Whiskies of the World Returns to San Francisco
Before you head out on the Hornblower to sample from hundreds of whiskies and scotches, brush up on your tasting knowledge with our expert’s advice.
Photo from SF Weekly
Whiskey lovers, get ready. Whiskies of the World, the annual festival of all things dark and drinkable and whiskey, is celebrating its 14th year this Saturday, April 6, in San Francisco. During the event, which takes place on the SF Belle Hornblower Yacht, you can sample from hundreds of whiskies, scotches, and bourbons (please don’t actually sample hundreds), plus rub elbows with plenty of the people who produce them—you can drill your favorite single-malt scotch maker on his distilling process, or share a toast of Irish whiskey with a rep from across the pond. In addition to sampling whiskies, the event will include whiskey masterclasses, cocktail mixology, a dinner buffet, and live music. You can even kick back with a cigar on the top deck.
Wait wait, you’re more of a vodka soda kind of drinker?
As a former bartender and recently converted whiskey enthusiast, I know the world of bourbons, scotches, and their various iterations can be a bit, well, intimidating. So, I caught up with Louisa Young, senior brand manager for Scotland’s Isle of Arran Distillers, to get her advice for breaking into the spirit. Turns out, it’s not as hard as you think.
For people who haven’t built up a lot of experience with whiskey, how do you recommend they approach a tasting event?
It really depends on the person. The general rule of thumb is to start with more of a lighter style or fruity style and work your way up to the stronger, smokier styles. You can make certain assumptions, but its a little bit about not wanting to patronize people either. I’ve met quite a lot of women who instantly loved the peaty whiskey, with its smokiness and heaviness. Our distillery was built to produce an unpeaty style. I wouldn’t say it’s a light style. It’s got its own characteristics.
Is there a general way to do a tasting?
I would start off with the unpeated styles, because you don’t want to mask your palate. And start off at the lower strengths and build your way up. Swirl the glass around, but don’t stick your nose right into the glass—all you’ll get is the alcohol. Gently nose it for a while. If you’re going to add anything to it, always taste it first. You may really enjoy tasting it like that. But if not, taste, taste it again, then add a touch of water, and slowly build up. If you have any opportunity to cleanse your palate, do that. And don’t let the drams be too large. I do a Scottish measure. I’m not very good at pouring small measures.
For people who are, let’s say, wine drinkers, are there certain styles of whiskies they’ll gravitate towards?
We have cask-finished whiskey, which is attracting new audiences and wine enthusiasts. We do a sauternes wine finish, as well as finish in an Amarone cask, which is a robust red wine from Italy. Also a port finish. The whiskey is matured in traditional casks, and then finished for around nine months, no longer than a year. It’s not in the cask for that long, but the influence is very apparent in the color and taste. The color [for the Amarone-finished whiskey) is quite pink. When I give a tasting, guys are like, “Oh my god, a pink a whiskey; it’s female drink,” but when they taste it, they really like it. I encourage people to try it and see.
Any advice for branching out into other styles?
There are no rules and to not be afraid. It’s about experimenting and finding your own individual label. I can remember when I wasn’t a Scottish whiskey drinker. It’s about educating people about it and breaking down barriers. Also, don’t feel like you should like something. I was at a party recently without the whiskey circle, getting an everyday opinion. This guy was in his early 30s, and he said, “When I’m older, I will like whiskey. After a few years, I ought to love it.” You don’t need to like anything you don’t actually like.
A lot of people see whiskey as a “guy” thing. Are you finding more women getting involved in the industry?
It varies from country to country. A female in the whiskey industry is something quite new to people in the United States. In Europe, they’re more accustomed to seeing females. But I haven’t really come up against chauvinism. I think if you can stand up and give the knowledge, that’s so important.
What’s your favorite whiskey?
It’s like picking a favorite child! Some days you have your favorites and some days not so much. It is very difficult. I’ve done tastings all week, the same lineup of five whiskeys, same order, and each night I have a different one I prefer. So much can depend on the taste buds. I really like cask strength products.
How does Isle of Arran differ from other producers?
The market’s being built up bit by bit. We’re pretty young still; we’re just turning 18. Our anniversary, at the end of June, is our “coming of age,” since it’s the legal drinking age here. Something that we’re very proud of is we’re still an independent company; there’s no other distillery that we’re associated with. There are very few independent distilleries left.
What will you be pouring at the event?
Arran 10 yr, Arran 14 yr, Arran 12 yr—cask strength, Arran Machrie Moor Peated, and Arran Sauternes Finish. You can find us at deck three, booth #320.
Any other advice?
I think a festival is such a great opportunity for people, especially people who are new to whiskey, to come along and discover it. It’s such a friendly industry, both the people who work and the people who drink. A really nice atmosphere can seal the deal for somebody. It’s a great chance to get chatting with the people from the companies, especially people coming over from the distilleries and the producers. Later on, you go into a bar and feel more confident and attend tastings. And be never be afraid of asking questions. I see it in seminar tastings. It takes people a little while to warm up. After the first two or three whiskeys.
Saturday, April 6, 6–9 p.m., SF Belle Hornblower Yacht, Pier 3, the Embarcadero, San Francisco, (408) 225-0446, whiskiesoftheworld.com. At the time of publication, the site was down, but you can get more information through its Facebook page.