’t encompass the totality of the feelings either. The excitement and anxiousness here is more than just the sum of their parts; it is a sense of knowing that for the next 48 hours or so we will be packing in a year’s worth of reminiscing, drinking, learning, and just enjoying each other’s company which magnifies everything we do.
Before I go on, all the pictures within this post can be found at the 3DrunkenCelts.com site here:
The Friday class was exceptional. Justin, Fergus, Raz, myself, and James all attended John Glaser’s Masters Class on blending your own whiskies. The initial part of the class was academic in nature, allowing John the time to impart his philosophies and ideologies surrounding his blends.
Now, before I continue, I do need to come clean on this front and provide a bit of a disclaimer: I am personally biased in favour of John and his company, to a greater extent than the 3DC as a whole (though the 3DC are also biased in favour as well). John has become a friend of the 3 Drunken Celts over the course of the past 3 years, and I personally enjoy and agree with him and his philosophies. John and the 3DC seem to be a very good match when it comes to how we believe the world should be.
There, having said that, I was obviously very impressed with John’s presentation. This was a VERY hands on display of the black art of blending whiskies, in a very simplified form mind you. For the hands on portion, the basic concept here was a presentation of 3 of Compass Box’ blends to get an idea of the different flavour profiles John was looking for and how they came about. He went through a few different recipes and explained how each bottle accomplished his end goal. Once we experienced what John had created, we then tasted 5 cask strength drams which we would then use to make our own blends. After having tasted all 5, we were instructed to think of the “purpose” of the whisky we were to blend for ourselves… would it be an afternoon on the porch whisky, an evening dessert dram, a breakfast sipper, or an end of the night tuck you in bed night cap? Would it be for close friends to experience something dramatic, or something which would be a good introduction to the whisky world? (You can see where this is going I hope…)
With that, we were to build our recipes using anywhere from 2 to all 5 drams we just tasted. The basic recipe would total 100ml, so all we need do was raise a hand, let them know which number bottle we wanted and how much to pour (anywhere from 5-95ml) to begin blending our own.
This was a wonderful lesson for me. I sat and contemplated the dram I wanted to build… Hmmmm… I was going to make this one for ME; to build my perfect dram. A nice late afternoon sipper which I could enjoy on my porch in the late spring early summer; something light and mild with a hint of spice and sweetness to round it out. My recipe ended up looking something like this:
The chicken scrawls above translate as follows:
50ml of Dram #1: Cameron Bridge 12yr grain whisky, American Oak First Fill Barrel
tasting note: used in Asalya, vanilla, sweet, bubble-gummy
25ml of Dram #2: Teaninnich 11yr malt whisky, American Oak First Fill Barrel
tasting note: spice, mild iodine
10ml of Dram #3: Clynelish 12yr malt whisky, American Oak Refill Hogshead
tasting note: balanced smoke, more sweetness, light, floral
15ml of Dram #5: John’s Experimental Cask malt whisky, French Oak Secondary Maturation
tasting note: mild heather, cut grass, oddly light oak
(Unused in my recipe: Caol Ila 11yr malt whisky, American Oak refill hogshead
tasting note: very smoky, iodine, fatty, mild chocolate)
This totaled to 100ml and I combined them all into my bottle. A good slosh around for a bit to bring the liquids together, and time for a taste… did I hit the mark? Miss horribly? Did I have the artisan’s touch at first try, or is this a skill which will need to be honed over time? A sip later and I had my answer: it was good, but I missed my mark by a mile. My dram was far too smoky for my palate and had a serious fire at the end. And that’s where things got fun!
After I tasted mine, everyone else began to complete their creations and the bottles started flying around the table as we all tasted what each other had devised as we listened to the “intent” of each being described.
In my recollection, the hands down winner of this unintentional test of skill was James, who was able to create a dram which matched his intention to perfection. His idea you ask? Well, let me try and paraphrase: a nightcap dram to slide you into home at the end of a night of partying out on the town. And he nailed it. His recipe you ask? But of course I stole it:
20ml of Dram #1: Cameron Bridge 12yr grain whisky, American Oak First Fill Barrel
45ml of Dram #2: Teaninnich 11yr malt whisky, American Oak First Fill Barrel
35ml of Dram #5: John’s Experimental Cask malt whisky, French Oak Secondary Maturation
The downside to this is of course, unless you can get your hands on John’s experimental cask, the dram James created is lost forever. Only 5 of us were able to enjoy it, and minimally at that. If you weren’t there, you will never know the pure sexiness of it all. And it was damn sexy!
