Whiskies of the World San Francisco Recap

Every year, Whiskies of the World happens around the country – stopping off at Austin, San Francisco, San Jose, Dallas, Houston, and Atlanta. The San Francisco festival is by far the priciest (general admission is $140, while VIP and Dram Club tickets run to $165 and $190 respectively). The VIP ticket gets access to more exclusive pours (which most reps kept to until the last 30 minutes of the show) and an hour earlier entrance. The Dram Club has a special Friday night event, which we have heard is quite fun: one year involved a blind tasting of 10 whiskies that then needed to be matched up to a list.

We were able to score a single VIP ticket (the Dram Club and VIP tickets sell out months before the event and there was only a lone VIP ticket when I looked) and ended up purchasing a general admission ticket as the other one. Our expectations for the event was honestly not that high – as many people have told us the event is not as good as WhiskyFest, due the selection (the pours are more basic) and the high attendance (around 1250).

We arrived at the dock along with a short line of other well-heeled people (dress code is meant to be upscale and explicitly no t-shirts or shorts are allowed). The line moved at a rapid clip to cross onto the docked yacht, while a man outfitted in a kilt blasted a welcoming serenade on his bagpipes near the entrance.

The San Francisco Belle – a three-level whisky experience
This does not capture how crowded it is in there.
Often, you are elbowing people to get to the front of the line. And openly glaring at the chatty imbiber who is distracting the representative from letting you taste.

Once onboard, you can check in your coat and are handed a tasting glass (not a glencairn) and a tote bag for carrying around the propaganda you collect. We spent the first 1.5 hours on the first floor, unaware that there was a second floor (with a dinner buffet spread; the first floor is limited to crackers and cheese only) and a third floor of more whiskies. Luckily, the first floor, though packed, was also where all the scotches were (third floor was heavily biased toward American whiskies).

With Hera (from the San Francisco Whisky Shop) – one of the most knowledgeable women about whiskies. She was pouring for Glenmorangie and Tamdhu that night.

Selections were indeed more limited. Laphroaig offered no Cairdeas options, but instead only four core range expressions: its 10 year, the Select (5 cask NAS), the Lore, and the Quarter Cask. At WhiskyFest, I vaguely recall Laphroaig offering 8 or so expressions. Our favorites of the night were the Boutique-y Whisky Company, the Ledaig/Deanston, and the Glendronach tables.

The favorite taste of the night: Ledaig 1996 in sherry. At only around $130 a bottle, definitely worth picking up.
A group of awesomely dressed attendees
With the always-impeccably dressed Kyle (not shown is his fabulous kilt beneath the chic suit jacket), who was scandalized that he did indeed see some attendees wearing t-shirts.

To prevent us from getting sick, we grabbed a plastic water cup and used it as an “infinity cup” for pouring out tastes. This worked out fantastically well, as it is the next day and I am hangover-free. Some attendees were making full use of the “dumping” pails located at each booth – and there were even some that were gargling and then spitting into the pails.

Dinner buffet on the second floor. Nothing exceptional, but not awful.
Dessert spread on second floor

Because we’re not major American whisky drinkers, the third floor was where we probably learned the most. For one, we finally got to try the “Glyph” whisky, which is a new San Francisco lab-based whisky advertising that it never sees the inside of a barrel. I had chanced upon a Forbes article about it and while curious, was never really curious enough to shell out the money to try what I could only assume was terrible whisky, so I was immensely happy to find they were at the festival and pouring out tasters so that I could satiate my curiosity.

Before I could try, however, the representative gave a long-winded and rather confusing explanation of the whisky. His overall message was that whisky tastes were scienced into their individual molecules and then built “molecule by molecule” (whatever that means). [follow-up research results: what they actually do is try to isolate the flavor compounds and then mix said esters/compounds/etc into booze; thus it is not really a “whisky” but a “whisky-flavored” vodka]. Verdict on the taste? Inoffensive but nothing I would purchase, even for its RRP of $35-40/bottle. It seemed to rely heavily on vanilla and caramel flavors, with some wood flavoring added.

Alcohol imbibing results in more pictures being taken

What we found we did enjoy was the Jefferson’s Reserve and the Belle Meade Bourbon tables. Belle Meade has been one of my favorite American whisky brands and we ended up taking a picture with its founder Charlie Nelson, after sampling the Madeira, cognac, and sherry cask finishes.

With Charlie Nelson of Belle Meade Bourbon
Another of the favorites of the 3rd floor – the Cabernet cask finish from Jefferson’s

Toward the end of the night, we wandered into the blind tasting seminar (these classes require a $5 deposit to ensure attendance, but because it was 8pm and most attendees were either too drunk to perform a blind tasting or wanted to get in one last lap – we were welcomed in). We participated briefly in the tasting, where participants were encouraged to yell out whatever flavor they perceived for glasses #1-6. There was also a sheet of paper for us to write down our guesses of which glass corresponded to: rye, older rye, bourbon, older bourbon, world whisky, etc. We tried – but ended up giving up because while the tastes were strong – they were all ubiquitously terrible. We left before the big reveal, but were pretty damn certain that #3 was Brenne whisky.

By this time, most of the tables were offering any passerby their VIP pours no matter what the color of their bands were. We grabbed a sip of the Spaniard from CompassBox – and then hurried off the boat at around 8.45pm to avoid the 9pm dash.

Summary: Is it as good as WhiskyFest? No. It is definitely more crowded (with more of the crowd skewing toward non whisky wonks) with a far less impressive selection. But tickets are half as much. Would we go again? Yes – and next year, I’m buying the Dram Club tickets.

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