A taste of the best from Whiskies of the World in San Francisco

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Hibernia interior photo credit M.T. Eley

When you get an email asking if you could use two VIP tickets for that evening’s Whiskies of the World in San Francisco, you clear the schedule. After all, it’s not often you have a chance to get fettled up and spend a whiskey-filled evening at the tony Hibernia Building, one of San Francisco’s gilded and marbled old banking beauties.

And “WoW” (as harried attendees call the traveling event) indeed. Forty-two vendors, give or take, each often bringing three, four or more bottles, make for a dizzying pour list, and tempura-battered chicken and wagyu beef sliders can only help so much. I enlisted my wife along for a second liver and opinion, but there’s a lot of spitting involved in a WoW evening if you want to make it past table three. “Expect to expectorate” I say.

A Resurgence in Rye

What’s happening in the world of whiskey? The single biggest tasting note of the evening was: ryes. Ryes are in resurgence and I walked away from the evening under the impression that everybody’s got to have one. I smell an IPA-style arms race brewing and am certain corporate distilling science will bring us a rye with a 200% rye mash bill in the near future.

After ten tables, even with careful spitting, the whiskeys begin to blur together except for those for which you took notes that instant. A few highlights, by no means exhaustive:

Green River Owensboro, KY

“The whiskey without regrets” is a bold gamble of a tagline, especially when your whiskey is as indulge-able as Green River’s wheated straight bourbon. Breakfast notes aplenty in this 70% corn, 21% Kentucky wheat and 9% malted barley mashbill. Buckwheat pancakes, hints of apricot and dark amber honey in this pleasant first pour of the evening.

Savage & Cooke Vallejo, CA

Despite droughts and heat waves, the west coast whiskey scene is having an excellent time of it, as I’ve written before. A renewed focus on grains with an hour’s drive from the distillery marries environmental common sense with a fantastic terroir that brings you outside the Ohio River Valley and Kansas corn fields. Savage & Cooke are doing their part to further the cause.

Their bourbon whiskey is a rich, buttery pour that showcases the 75% corn mashbill. Here too was the first rye of my evening, Savage & Cooke’s cask-finished rye with a modest 51% rye mashbill. I prefer these to the 100% rye bill heavyweights; 51%, precisely enough to be considered a “rye,” also lets that peppery sweetness of the grain come through, unlike 100% ryes which tend to be like sipping from an in-use cannon.

Uncle Nearest Shelbyville, TN

Everyone knows Uncle Nearest, in contrast to a few decades ago. The brand, inspired by the master distiller and former slave who taught a young Jack Daniels much of what he knew, is the subject of far better writing (check out this “Behind the Booze” of founder Fawn Weaver) than there’s space for here.

There was a rumor circulating at the hors d’œuvres line that Uncle Nearest brought a bottle of an unlisted single barrel whiskey for tasting; hoping for some avuncular kindness, we asked about it. Alas, whiskey drinkers chase down rumors like bloodhounds and they were out. We settled, if it can be called that, for their classic 1856 premium whiskey. Smooth and fully enjoying the sweet crispness from the famed “Lincoln County process” of filtration through sugar maple charcoal, 1856 always strikes me as what Jack Daniels’ “Gentleman Jack” aspires to be. History has a funny way of turning things around. Read about the Uncle Nearest and Jack Daniels partnership to advance diversity and an interview with Uncle Nearest CEO Dawn Weaver.

Taking a break to revive ourselves with appetizers, we ran into Cheese Professor contributor and San Francisco doyenne Ruth Carlson in one of her signature hats. “They’ll let anyone in here” was mercifully unsaid, although with my attendance it was true.

Westward Portland, OR

Westward has mastered that sort of Patagonia goes-well-with-camping marketing that makes one think you should bring a bottle next time you’re up in the hills, but in their case it’s more than a gimmick. Their flagship single malt “Original” has no general age statement and probably doesn’t need one: at first sip, there’s a conifer-scented, forest-floor, wet-branches herbaceousness that puts you in the mood to pitch a camp on the Pacific coast and read John Muir all evening. Less literally, it struck me as a result of their “Brew like a craft beer” approach to the first part of the whiskey life cycle. It’s shy of being botanical but distinct: maybe the whiskey pulls it in from the air during those wet winters.

Widow Jane Brooklyn, NY

Right next to Westward was thoroughly eastward distiller Widow Jane, named after the former mine in New York which now provides its limestone-filtered proofing water.

At this point, most everyone had had several lovely drinks, and strong opinions on the importance of water in whiskey arose from the folks in front of us (the sort of thing that will divide a room of whiskey fans). Does it make a difference, as much as age? Said the Widow Jane rep with feeling: “You can do something s***tily for fifteen years or you can do something well for ten. It’s not all age.” I’m inclined to agree.

For some reason, we skipped straight to the rye, maybe as a test to see how mellowing and balancing Widow Jane water can be. And so it was: the Widow Jane Paradigm rye, far from rattling the senses, was straight cinnamon and allspice, pleasant to sip and probably more pleasant to mix with apple cider. Speaking of which, Widow Jane offers an applewood-aged rye whiskey, and this does the balancing act for you, mellowing out the cinnamon with soft, baked apple flavors.

Laws Whiskey Denver, CO

A confession (and it’s not the whiskey talking): early in 2021, Laws sent me a lovely sample bottle of their bottled-in-bond four-grain whiskey, I enjoyed it, and then promptly forgot to tell anyone about it. The one thing that stuck out was how gently herby this high-altitude-grain whiskey was, to the point that I wrote “lavender” and underlined it my unused notes.

Little has changed except my punctuality in turning in articles; Laws still produces one of the most well-rounded whiskeys I’ve encountered in its Four Grain Straight Bourbon, with that distinct lavender note again, drawing on a 60% corn, 20% wheat, 10% rye and 10% barley mash bill. Of all the whiskeys enjoyed that evening, this is the one I’d stock the cabinet with for regular enjoyment. Read more about Laws Whiskey House.

Honorable mentions

One is always tempted to say the evening ended too soon, but in this case, it did; I still had a handful of tables on my list of must-visits when the MC announced that the evening was coming to a close. Tired vendors packed up with that haste unique to people who have watched many other folks have a drink and would like one themselves in the shoes-off comfort of their hotel rooms. I made a beeline for Breckenridge Distillery, whose bourbon whiskey calls to mind the vanilla and Dr. Pepper flavors of their now-sister company Breckenridge Brewing’s famed vanilla porter. After that, Doc Swinson’s, who kindly stopped mid-packing to pour me a dram of this peanut butter-brittle treat. I wish I could have tried it at the outset of the evening when my tongue wasn’t seeing (or tasting?) stars.

Contrary to what my experience suggests, there was indeed an international contingent present: Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Japan all made good showings, alongside a Swiss operation whose owner possessed strong opinions on the differences between the streets of Zürich and those of San Francisco which are coincidentally sister cities (my retort: cleaner, yes, but no cable cars).

Alas, to go around the world of whiskies requires something closer to eighty days than three hours. But it’s a great deal of fun to try.

This article originally appeared on AlcoholProfessor and was syndicated by MediaFeed.

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Constance Brinkley-Badgett

Constance Brinkley-Badgett is MediaFeed’s executive editor. She has more than 20 years of experience in digital, broadcast and print journalism, as well as several years of agency experience in content marketing. She has served as a digital producer at NBC Nightly News, Senior Producer at CNBC, Managing Editor at ICF Next, and as a tax reporter at Bloomberg BNA.