By the end of the class, I felt like I had been instilled with enough confidence to try my hand at blending more. The concepts are fairly simple. The true artisanship comes from the ability to marry the right whiskies with each other in the right barrels for the right length of time. Of course, as John showed us, you don’t NEED a barrel to do this at home and still find success! Just a few bottles and you can start building your own recipes. After this hands on demonstration, not only do I have some mild confidence in myself, but I also have a deeper appreciation for what John does and how he does it. His blends are spectacular because of his vision and talent to marry it all just right. Well done lad!
After the tasting class, the group reconvened in the hotel bar and began to discuss the next course of action. We were uncommitted to anything for the next 22 hours, and that my friends is a dangerous situation to be in with this group of lads and lasses. Of course, being in the hotel bar meant MORE DRINKS, so I opted to cleanse my palate with the only thing I could thing of at the time; The Balvenie 21yr Portwood…
Yum. Always a pleaser…
I’ll spare you all the detail of the next few hours. Suffice to say we found an odd little bar on our way to the Bank which turned out to be a hipster bar with a hair salon in the back. A beer and wine bar to boot. We managed to swig down our beers and grab a slice of presumably free happy-hour pizza and then got the hell outta there.
That place was NOT what this group had in mind. Lesson learned at this stop: Don’t let Sean call the shots when he hasn’t had a drink; that boy will stop -anywhere- when he’s thirsty! Luckily, we managed to make it back to the Bank in short order and settled down for some more drinks and to figure out dinner.
We finished the night out at the Bank (though ‘we’ here is a misrepresentation since James and I skipped off for sushi next door, then ended up at Lucky 13 and then a club I can’t recall the name of before heading back to the Bank to call it a night.)
Saturday morning saw us on our typical quest for Irish Coffees at the Blue Mermaid, a quest which failed miserably as I had noted above. Luckily Fillder’s Green was able to save the day, and the tradition.
Even the Buena Vista couldn’t beat the Fiddler’s Green Irish Coffee. The rest of Saturday was spent bar hopping with Sean and Mathias until Raz, Fergus, Justin, and I retreated back to the hotel to dress for dinner and the grand tasting.
We met back up at Kennedy’s, an Irish pub with an attached Indian restaurant, at 3pm for dinner. Ah, perfection! While this went against one of my recommendations to James, curry before the tasting is such a nice tradition; just be sure to cleanse the palate afterwards! One of the keys to surviving the Grand Tasting is to lay a good solid base of food before imbibing. A quick stop at the liquour store for some Red Bulls, and we were primed for the festivities at 5!
The Grand Tasting this year was back on the San Francisco Belle paddle boat (a Hornblower run operation) which by my estimation is the best place for the tasting to be held. Last year’s Palace Hotel ballrooms just didn’t have the same feel, so we were very glad to hear that Rhiannon (the event’s organizer) had moved it back.
The VIP entrance time was 5pm, so we decided to queue up around 4:30pm to play it safe. While there really isn’t any rush to be the first on board, it is nice to be counted in the first few as you have a better opportunity to enjoy that perfect first dram of the night. Once on board, we checked in and picked up our K&L Wine Merchant swag bags. These bags, while not the loveliest of accessories for the evening, do the job of containing all the literature and swag handed out during the course of the evening. In addition to the bag, the VIP and Dram club Members all received their own tulip tasting glass. (The rest of the plebeian masses simply had to make do with normal convention grade red wine glasses.) This is one of the few cases where I will whole-heartedly agree that the shape of the glass makes a huge difference in your ability to properly nose. Red wine glasses simply don’t allow the vapours to focus, and as such the more subtle characteristics can be lost to the wind more readily.
This isn’t to say you HAVE to have a tulip glass, just that they do indeed make a noticeable difference.
