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CultureFood & Drink8 winning spirits that raised our Whiskyfest glass

8 winning spirits that raised our Whiskyfest glass

Old Potrero, Elijah Craig, Uncle Nearest, Few Spirits, Jack Daniel's, more caught us in the rye

Plain and simple, WhiskyFest is one of those ultimate experiences for whisky lovers—it’s kind of there in the name. Whisky Advocate magazine puts on these annual celebratory events in major cities across the country, and the San Francisco edition returned to the Marriott Marquis Downtown on October 27. It was an opportunity to sample and indulge in whiskeys from around the world, from more than 80 distillers, and especially a chance to sip some serious rarities. 

Much like beer festivals, WhiskyFest is a marathon. But this one could get away from you a lot more quickly if you don’t pace yourself properly. It’s pretty impossible to try everything at your disposal, so you quickly learn the balance between tasting through a distiller’s entire available library, or just trying one or two and moving on to the next. Conversation is encouraged and you hope to acquire some knowledge and friends along with one hell of a classy buzz.

The Yerba Buena Ballroom was filled with both local boozehounds and people flocking from well beyond the Bay just for this occasion. A father and son from Australia were snacking on savory mini beef wellingtons and samosas in between sips, telling me about how this was the son’s last big outing before running in the New York Marathon the following weekend. They had made the trek to SF together as part of their US jaunt (Kentucky too, natch) and mid-conversation, the Dad popped over to the Michter’s booth to see if they had any of the 20-year bourbon left. Alas, that was maybe the first bottle of the entire festival that ran out; a whale if there ever was one, akin to Pliny The Younger in the beer world. 

There was a sweet subculture present here. From people chasing rare pours that were only available in the event’s first VIP hour (like that Michter’s 20), to whisky loving party animals who rocked some seriously killer shirts, and of course the true aficionados trying desperately to try every bottle via the sip and spit method — the marathon takes a whole new dimension for the latter. 

I did my best in balancing what I had on the radar to try, with what I let people I met sway me towards or what I discovered on a whim. There was one local product that really warmed me up, a new launch from a heavyweight, and others from around the country and globe that stood out in my evening’s journey. Here’s some highlights from WhiskyFest SF 2023:

Jack Daniel’s “Bonded Tennessee Rye” & “Sinatra”

A note for the uninitiated: Saying that a whisky is “bonded” means it’s undergone a rigorous quality test that meets certain specs (think DOC vs DOCG with Italian wines.) Among a slew of mandates, bonded whiskey has to be aged for four years, bottled at exactly 100 proof, made by one distiller at a single distillery in one season, etc. On that note..

I was super geeked out to try the newest Bonded Rye from Jack Daniel’s which was just released this past September. Because when Jack Daniel’s releases a new core whisky, you gotta look under the hood. Jack has unique capabilities to make a high quality rye like this and I loved what I drank: soft toffee notes and banana walnut toast with a spicy bite—I just wanted to break out a cocktail kit and start making old fashioneds with it right then and there. At $32 a bottle, it’s an easy call to add to your liquor cabinet and see what you think for yourself. 

And being that it’s Whiskyfest, Jack was also pouring their ultra-rare “Sinatra” whisky. A top shelf spirit, it’s aged in “Sinatra Barrels” that have grooves carved into the staves so the whiskey gets exposed to more toasted oak. Yes, please. 

Nikka “From The Barrel” 

From the family of popular “Nikka Coffey Whisky,” the “From The Barrel” blend is gorgeous. Aged in different barrels from both of Nikka’s historic Japanese distilleries, winter spices and ruby red cherry with vanilla notes ring through a highly sippable spirit at 102.8 proof; I could’ve sat there for hours going to work on this beauty. I was instantly transported to a wedding I attended in Wales some years ago (Yes, I can be a fancy fuck sometimes) where this was featured at the bar. And it’s these types of sensory recollections that make drinking whisky a rewarding pastime. 

Old Potrero “Single Barrel”

Once affiliated with Anchor Distilling, Old Potrero is now part of the Hotaling & Co. portfolio which split from the brewery when the Sapporo sale went through in 2017 and isproudly made in Mission Bay today. And while Old Potrero is readily available all over town, at WhiskyFest, we also got to sip on Single Barrel, Toasted Barrel, and other versions aged in different casks.

This was a special occasion for local whisky heads, to be able to taste through these different iterations of Old Potrero and chew the fat with OG master distiller, Bruce Joseph in the process. Joseph has been at the helm since day one in 1994. Much like how Anchor Steam yeast is uncanny in Anchor beers, the 100% rye mash bill of Old Potrero is a distinctly local flavor to San Francisco. The pot distilled rye is typically aged for at least 6 years bringing out flavors of spiced caramel and creamsicle. The Single Barrel version is aged 8+ years and is bottled at 130 proof. Even adding a dash of water, this was still a flavor explosion version of the original that lingers longer on both the palette and the mind. 

Laws “San Luis Valley Straight Rye (Bonded)”

Admittedly, I was chasing primarily rye at the fest (have you noticed?) and Laws’ flagship San Luis Valley Straight Rye is a Colorado trailblazer. It’s the first ever Bonded rye in the state’s history and I got a brisk herbal palette with subtle notes of orange and demerara sugar. Their “Four Grain Bourbon” was also notable and I’ll look forward to visiting the distillery next time I’m in Denver.

Uncle Nearest “Straight Rye” 

Uncle Nearest has one of the most incredible stories in the whisky world. Predicated on the work of distiller Nathan “Nearest” Green, a black man who taught a young Jack Daniel’s the tools of the trade, it tickles the mind to consider who *really* pioneered the American whisky movement. I’d tried both the 1884 small batch and 1856 versions before, and on my evening’s quest for rye, this Shelbyville, TN product was a delightful, light-colored spirit that sipped smooth and flavor-packed. Today, Uncle Nearest is a Black-owned distillery, operated by Green’s descendents. 

Westland Distillery Outpost Series

I came away impressed by this Seattle distillery who specializes in single malt American whisky. Their Outpost Series of Garryana, Colere and Solum explores oak, barley and malt that hasn’t seen widespread use in the whisky world.

Elijah Craig “C923 Boubon”

This was one of the buzziest whiskys at WhiskyFest and I was beckoned over to the Elijah Craig booth by multiple people I spoke with. Aged 13 years, this powerful bourbon checks in at 66.5% abv with a juxtaposition of tobacco and caramel prominent on the palate. At around $75, it’s a fun bottle to bring up to a Tahoe trip to warm you up no doubt. 

Few “Immortal Rye”

Chicago’s Few Spirits has a real unique one in Immortal Rye. The nuanced process takes cask strength rye that’s then aged and steeped with “8 Immortal” Oolong Tea. But don’t get it twisted, this doesn’t taste like a tea flavored whisky at all. The tea is expertly incorporated to mellow out the fine rye as it’s brought down to bottling strength for a complex and balanced flavor profile of pear, cardamom and lightly roasted chestnuts. 

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Adrian Spinelli
Adrian Spinelli
Adrian is a Brazilian-born, SF-based writer covering music, booze, festivals, and culture. Follow him on Twitter @AGSpinelli.

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