Dram fans, get excited! WhiskyFest -- the leading whisk(e)y festival in North America -- returns to Washington, D.C. on April 17! Now in its third year in the District (and celebrating its 21st anniversary overall), WhiskyFest gives fans the chance to sample whiskies from around the world, including single and blended Scotch, Irish, Bourbon, rye, Tennessee, Japanese and Canadian, including craft-distilled expressions and cult favorites as well as high-end rums, Cognacs and other spirits. Seminars will be offered on topics ranging from Solera system Blade & Bow Bourbon uses at the iconic Stitzel-Weller Distillery to why Glenmorangie ages its single malt whisky in American oak.
We asked Jeffery Lindenmuth, executive editor of Whisky Advocate, what to expect that evening, and how to navigate the event:
How many whiskeys will be available to taste?
Many distillers are still adding to their lists, but we expect to offer over 250 whiskies.
It's impossible to taste everything, so what strategies do you have to get a good overview?
You're absolutely correct. First off, you want to download the WhiskyFest app which includes the pour list and a map of exhibitors. It's the best way to make a game plan before entering. I suggest creating a top 10 list and focusing on those for the first hour or two. Once those are checked off, you'll have a feeling of accomplishment and can then feel free to relax and roam the offerings.
Let's say you are a fan of a particular kind of whiskey (Bourbon, Scotch, rye, etc.). How should you approach the event?
Focusing on one style of whisky at a time is great strategy and a good way to compare similar whiskies. A VIP entrance will let you taste the very best of a single category, like George T. Stagg from Buffalo Trace or rare, old single malts like Bowmore 25 year old. VIP pours happen only for the first hour and these are often one-in-a-lifetime opportunities for the highly focused enthusiasts.
Are there certain categories you should start and/or end the evening with?
It's typically a good idea to progress from lighter flavors to bolder ones. That means you might start with softer Irish whiskies and blended Scotch before moving on to Japanese, American whiskeys and single malts. While big, smoky and peaty single malt Scotches are fan favorites, these can really overpower your palate and stick with you. So, if you plan on tasting widely, try to resist them until later in the evening if you can.
What tips do you have for tasting whiskey in general (swirling, neat vs. adding water, how to property sniff and taste, etc.)?
Each attendee receives a commemorative WhiskyFest Glencairn glass, which is the same glass the Whisky Advocate editors use for rating whiskies. It's designed so you can swirl the whisky to release more aromas, which are then concentrated at the narrow mouth of the glass. Take a sniff and enjoy a small sip at the bottle proof. Next, we will often add a few drops of water which interacts to release even more flavors and can help temper the heat of higher proof whiskies.
Here are some other tips and factoids for the whisky newbie:
Is it whisky or whiskey?
When it’s made in a country that has an “e” in its name (like the United States and Ireland), it’s spelled “whiskey” (plural: whiskeys); when it’s made in Scotland, Japan, Canada, India, etc. it’s spelled “whisky” (plural: whiskies). However, you will notice that some producers (including some American craft distilleries) give an homage to Scotch and spell it “whisky.”
Should I swirl and sniff the whisky as much as wine?
No. If you swirl a high proof spirit too much, the alcohol burn will go right up your nose. Gently swirl it, then take a few short sniffs--first over the glass and then over the part of the glass that’s furthest away from you. When you take a small sip, let it linger on your palate.
What can I do to stay focused, not fuzzy?
Don’t be embarrassed to spit the whisky--that’s what professional tasters and judges do. If you feel weird spitting it into the bucket that’s on the tasting table, bring your own (ideally opaque) spit cup, then pour it out as needed. Definitely stay hydrated throughout the evening by drinking water, and make sure to hit that buffet so you aren’t tasting on an empty stomach.
Do I need to rinse out my glass in-between tastes?
Usually, no. The only exceptions would be if you are going from a flavored whiskey (like cherry or honey) or a really heavily-peated Scotch or single malt (like Lindenmuth mentions above) to something that’s more delicate. Especially for the latter, those medicinal, smoky peated notes could overtake the next spirit. In that case, add a little water to your glass, swirl and either drink it or dump it out.
How can I keep track of the whiskies I’ve tried?
You can certainly use a pen and paper, but it might get a little unwieldy. The easiest way is to snap a photo of the bottle with your phone and use the voice recorder to capture some brief tasting notes and overall impression.
Tuesday, April 17, DC Marriott Marquis, VIP entrance time of 5:30 p.m., Grand Tasting from 6:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m., general admission $325, VIP admission $445. All tickets include a one-year subscription to Whisky Advocate Magazine, a commemorative crystal glass, an event program and pen, the latest copy of Whisky Advocate magazine, a gift bag, entrance to all seminars on a first-come, first-served basis, a gourmet buffet through the evening and whisky samples.