How to Survive a Whiskey Tasting

untitled whiskey

From the first night I opened the unmarked doors for Untitled I knew I was onto something special. They lured me in with a varied lineup of swing, blues and R&B bands. Then, I got a cocktail. Most places you get a drink, but at Untitled it’s a cocktail.

The men behind the bar had white Oxford shirts and suspenders; some even pull off the handlebar mustache. The theme was consistent from the moment you stumble on the entrance to the time you stagger up the stairs to return to your normal life. As soon as you’re inside, you’re in a time of moonshine and bootleggers, mobsters and gun molls.

After sampling my way through their cocktails, I have moved to their insurmountable collection of whiskeys. There aren’t enough hours in the day to order each of them, nor dollars in my bank account.

That all changes once a year for their American Whiskey Affair. About 25-30 different distilleries bring their finest fluids for whiskey lovers to sample and assess. This year boasted 75 different options. I don’t know about your liver, but this event will test its abilities to keep up. This is the marathon of intoxication.

The largest risks of a tasting of this caliber is you may discover the best whiskey you have ever had, but forget what it was by the time you sober up. I decided to take pictures and hope for the best.

Amidst the crowd of whiskeys and whiskey lovers, there were elite distillers who have honed their craft. The opportunity to not only sample the results of their hard work, but also sip it while hearing them discuss the history is something you won’t get at your regular watering hole. The event did motivate me to explore some distillery tours later this year. Due to the crowd and the abundance of imbibing options, I wasn’t able to chat as closely with the whiskey experts as I normally would, like my recent wine tours at Frog’s Leap and Silver Oak.

Keep in mind that the following recollections were from an evening that included sampling several fine whiskeys, bourbons and ryes. My facts may be a touch off. I suggest you pour yourself a few fingers of your favorite whiskey as we head down drunk memory lane.

There were a few cool things I learned and sampled. A few tables had sour mash, something I had never seen before. Sour mash is similar to the process for sourdough bread and the concept of a “starter.” Fermentation starts with some used mash (grain, malt and water). That helps balance the whiskey and fight off bacteria. Sounds like the same reason I use whiskey for sore throats or general malaise. I sampled two sour mashes and found it to be a bit harsher than more aged and refined whiskey. The Internet tells me a sour mash is the foundation for almost all bourbons, especially those from Tennessee.

There was a small distillery out of Louisville that didn’t use barrels. Instead, they use spiraled wood, like a giant screw. Their logic was that the increased surface area of the wood spirals expedited the fermentation process. One of the bottles they brought had been aging for about a month. I saw a similar concept as a Kickstarter a while back.

My buddy and I started the night at Jack Daniels, which was the first whiskey I ever drank. They had a few options besides the standard. We started with a Sinatra Select, then tried a single barrel. The Sinatra Select differs in that the barrel it is stored in has additional grooves to add surface area for the whiskey to pick up more smokey notes.

dickel whiskey

We ran into Robert, aka The Whiskey Librarian, while taking a lap around the bar. Robert has guided me on my whiskey adventures for the past few years. Whenever I have client meetings or just need a drink, I grab a stool in the Whiskey Library at Untitled and let him select some whiskeys for me to try. If you’re willing to trust in him, he won’t lead you astray. He knows the distillers and samples all their creations to lead you toward the best of the best. I chatted with him a bit and asked him where he was going. The man has guided me this far, why not follow him to the promised land?

My highlights, that I was able to piece together, were:

  1. Old Forester
  2. Four Roses
  3. Michter’s

Old Forester was a bourbon that I previously had never heard of. That’s more reflective on my whiskey knowledge than any of these distillers. Their Signature 100 Proof will cure whatever is ailing you, but unlike other bourbons that are that potent, it doesn’t have a bite. The finish is surprisingly smooth for a spirit that strong.

The first time I had Four Roses was at my friend Leah’s house. Fittingly, I met Leah at Untitled a few years ago. After we explored an exhibit at the Art Institute (see, I don’t just drink my life away), Leah needed to stop at a liquor store to stock up. I quasi invited myself to her party and offered to drive her home. At the liquor store, she educated me about Four Roses. She was from Kentucky and if I have learned anything in my life, it’s that people from Kentucky know their whiskeys. At the Whiskey Affair, I sampled two of their bottles: the small batch and single barrel. Both are exceptional. If you have the chance, make sure to try or buy them.

Michter’s was another recommendation of Robert’s. The had four offerings and I know I tried at least three of the four. Maybe I ran the table. I started with their straight rye, then straight bourbon. The rye is single barrel, while the bourbon is a mix of less than 24 barrels. Sipping these spirits side-by-side allows you to pick up on the differences between rye, bourbon and whiskey. While these two were exceptional, the best whiskey of the night was their #1 American Whiskey. The American Whiskey sits in a bourbon-soaked barrel, whereas the bourbon and rye have to sit in new oak barrels. The flavor was unlike anything I sampled that night or previously. It will be the next whiskey I order.

Despite all that sampling (you’re welcome), I managed to catch my train home and somehow fare a helluva lot better than this guy.