Sit back for a moment while I take you on a short pictorial tour of the evening…
Here, you can see Justin noting the different vendors on the booth sheet and the two tulip glasses on the table, empty, but not for long:
James and Fergus contemplate the next dram of the as yet still early evening:
As in year’s past, there was also a cigar tasting, intended to complement the whiskies on display. I picked up a cigar early in the evening before they ran out, but was sure to partake later so as not to completely ruin my palate for the whole night:
Partway through the evening, Raz walked his video camera from one end of the lower deck to the other end of the upper deck. I think this short 2 minute video gives you a good feel of what the event is like in terms of noise and the ability to move around a boat whilst drinking whiskies from over 50 different vendor booths:
At 8pm, the Bushmills Pipe and Drum tattoo performed on the upper deck:
This year saw a huge 3DC turnout. A total of ten 3 Drunken Celt members made it to the tasting and finally realized what they have been missing out on. This picture brings a smile to my face every time I see it now; truly whiskies bring people together and build lasting friendships:
And of course the founding fathers pose for the same picture as 3 years prior:
This one I just need to post because it is my favourite picture of the weekend. It isn’t often we dress the part, but when we do, damn it I want a picture of it:
John Glaser, the Owner and Master Blender of Compass Box Whiskies fame enjoyed giving Fergus his goodnight kiss. I think this picture highlights two points… one, that John “gets” us as the 3DC, and two, that the weekend was way too much fun:
Lastly, walking away from the boat at the end of the evening… either the photo is blurry, or I was when I took it, I’ll let you decide:
Now that you have a sense of the Grand Tasting experience, you will understand if my tasting notes on the drams I had that evening may be a bit lacking. It is difficult to articulate the inherent problems with trying to enter tasting data into a notebook while conversing with the vendor rep and trying to not stand in the way of others wishing to partake. Often times I would simply have a dram poured for me, then go stand in the middle of an open area to fill out my notes, which comes with its own awkward balancing act when weighed down with a swag bag, a glass, ad notebook. With that said, following are my notes on all of the NEW drams I tasted, which is to say if I had it previously, I didn’t bother marking it down. Additionally, I failed to mark down 3 drams at the end of the night from Eades Whisky Double Malts… but I will get to them in a moment:
— Singleton 12yr.: This is a new boy to the market, expected to release in June around the $40 price point. It nosed very light, and I noted it was not distinct. The palate had a rich sweetness with only a mild hint of smoke. It finished with some small iodine, medium smoke, and finally a hit of oak right at the end. In my extraneous notes I marked that it was decent, but not challenging. I rated the viscosity at a 4.5, boldness rated at a 2, length of story also a 2, and a personal taste mark of a C+. This would be a good “introductory” dram for someone who is interested in learning about the world of Single Malt Whiskies.
— Glenrothes 1975 vintage: Another new release to the market rumoured to range in the $450 price point. My notes indicate it nosed with some astringent but light melon. The palate hit a rich buttery note with a solid backbone. And it finished with a light oak that was very short but amazingly clean. No splinter sucking here. Viscosity rated at 4. Boldness also rated a 4. Length of story rated a 3. And my personal taste set it at a B+. My extraneous notes simply indicate that it “finishes VERY well”. All said, I believe the consensus on this one was that it sat as the best dram of the night, regardless of being the most expensive as well.
— Glenrothes 1987 vintage: nosed of sweet spice with a heavy (possibly French) oak on the palate. It finished with a solid oak into a nice charred cereal. The viscosity barely made the charts at 2 whereas the boldness hit a solid 3 mark. Length of story got a solid 3 as well, and my personal taste rated it a B+. My extraneous notes, however, caveat that B+ mark: Good when in the mood for OAK, which apparently I was.
— Knappogue Castle 1995 vintage: A standard release from Knappogue to replace the dwindling stocks of the 1994, which was an outstanding release. The 1995 nosed with a sweet and light tangerine. The palate seemed to be a bit watery with a heavy malt/cereal, and it finished with a hard hitting but short cereal again. The viscosity also rated a 4, with boldness at a paltry 2. The length of story also scored a 2 in my book, with the personal taste at a C+. In my experience, the 1995 is a dram which could be decent, if you don’t know what the 1994 was like. With the expectation of the 1994, however, you will be left wanting something better after the 1995.
— Glen Morangie Quinta Ruban 12yr. portwood finish: I have minimal notes on this one, which means my palate was starting to go seriously downhill by the time I got to the dram. I noted in my book that I couldn’t place the nose, so I won’t even attempt to make something up here. The palate was simply: spice, iodine, smoke, and oak, in that order. For the finish, I simply have one word noted: Harsh. Viscosity was rated a 2; boldness a 3; length of story a 3; and personal tasted a solid C. This one didn’t seem to sit well with whatever I had tasted before it apparently. I may need to revisit to clarify my notes with a clear palate.
