The strangest person you can possibly encounter at a whiskey convention is someone who doesn’t like whiskey very much. Anecdotally speaking, it is also unusual to be a woman or black—the attendees of the Nashville Whiskey Festival, which I attended a couple weeks ago, made me worried that I’d wandered into a Ben Folds Impersonators Convention instead—but since I do not qualify as either, I felt relatively at ease, despite the fact that I don’t like whiskey very much. The $100 Grand Tasting entrance fee was designed to weed out the riffraff, no doubt, but due to an inexplicable surplus of cosmic goodwill, I was able to snare a ticket for myself anyway.
These guys were pretty chill actually
The festival, a celebration of single malts and fermented mashes from around the world, is in its fourth year, and this time purported to offer more than 300 bottles of whiskey, rye, bourbon, Scotch, mysterious unlabeled bottles of “brown,” moonshine, and paint thinner. Wild Turkey was also available, in case the toilets ran out of water. It took place at the Country Music Hall of Fame, which can be a dizzying experience even for a native Tennessean and veteran drinker. After all, it’s the spiritual home of legendary drunks like Hank Williams and George Jones; you can practically feel their enlarged livers under your feet as you cross the precipice, and the marbled walls lend the entire Hall an unmistakably veiny countenance.
Not everyone loves country music like Nashville does, of course, but whether or not you truly appreciate soulful tales of dead dogs, big trucks, ex-wives, or ex-wives’ big trucks full of dead dogs, one thing we can all agree on is that these people love their booze. And while I do, too, I prefer beer, and cheap beer at that—by contrast, the only barreled brew I’ve truly enjoyed lo this past half-decade arrived in my pantry courtesy of Messrs. Lea & Perrins. To the extent that I drink much liquor at all, it is clear, and aged for only as long as it has sat on the package-store shelf. Late in the evening at the NWF, I explained my anti-whiskey philosophy to the man working the Tullamore Dew table, and then asked what he had for me to try. “Whiskey,” he said. Well, then, pour me a glass, you son of a gun.
The night began every bit as inauspiciously as the premise deserved, with my polo-shirted ass barely bumbling into the lobby before two women well on their way to a very disagreeable morning asked me for directions to the bathroom. I demurred, deftly avoiding becoming an accessory of any kind. Within seconds, I myself would be sampling my first whiskey of the night: a rum.
Verily, a woman who introduced herself as Megan poured me a few snifters of an aged Venezuelan rum rather unfortunately dubbed Diplomático, as I eyeballed the dinner spread from across the room. My tasting notes on the 6-year-old variety read, simply, “Alcohol.” The other varieties do not make an appearance in my phone or in my memory, but I’d wager that reliable shorthand for the rum being dished out at a whiskey convention is not-too-good rum.
The food, though ... ahhh. A gleaming circular table toward the middle of the hall was piled with a variety of good-to-great hors d’oeuvres, and it beckoned to me like a buttery Charybdis. But I was distracted by the peppy (and all too sober, I judged) employee manning the PA system, who briefly paused her “lost keys” routine to announce that America’s CEO would soon be taking the stage. It ain’t every day that you hear something so titillating and confusing when your face is hovering over a warming tray like you’re a human Big Claw machine, so I took a moment (and an eggroll) to compose myself and made my way to the Mash Hall.
Tfw the convention has tendys.
Tim Laird is an affable enough fellow, and his routine is fun, if not altogether silky-smooth. He seemed like he could really use some help, but then again, so did everyone in the building. It was a struggle for Tim to whip together his signature Tailgater cocktail (Jack Daniels, sweet vermouth, lemonade, bitters, and rosemary over ice, which was rather good in spite of itself) while also holding a comically large 1980s microphone, but to his credit, we were all sipping the sweet concoction out of plastic shooters faster than you can say, “Tennessee makes the best whiskey.” That’s why he’s the Chief Entertaining Officer, folks. Have some respect.
Little black dresses are always in season.
“Some countries hate us—you may have seen them on the news,” I make out over the sound of the audience’s enthusiastic nodding, “but they can’t get enough of our whiskeys.” Well, I’m not sure how true that is, but it was evident to everyone in the room that “Tennessee is ahead of the curve, and always has been.” From anyone else, this would be cheap, pandering, nonsensical garbage not even worth saying, much less discussing, but from America’s CEO, it’s all part of the package. As Laird descended into the history of the cocktail, I grabbed another eggroll and headed for the main tasting room.
The tasting room was dark enough to screen a movie, and the amount of free booze available was seriously overwhelming. Because it would be impossible to catch ’em all, I mostly stuck to the familiar brands, and the ones that had stuff on the table that I could take. As a consequence, I sampled Laphroaig (like a campfire full of Kroger bags) and Cutty Sark’s Prohibition Edition (likewise), which I had probably seen on TV or something. I tried Four Roses’ bourbon, as some friends of mine have been raving about it—admittedly, it was merely unpleasant in a “going to the dentist” kind of way.
I ended up passing on Buffalo Trace, Knob Creek, and enough others to get the whole SEC hammered, but couldn’t resist the newest from Jack Daniels. Their Frank Sinatra Select is aged in a different style of barrel than other Lynchburg vintages, and clocks in at a slightly stronger 90-proof. So you can have yourself a stiffer drink without missing out on those classic Old No. 7 flavors that played a major role in the slow but steady decline of my now-dead father. Also, they were handing out keychains. I think I lost mine.
After palming another eggroll, I headed out to the veranda to ask why anyone would buy a cigar if they were only going to smoke it for, like, 20 minutes, but was waylaid by Nathan of Speakeasy Spirits. The crowd around his table was a bit sparse, so I sidled right up and found out why: On offer was a range of flavored vodkas and liqueurs. Whiskey guys hate that shit. But it takes a certain amount of chutzpah to take your Mocha Tennessee Sipping Cream to a whiskey convention, and hell, I thought it was good. Cheers to them.
On the other hand, jeers to the event taking place when I came back in: a “Whiskey Throwdown” that, despite its name, seemed very civil and in no danger of coming to blows. Rather than wait around for the so-called Whiskey Sommelier to start throwin’ elbows at the Scotch nerd, I snarfed a last few egg rolls and skeedaddled. I damn sure wasn’t going to drink anymore whiskey unless somebody threatened my kids or something, but even then, I wouldn’t do it with so many fake cowboys around.
At the bar next door, the Vols were choking away another big game, and a man barely on two feet was slapping the bar like Donkey Kong at every whistle. “What has happened to the USA when I can’t slap the bar for my team?” he mused, having earned a well-deserved reprimand from the bartender. Meanwhile, I ordered a Bud Light draft and imagined a few possibilities for my remaining $96.
Barely Standing Man put on his reading glasses, paid the tab, and left. UT would exit soon after. With that, the night was over, and so too were my whiskey misadventures. May the sanguine sauce never again dampen my tongue.
The Beer Idiot is a wildly sporadic Drunkspin complement; previous installments are available here and here, not to mention here and here and most notably here. You can watch Jesse Farrar tell jokes on his Youtube Channel and tell him what sort of drinks really put hair on your chest on Twitter @Bronzehammer.
Image by Sam Woolley.
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