Distill America XII is history. This is the fifth time I've attended Distill America and, without a doubt, it gets better and more interesting year after year. As usual, it was held at The Edgewater in downtown Madison and hosted by the Madison Malt Society.
For me, whiskey tasting events are less about drinking and more about knowledge and meeting with friends.
My imbibing at an event is so secondary that, by the time the evening is over, I've maybe had four ounces of whiskey total. And, if you think that's crazy, let's talk this through. Your palate can only handle so much alcohol before any semblance of notes from anything is lost. Proof of this is seated in the fact that over the years, I've tasted whiskeys I thought were truly delicious at an event only to discover at a later date that it was some of the worst stuff to ever pass my lips. Or, conversely, I taste something, I get nothing from it that night (because my palate is dead) and I write it off, only to discover how great it is down the road.
Distill America celebrates exactly what its name implies: American distilled spirits. You won't find anything being poured at the main event that wasn't distilled in the United States. But, it isn't limited to whiskey - there's gin, vodka, rum and a host of other spirits - all 100% American.
One of the major aspects of Distill America is knowledge. As such, my goals and theirs are cohesive. The knowledge aspect begins with the ticket level you purchase. If you choose VIP+, it includes a special educational tasting event before the floor is even open. This was the third year of the VIP+ program and the first where whiskey was not in the spotlight. Instead, this year's special topic was tequila and was presented by Jorge Raptis, Diageo's National Latin Spirits Educator.
It was an intimate class, giving everyone a chance to ask questions without being overwhelmed or feeling rushed.
I found the discussion fascinating, and as many of you know already, I hate tequila. Jorge not only gave a history of tequila and explained how it was made but also detailed how Don Julio, a then 17-year old kid who, in 1942, convinced a businessman to lend him the money to start the La Primavera Distillery (later to be renamed after its founder). We also discovered how Don Julio changed the way agave was planted and harvested. We also learned about agave itself, and how it is much closer to hemp in its many uses than I would have ever imagined.
The tasting portion included samples of Don Julio Blanco, Reposado, Añejo, 1942, 70th, and finally, Reposado Double Cask Finished in Lagavulin Casks.
From there, VIP+ guests went down to the main floor for the festivities and were joined by those holding VIP tickets. The benefit of the VIP ticket was to get through the doors an hour early before General Admission, as well as taking advantage of some VIP-only special pours, such as Four Roses 2019 Small Batch Limited Edition, Twisted Path's Barrel Proof Bourbon, J. Henry & Sons 10th Anniversary Bourbon, MGP's Volstead Reserve, Michter's 10-Year Bourbon, and others.
Sampling some of these limited-release whiskeys was a real treat and an opportunity not many people are exposed to. However, there was still learning to be done! Once the doors were open for everyone and folks had a chance to mosey around, a Blending Whiskey seminar hosted by David Carpenter, the Master Blender of Redemption commenced.
I have never been on a distillery tour or in a whiskey seminar where I didn't walk away with some new knowledge, and I've been keen on this industry for many years. To say that I learned something would be an understatement. I found the class fascinating and I gleaned several things I never knew (or if I did, I forgot). And then, to cap it off, we were able to try two different Redemption Barrel Selects that are not yet available in Wisconsin.
Another learning opportunity was Gin Deconstruction, hosted by Lindy Wyss of Aviation, Jamie Duffy of St. George, Chris Byles of Death's Door (now part of Dancing Goat Distillery), John Mlezica of State Line, and Guy Rehorst of Great Lakes. While I didn't attend this seminar, they took the opportunity to share what makes gins different from one another, from the botanicals to how they're used in cocktails and everything in between.
In all, there were 90 different booths featuring hundreds of different spirits, including my 2019 Whiskey of the Year: Blaum Bros. Straight Rye.
Each year, there are "rookies" that are new to the event, this year included Balcones, Blue Ice Vodka of Idaho, Carbliss Hard Seltzer of Wisconsin, Doundrins Distilling of Wisconsin, Drink Wisconsinbly, Joseph A. Magnus & Co., Kentucky Owl, Ledge Rock Distillery of Wisconsin, Old Elk Distillery of Colorado, Rockhouse Beverage of New York, The Dampfwerk Distillery of Minnesota, and Uncle Nearest.
In all, it was an amazing evening. I thank all the vendors and ambassadors that came to share their spirits, skills, and expertise.
If you missed out on Distill America, make it a point to attend Distill America 13 in February 2021. Tickets normally go on sale in October. Cheers!