Today, Sunday, March 25, is my 27th wedding anniversary and the first since Barb and I became full-time residents of Chicago. I haven’t been too terribly lucky at a lot of things, but I am very lucky with the one thing that matters most.
Now, one of the things about me that Barb has tolerated is the fact that I have over a number of years been building a rather broad base of knowledge about whisky in general and American whisky (mainly bourbon and rye) in particular. It would be much simpler to be able to say that drinking whisky is my hobby, but I’m loath to do so because that can really be taken the wrong way.
Nonetheless, this past Friday night, I attended the annual Chicago Whisky Fest, staged by Whisky Advocate magazine, for the eighth time in the past nine years. As has usually been the case, I was joined by Frank Hodal, a longtime D.C. friend (and northwest Indiana native) who introduced me to this event in the first place.
Unlike my previous Whisky Fest-ing, this year I went with a professional purpose.
I have always been a bit consumed by consumables. I have a lifelong fascination with food, have always done the bulk of the cooking in our household, have taken a number of cooking classes and have participated in a far greater number of food and drink tasting events.
In fact, I have said for years that the person I’d most want to emulate when I grow up is R.W. Apple Jr., a legendary journalist familiarly known as Johnny Apple. For years before he settled in for domestic assignments in a career capped by a stint as the New York Times Washington bureau chief, Apple traveled to hot spots domestic and international, providing excellent coverage for the paper and its readers. He was also famous for running up prodigious expense accounts dining and drinking finely on the Times’ dime.
The payoff came when he retired from hard news in the late 1990s and spent the last few year of his life touring the United States and the world to eat and drink, and produced some of the most evocative prose on the culinary arts that I have ever read. I remember reading one of his pieces, about the dining scene in Charleston, South Carolina, that not only described the food but the city’s ambience in exquisite detail, and feeling as though I had been transported right there.
So with Johnny Apple as my inspiration, I am trying to develop at least a substantial portion of my freelance career in the direction of food and drink, and am just starting an online course in food writing.
One of the areas I’m very interesting in exploring is the rise of microdistilling, nationally and around the Midwest where dozens of alcoholic beverage producers have sprung up in recent years. That is why I spent much of Whisky Fest in the microdistillers’ corner of the vast ballroom in the basement of the Hyatt Regency Hotel on Wacker, which was mainly dominated by big-name producers of long standing that are familiar names to even casual whisky consumers.
The rise of microdistilling is very recent, spurred by the repeal in many places of bans that dated back to the Prohibition era and earlier. In fact, one of the newer locally based producers, FEW Spirits, is sort of a back-handed reference to one of the long-ago leading citizens of the suburb of Evanston, where the distillery is located. F.E.W. were the initials of Frances E. Willard, a Northwestern University dean who for many years in the late 19th century was the leader of the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement.
Because they are generally so young, most microdistilleries have initially focused on clear liquors such as gin and vodka, which don’t age in wood and therefore spend a very short time between the fermenter and the bottle. I currently have in my cupboard a bottle of Wheat Vodka from the Grand Traverse Distillery, located in the beauty spot of Traverse City, Michigan and headed by Kent Rabish, a friendly gentleman who invariably urges folks to visit the distillery (something on which Barb and I hope to take him up this year).
But we are starting to see an increasing number of stabs at bourbon, rye and even single-malt whisky, with many producers experimenting with smaller barrels in which the liquor matures more quickly.
One noteworthy example I tasted was the Ravenswood Rye produced by Journeyman Distillery, located in Three Oaks, Michigan, almost directly across the lake from where I’m sitting. Journeyman only opened its doors a few months ago but prepared by doing some production runs over the past couple of years at Koval, a pioneering local microdistillery that is not far from here, in the Ravenswood neighborhood of Chicago. Journeyman’s Ravenswood won’t yet replace Van Winkle’s 13-year old Family Reserve Rye from Kentucky as my favorite brown liquor, but it drinks well and tastes like it has spent more time in the barrel than it has.
I will have more to say in detail about these products in months to come, as I plan to tour around to many of the Midwestern micros.