From the balcony of the Broadway ballroom at the Marriott Marquis Hotel, surveying the dozens of whiskey purveyors assembling tasting tables for Malt Advocates 11th annual New York WhiskeyFest, things resembled any other trade show. There was eye-filling signage and, given the type of product soon to be consumed by several hundred people, a phalanx of dont-mess-with-us security types lolling about. Plus there were fashion statements to drink innot from the suited men, who outnumbered the women five to one, but the women, some gussied in corporate uniforms, some glossy-faced in glamour garb. Everyonefrom distillery reps picking up awards from Malt Advocate editor/publisher John Hanswell to the peat-obsessed press corps milling aroundwas patiently waiting the moment when the tables could be swarmed and the tasting could begin.
I was also waiting for my friend, who was turning 40 on this day. Hes attended WhiskeyFest for the last three years, and no one can hold forth on the nuances of whiskey and bourbon like he can. I was ready to be schooled, led through my lessons, to be my newly middle-aged friends willing, swilling guinea pig.
Bulleit Bourbon: hearty, heathenish, heavenlya stretch of lonesome brush falling heels over head in lust with a forest fire. And Hollis Bulleit, the sweetly pixie-ish great-great-great-great granddaughter of Augustus Bulleit, who founded the company 175 years ago and devised the rye, corn and barley blend recipe, charmed us. We tried the Balvenie, but first we had to prove we knew how to pronounce the name correctlyyou stress the second syllable. It is baby-bottom smooth, with an in-the-womb kick.
Colorado Whiskey is a Rocky Mountain high: capable of sprouting hair on your chest no matter what your gender. The secret, head distiller Jake Norris told me, is in the four locally grown barleys and yeast that is specially designated, which made me wonder who in Colorado does the designating. There were oaky hints in the sleek Michael Collins, toffee tints in Jeffersons crisp small-batch bourbon and tantalizing glints in the color of the 1792 Ridgemont Reserve, which is the hoochs brand name, not its age. I became a Woodford Reserve man last winter, so time at that table was like reuniting with an old friend. The Feckin Irish Whiskey was, well, really feckin sassy. And our long visit to the Bushmills table was metaphorical poker: the 10-year single malt a pair of red-suited nines, the 16-year was two black-suited jacks and one errant six, and the 21-year was all hearts: a ten, a jack, a queen, a king and oh, was I getting a royal flush.
At least I must have been, for when we segued to the 16-year Lagavulin, odd things began to occur. Lagavulin is unlike anything elseliquid smoke you can either swig or swallow. Two sips in, I could have sworn I noticed the perfectly preserved remains of some man of another millennium poking out of a bog, a portrait of peaty goodness. My friend was gone now, I think to the food buffet, to fortify himself for the last hour of event. Still, I was transfixed, having had another sip. Well, more like a gulp.
For now appeared a woman with cheekbones higher than me after so much whiskey goodness.
It was Greta Garbo! Shed just come from the table for Michters, which was offering five exquisite bourbons, and now she was at the Lagavulin table, her eyes intense and piercing with desire. I took another sip of the Lagavulin as she set her glass down, looked at me, winked altogether wickedly, and turned commandingly to the bewildered and petrified fellow who was pouring.
Gimme a whiskey, ginger ale on the side. And dont be stingy, baby!
Garbo talks! I didnt even know she was still alive! Now I took even larger sip of the Lagavulin, which is manufactured in a small bay near the decaying remains of Dunyveg Castle in Scotland. It is said that the whiskey is made in one of Scotlands oldest distilleries; given its brilliant and burnt contours, Im tempted to believe it to be true. Just as I believed Garbo stood beside me.
And those words! Those were the first words Garbo uttered on filmin the screen version of Eugene ONeills play Anna Christie. With her flawless skin, her scent of myth and mystery, the Lagavulin man began pouring as requested until she lifted her hand to stop him.
Im here for the angels share, she said. Apparently, the barrels that whiskey sits in expand and contract with the seasons. Much of a barrels wood is absorbed into the whiskey, but 2 percent soaks through the barrel and escapes as evaporation. Thats the angels share. Thats why Garbo was there?
Yes, thats why Im here, Garbo said, anticipating my question. Now go away, meet your friend. And eat a little, would you? All that whiskey has gone to your head. I want to be alone.