Bourbon & Banter Does WhiskyFest Chicago

When was the last time you felt like a kid in a candy store? For me it was just a few short weeks ago when I attended my first ever WhiskyFest in Chicago. (Full disclosure: The fine folks at WhiskyFest were kind enough to provide me with a press pass to attend this year’s event.

WhiskyFest Chicago 2013 Attack Plan

When was the last time you felt like a kid in a candy store?

For me it was just a few short weeks ago when I attended my first ever WhiskyFest in Chicago. (Full disclosure: The fine folks at WhiskyFest were kind enough to provide me with a press pass to attend this year’s event. Although they promised me plenty of alcohol, I told them I would still be objective in my writing. Should I have been worried when they just stared at me and smiled?)

For those of you unfamiliar with WhiskyFest, it is “the longest-running and best-attended whisky festival in the U.S.” which is held yearly in San Francisco, Chicago and New York. Founded and hosted by Whisky Advocate magazine, it’s a whisky lover’s dream with over 300 whiskies represented in an all-you-can-sample format for 3 hours (4 if you got a VIP ticket).

Now do you see why I said it’s like being a kid in a candy store?

WhiskyFest also features a variety of seminars and tastings featuring Master Distillers and brand ambassadors. Add in a little gourmet food and you’ve got one hell of an event for whisky lovers around the country. This year’s event in Chicago drew roughly 1,800 attendees with about 1/3 of them purchasing a VIP ticket to gain early access to the event floor and a chance to sample some rare whisky selections from several of the brands.

With so many whiskies present and a crowd of 1,800 thirsty attendees you’ve got to have plan on how you’re going to navigate the floor. Trust me on this one folks. I attended a smaller whisky festival in St. Louis without a plan for visiting different brands. I wound up going up and down each aisle and quickly lost track of time, space and any chance of remembering what I had already tasted. I knew this time needed to be different. I had to have a plan.


As a bourbon drinker, my plan consisted of identifying which bourbon brands were offering a special pour during the VIP hour and then prioritizing them based on location and my desire to make sure I was able to get a sample before they ran out.  You can click on my plan of attack (to the right) to see exactly how I planned things out. I’m pleased to report that I stuck to my plan and was able to taste all of the VIP offerings I identified and then some. I also identified which brands I wanted to visit after the VIP hour was over. (Pro tip: I knew that most people would head straight towards the Old Rip Van Winkle booth to get their hands on samples of the extremely hard to get Pappy Van Winkle 15, 20 and 23 year old bourbon. Since I’ve tasted them all before I chose to avoid that part of the floor and not waste the majority of the VIP hour waiting in line. I later heard that the line was over 100 deep at one point. I do love it when a plan comes together.)

My first stop on the event floor was at the Jim Beam booth to catch up with Fred Noe and sample their upcoming release of Jim Beam Signature Craft Series. It was nice to have a chance to chat with Fred before the crowds formed around his table. I won’t go into details on how the new juice tasted, since I’ll be doing a review shortly, but I can tell you I’m looking forward to a more in depth tasting.


The next stop per my plan of attack was the Koval Distillery table. Koval was one of eleven craft distillers at the event but that wasn’t the reason I was set on getting to their table early. In preparation for my trip to WhiskyFest I did some research on the craft distillers who were going to be present so I had some information in advance of sampling their whiskies. As I was researching Koval I found out that a college classmate, Sonat Hart Birnecker, along with her husband Robert, founded Koval in Chicago after spending many years in the academic world.  I was thrilled to have the opportunity to reconnect with Sonat and learn more about Koval and their unique approach to whisky distilling. I’m looking forward to visiting their distillery in person later this year and sharing more about their operation and unique whiskeys made from grains like oats, millet and spelt.


Who knew the whisky world would be so small, right? Turns out that my alma mater, Earlham College, has a few more connections in the whisky world like the founder of Wigle Whiskey in PA. Not bad for a Quaker college where drinking was “banned “on campus. I’m starting to think that our fight song was fueled by more than just school spirit.

Fight fight inner light
Kill, Quakers, kill
Knock ‘em down, beat ‘em senseless
Do it ’til we reach consensus!

While the whiskies were definitely the highlight of the evening I wanted to comment on the folks who actually attended the event. Throughout the course of the evening I had the privilege of meeting some of the most interesting and kind people you could ever meet. Every conversation I had was filled with passion for not only whisky but for making new friends and learning new things. Whether you were talking to WhiskyFest newbies or veterans, everyone went out of their way to make you feel welcome.

If you’ve ever considered attending and decided not to because you thought the crowd would be too big or snobby, let me put your concerns to rest. The crowd was big, 1,800 big, but I never noticed. In fact, I would have guessed a much lower number of attendees if asked. The crowd was there but it was never in the way and people’s attitudes were fabulous. I even asked several attendees what they liked most about the event and several commented on how friendly everyone was at WhiskyFest. They explained that whenever they attend wine events the folks attending are usually very shallow and rude. In contrast, they felt that whisky drinkers were more down-to-earth and outgoing. While I was surprised at their commentary (and the sheer number of people who said the same thing) I can’t really argue with their assessment of whisky drinkers.

I truly enjoyed meeting people from around the country and all walks of life. If I remember correctly, I was even invited to a few parties later this year promising large amounts of bourbon. Hopefully those that extended the invites will read this post and contact me with the details. I sure the hell can’t remember them after sampling so many fine whiskies.

I could go on and on about how much I enjoyed Whisky Fest and how after sampling all the bourbons available I ventured into sampling some Irish, Japanese and Scotch whiskeys, but instead I’ll leave you with my efforts to reach across the aisle and make peace with our bourbon cousins in Tennessee.

That’s right folks, I closed out my evening chatting with Jeff Arnett, Master Distiller for Jack Daniel. I know many of you are asking yourself, “Why would he do that to us?” I could blame it on all of the whisky I consumed that night or fatigue from traveling all day, but I won’t. To be honest I was caught up in the spirit of all things whisky and was basking in how accepting and friendly everyone was about individual preferences and brand favorites.

As it turns out, Jeff is a big fan of one of my favorite folks over at Buffalo Trace, Chris Fletcher, and we wound up chatting about bourbon, Tennessee whiskey and how at the end of the day it’s whiskey that makes the world go around. You still won’t find me sipping on Jack anytime soon but I’ll probably be a little more accommodating to those that do.


My recap of WhiskyFest would be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to Maury Jayson who’s featured in the photo above. Maury is a perfect example of the type of folks you wind up meeting at WhiskyFest – passionate, enthusiastic and most importantly, friendly as hell. Maury is a big fan of Jack Daniels and wound up purchasing a barrel himself a while back so he could provide bottles as gifts to his clients. I appreciate his dedication to the brand and desire to share his passion with others. So in closing, I raise my glass to Maury, and all the other fine folks I met at WhiskyFest, and wish you all the best as you continue to spread the bourbon (and whiskey/whisky) gospel.

I hope that my recap has inspired many of you to attend WhiskyFest and experience it yourself. And who knows, maybe we’ll get to meet in person and share a few drinks. Cheers!

PS – Hey Maury, I posted your photo. Now where’ my bottle? 😉