US whiskey at The Whisky Show: standing tall, but standing still

The Van Winkles were at The Whisky Show this year!

I repeat: the Van Winkles were at The Whisky Show this year!

They weren’t the best US kit there though. They weren’t even the best US kit on their table.

That being said, as I trawled through the show bottle list, feeling, in the words of Blackadder “as excited as a very excited person who’s got a special reason to feel excited”, those Van Winkles stood out as the US headline act. Particularly since they weren’t flagged with a Dream Dram marker. They were open for all to taste.

This, I felt, marked a clear progression in how UK whisky festival attitudes had shifted. Where once the focus had been scotch, scotch, and more scotch, with a few token bourbons tucked in the corner like some embarrassing cousin, the presence of Pappy demonstrated that Britain was a country where the best of the US could stand up proudly beside Caledonia’s finest.

There was more cause for West Atlantic cheer as I drifted through the stands on the opening day. The Buffalo Trace Antique Collection was in fine fettle; Eagle Rare has improved out of recognition in the last year; Weller is very nearly as good as 2016’s was, and considerably more of it has been bottled. Stagg, which for the last few years has been overbalanced by brutish alcohol, seems to have reined in the booze and ramped up the flavour to fire (nearly) on all cylinders again. (And the same can be said for its often-unruly younger sibling; 2017 is a very good Stagg Jnr vintage.)

Other tables were just as exciting. The single barrel Russell’s Reserve rye on the Wild Turkey stand was probably my rye of the show – and yes, that includes Handy. Smooth Ambler had a five year old rye they had distilled themselves that was also superb, and festival newcomers King’s County were showing strongly too. (Though I still think they’re far too expensive.)

The standout table though was Balcones.

Not so much for their official offerings, though True Blue 100 and their standard Single Malt are excellent, and my soft spot for Brimstone grows softer every year. Where they really moved ahead of the pack was with the real-enthusiasts-only pours stashed under the counter. There was a wheated bourbon that was decent, if not earth-shattering, but the other four were magnificent.

A high-rye (seriously high – 39%) bourbon that I’d take over Stagg. A 100% rye that had Wellsy senior in raptures. (Made with Texan rye too – I didn’t even realise it could grow there.) And two single malts.

Such single malts! The first had done 40 months in ex-Four Roses casks. 40 months sounds like nothing, but by Balcones standards it’s ancient, and the result was phenomenal. Like a late-teen or early-twenties Speysider that had been put on steroids and had a V12 engine installed. Utterly roaring with tropical fruit complexity; bitter over-oaking a non-issue thanks to refill, rather than virgin, casks.

The second was even better, and inspired by distiller Jared Himstedt’s love of malts like Glendronach. Aged entirely in virgin French oak, the result was an opulent, spicy, fruitcakey glassful of sheer hedonism. A single barrel only available at the distillery itself. It was my father’s pick of the whole festival – and he’s a man who has been a scotch malt devotee since the seventies. All I can say is that the folk down in Waco don’t know how lucky they are.

American whiskies tend to show very well at whisk(e)y festivals. Tasted among a crowd their size and intensity gives them a natural edge when met with a hard-worked and embattled palate. Whilst my “pour of the show” came from elsewhere, the lion’s share of the most memorable overall stands tended to carry a US accent. What’s more, with about sixty expressions available, not including the “unofficials”, I can’t recall a broader selection open for enthusiasts to taste.

So far, so good. As always, however, there is a “but”.

I missed Westland and Corsair. If that seems like an odd nit to pick, having just attested to a biggest-ever selection, it isn’t. The reason I missed them particularly was the diversity they brought to last year’s Team America. Westland with their elegant and individual trio of malts, Corsair with their “you’ve-never-tasted-anything-like-this-before” joie de vivre. (Pardon my French.) 

Looking down my list, there really weren’t many new faces for 2017. King’s County seem to be the only one (do correct me if I’m mistaken) and whilst their whiskey is delicious, it doesn’t pack sufficient USP to fill the void left by Corsair and Westland.

What’s more, I think there’s room for some of the tables to broaden their offering a little. The Brown-Forman stand, in particular, missed a trick I feel, by presenting only a fairly basic range of JD and Woodford Reserve bottles. The Whisky Show is a chance for them to push the generally-overlooked Woodford Master’s Collection slightly, for example. Not to mention Old Forester, which many enthusiasts would love to see more of in the UK, and which didn’t have a presence whatsoever.

I realise that the overarching purpose of The Whisky Show is for The Whisky Exchange to sell bottles. And there’s no short-term benefit of presenting whiskey which consumers cannot immediately buy. But right now there is a surge in Britain’s interest in, and thirst for, American whiskey. Numerous brands are actively looking for UK distributors, and there is a loud clamouring (not least from the British Bourbon Society) for more of the interesting stuff to be shipped over. We can pretty much guarantee that we would drink it all.

Tasting those two exquisite Balcones malts, as well as the terrific high-rye bourbon, was soured slightly by the knowledge that there was no way for me to purchase them. As wonderful as such tables as Wild Turkey and Buffalo Trace were, they didn’t really offer anything that I hadn’t tried before. (Except for that Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel, and I couldn’t buy that either.)

I realise that the show isn’t just for me. I realise that the majority of consumers don’t taste as many US whiskeys as the most enthusiastic BBS members, and that the show offered the bourbon newcomer an abundant treasure-chest of potential damascene moments. But those same moments, on the whole, were available last year. And indeed the year before.

The Whisky Show offers more open bottles to aqua vitae fans than any other weekend in the UK calendar. No one who visits, and tastes thoroughly, can be left in any doubt that American whiskey is as good as that from the stills of Scotland; the quality of US juice is clearly on show.

It is time that America’s increasing diversity was given similar limelight.

Words by WhiskyPilgrim