October brings rustling leaves, cool nights, pumpkin-spiced everything, and eerie spirits that can be found hanging around until the end of the month. But Philadelphia Magazine’s Whiskey and Fine Spirits Festival offered attendees the opportunity to spend an autumn evening tasting samples from more than 200 premium distilled spirits, a preferred way to ward off the chill in the air. The vendors were set up in the TORK Club at the legendary Lincoln Financial Field, a spacious and airy venue with floor-to-ceiling glass along one wall, looking out over the South Philly skyline.
It was a fitting location, as it has long been claimed that Pennsylvania is the birthplace of American whiskey, and it was the site of the legendary Whiskey Rebellion in 1794, when the young U.S. government began taxing whiskey to pay for the Revolutionary War. However, most of the attendees weren’t there for simply a history lesson – they were looking to quench their thirst for knowledge about the best distilled spirits!
Although whiskey received top billing in the event’s official title, the distillers were not limited to that legendary amber liquid. Also available for sampling were bourbon, gin, scotch, tequila, rum, rye, vodka, cordials, and liqueurs. Pours were available from the more well-known national and international brands such as Jameson, Maker’s Mark, Bacardi, and Stolichnaya, all of whom presented not only their standard product but a number of varieties, flavors, and ages. The more hidden jewels of this festival were the smaller artisan and craft distillers that were represented.
Over the last several years, whiskey and spirits drinkers have been searching out the many unique blends and subtle flavors being created by many of the local distillers. Corn and barley are making way for other grains such as wheat, oats, and of course, rye in response to increasingly discriminating palates. For example, Dad’s Hat, located just outside of Philadelphia and launched in 2012 by Mountain Laurel Spirits, has been experiencing steady growth and increased production of its flagship straight rye whiskey, available in a few different proof levels. It is also available with a vermouth or port wine barrel finish. Bird Dog Whiskey, from Kentucky, produces a smooth bourbon whiskey, and has added a few flavored varieties, including strawberry and chocolate whiskeys, which intrigued a number of festival attendees.
Another Philly-based distiller, Manatawny Still Works, produces not only whiskey, rum, and vodka but also a gin that makes use of six botanicals and is rested in tequila barrels, plus a more mellow gin that rests in un-aged oak for six weeks. Barr Hill Gin, located in Vermont, has a signature sweet aftertaste that is derived from the floral depth of the raw honey that is part of their recipe. Taking it one step further, their Tom Cat Gin is distilled with juniper and honey and aged in American oak, making for a lovely aroma and an interesting botanical flavor.
Visiting the tables of the smaller vendors was a challenge – so much to learn from so many experienced distillers, but so much walking and standing! We found welcome relief upon discovering the lounge areas at the south end of the TORK Club hosted by Makers Mark, Ketel One, Southern Comfort, and Brugal 1888. These intimate lounges each resembled a comfortable private room with seating, snacks, and often, bartenders and servers, and decorated in fun themes.
The Southern Comfort lounge was evocative of a speakeasy and featured a raucous house band. Maker’s Mark dazzled guests with an 8’ tall replica of its classic wax-dripping bottle, and offered delicious treats including whiskey-soaked donuts. Once tastings had confirmed which spirits that the guests would like to have in their own home liquor cabinet, they could purchase bottles at a pop-up Pennsylvania Fine Wine and Good Spirits store that had been set up on site for the evening. A portion of the ticket sales from the event will benefit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
Yes, the hard liquor was flowing, but it wasn’t the only thing that attendees were able to sample. Eighteen of Philadelphia’s top restaurants were on the scene, offering small plates of delicious bites that were paired perfectly were the various spirits. At the end of the evening, attendees were given a lowball tumbler on the way out, courtesy of Infiniti. It was a special, rare event that left us all mellowed and satisfied – we are already looking forward to next year! Philadelphia Magazine sponsors events throughout the year, so check out their website to stay abreast of their events.
Nancy Burlan, with Ken Kramar and Josh Waterston, posted 11/7/2017
Photos © Josh Waterston 2017
For more information on the Philadelphia Magazine’s Whiskey and Fine Spirits Festival visit: http://www.phillymag.com/whiskeyfest/
To learn more about the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society visit: https://www.lls.org/eastern-pennsylvania