— Eades Double malt: This was my last booth of the night and I have no notes on the 3 dram flight they poured for me. What I do have is a simple notebook entry which reads: Must Revisit. I recall enjoying the drams, but realizing how screwed up my palate was when I failed to taste smoke in one of their offerings which -everyone- commented on the smokiness of. That cigar I had earlier really tore up my ability to properly taste. I say I must revisit this company because as I was chatting with the vendor rep, he let fly that Eades collaborated with Jim McEwan of Bruichladdich fame, a team of distillers whom Raz, Fergus, and I admire and enjoy their outlook on the whiskies world. With that in mind, a bit of research is needed here and some bottles must be purchased to come back to these three drams, as I recall they were good, I just can’t recall why!
The culprit for tainting my palate and forgetting the last 3 drams:
Now, you’d think that would bring me to the end of the evening, but it doesn’t. As I noted towards the beginning, when you most likely weren’t paying attention, four of us ended up at Nopa for dinner where two of us enjoyed some wine and finished the night off with a dram of Sheep Dip. Still, and even at the end of such a hedonistic night, Sheep Deep stands proud and resilient. A fabulous dram indeed.
Now, while the four of us masticated on our dinner, apparently John Glaser showed up at the Irish Bank for a Guinness at the end of the night. It seems he was treated to some song and more liquor by various 3DC members (ahem, Syele, Fergus….) and left mere minutes before Raz, Mathias, James, and I made it back. Oh well, there is always next year, right?
Sunday morning came much too quickly. Not because we were all hung over, but rather because we all simply had too much fun and were not ready for it all to end. Unfortunately, Sean, Justin, and Mathias all had flights out relatively early, so Raz, Fergus, and I ended up over at James’ place to grab a bite of breakfast and tour the city. Raz made it out later in the afternoon, and James had to do some work, so Fergus and I were left to our own devices. Luckily Yan and his girlfriend were still in town and had invited us out for Mexican food in Berkeley. Ah, such a way to end a perfect weekend! I was pleasantly surprised to find that we were invited out to Fonda Solana in Albany (just outside Berkeley). This was not your run of the mill “el Torito” style Mexican. This is a place with some serious attention to food, and drinks. They make a spectacular Mojito, and the food truly is to die for. Having moved to Portland about a year ago, finding good Mexican food is about as tough as finding someone who speaks English in Santa Ana! Dinner at Fonda was one of the highlights of the trip. Another testament to friends (old and new) and the single reason why we don’t plan anything! We would never have found ourselves at Fonda had Fergus and I tried to plan anything.
By the time we were finished with dinner, Yan and Deb had to head back to the city, while Fergus and I were on the decline… So we headed back to Fergus’ apartment where I crashed for the night. The next morning was a quiet one as I prepped to go home. Thankfully I had a bit of time to simply relax and mull over the weekend to process it and take it all in before I had to delve headlong back into work.
It was during this time which I realized how much the trip had taught me this year. I finally was able to completely let go of trying to plan everything out and just went with the flow of things. Let me tell you, letting that go was a hard thing for me to do. I am very much a planner and worrier. But not this time. Having found success, it should be much easier for me to accept next time around.
I also learned that blends are not to be judged on blending alone. This is to say that I previously tended to look down on blends, no matter how much I talked the other side of it all. There is a serious art to blending; or perhaps a black science is a better way to say it. While I found that blending is fun, I also found that perfection is not an easy thing to come by with blends. Nevermore shall I discount a whisky simply based on the fact that it is a blend (which isn’t something I’d normally do, but the fact that it was a blend would taint my overall first impression). I have a serious respect now for any person who attempts the task of blending whiskies, for their own consumption or to bring it to market as a consumer product. I respected John before…. now I am in awe.
Lastly, Saturday morning doesn’t have to hurt if you do things right. Yes, I had a lot to drink Friday night, but I watched myself and was able to get going Saturday without any outside assistance (like coffee, redbull, etc.). Mind you this wasn’t a huge awakening, but rather just a personal goal to not let last year’s Saturday morning happen again. And it can be done.
This year saw the birth of a new era for the 3 Drunken Celts. There are some amazing things coming down the pipe in the industry over the next few years and I can’t wait to be involved, on the fringe admittedly, with it. At the very least, being an active consumer if not participant, will provide the opportunity to enjoy some seriously good drams!