The annual Whiskies of the World Expo brings whiskey expertise to Austin.
By Malia Bradshaw, Photos by Moments to Remember Photography
Let’s face it: Whiskey is the true gentleman’s drink. The smokiness, the burn and the complexity of aromas all combine to create that unmistakable sensation of aged whiskey sliding down your throat.
This November, Austin welcomed whiskey connoisseurs from throughout the world at the Whiskies of the World Expo hosted at the Hyatt Regency. Hosted in San Francisco for the past 13 years, the event found an array of whiskey enthusiasts at its first appearance in Texas.
The night offered hundreds of whiskies to sample, including Scotch, Bourbon, American craft, malts and grains, whiskies from throughout the world and the chance to meet distillers and brand ambassadors. Whiskey master classes were offered throughout the evening, with topics including whiskey aromas, judging a good whiskey, the scientific art of the drink and maturation from barrel to finish.
Before the expo, founder, president and head distiller of Balcones Distillery, Chip Tate, sat down to talk everything whiskey. The distillery, located in Waco, was the inaugural recipient of the highly coveted Whisky Magazine’s 2012 Icons of Whisky award for craft distilling. It also produces the first legal Texas whiskey on the market since Prohibition, Baby Blue.
What makes Baby Blue unique is that it’s made from 100 percent roasted artisanal blue corn. On the palate, this corn whiskey evokes tropical fruits, brown sugar and cotton candy, with a finish of late cinnamon and leather spice, mint and green peppercorns.
But Baby Blue isn’t Bourbon, Tate stresses. Like a true Texan, Tate relates it all to meat.
“[Baby Blue and Bourbon] are like steak and barbecue,” he says. “I like both, but they’re very different: how you do them, what you make them from, the flavors you get.”
While Bourbon uses a corn that is pretty neutral, with the corn almost serving as the canvas on which to paint the Bourbon picture, the blue-corn whiskies of Balcones Distillery are exactly the opposite.
“We’re trying to do sort of a steak version,” Tate explains. “The meat is important in barbecue, but the dominant flavors are the smoke, the spice and the sauce. In steak, you salt it. You sear it on both sides. Don’t even ask for steak sauce. There’s a totally different goal there and it’s all about the meat. That’s what we’re trying to do with the corn. We’re trying to take the richest, most flavorful corn we can find, which is that roasted Hopi blue corn that we use, to make a corn whiskey that tastes like corn.”
Throughout the Texas Ballroom, bundles of people were gathered at small booths to sample glasses of different whiskey brands. Some were drinking it neat while others added a splash of fresh spring water. So how is a gentleman supposed to drink his whiskey?
“In truth, it’s however you enjoy it,” Tate says.
While people drinking blended whiskies mostly tend to drink it on the rocks, those drinking more expensive whiskies tend to like it simpler, either neat or with a little water.
Tate believes it’s not wrong to drink whiskey on the rocks, but when you add ice to whiskey, you’re really turning down the volume on the aromas, which he thinks is 90 percent of the point.
Tate offers his expert advice on how to detect aromas in whiskey:
- Don’t inhale a big, deep breath quickly. Instead, part your lips. This helps draw air through your nose slowly because some of it’s coming through your mouth. You want to inhale as slowly as you possibly can through your nose. You’ll be amazed how much more you get in the aroma. Otherwise, you just pretty much smell alcohol.
- Don’t slurp when you drink, like you might with wine. This can aerosolize the alcohol in your mouth. Anything that really arouses the alcohol out is going to diminish how much you can smell. The alcohol is just a vehicle for all the other components of the whiskey, so you don’t want to let that dominate.
- Swirl the whiskey in your glass. Swirling it can help to open it up and give the drink more surface area. When you coat the inside of your glass, it will evaporate out and give a better sense of the smell.
As the evening came to a close, the night skyline of downtown Austin towered over the still lake waters on the porch of the Hyatt. Oliva Cigar smoke circled the November air, mingling effortlessly with the sips of single-malt Scotch, low-light flames and boisterous conversation. The men dressed in elegant suits emanated sophistication as they alternated drags with whiskey.
Brad Jarvis of Old Malt Cask instructs readers to take a draw from the cigar. Then take a little taste of the Arran 13-year-old Scotch, put it in your mouth and let it wash over your tongue, allowing it to complement the cigar. The pairing brings out earthy tones in the cigar and sweetness in the whiskey.
A guest wondered whether he should pair a light cigar with a light Scotch. Not necessarily, Jarvis responds. Instead, it’s all about the contrast.
“I like contrasting flavors. I think they work better. It’s really great to do heavy with heavy and everything, but I would go with the Asian philosophy of contrasting,” Jarvis explains.
So how do you decide a great cigar-and-whiskey pairing?
“When you’re at home trying to pair cigars with Scotch, think about this: Think about things you like and things you think are going to work, and experiment,” Jarvis says. “It’s all about trial. You can always pour yourself another glass; you can always light another cigar.”
By the end of the night, the tasting cards were filled with whiskey samples from throughout the world, including Scottish, Irish, American, Texan, Canadian, Indian and Australian delights.
And you know Twain was right: Too much of good whiskey is barely enough.