The largest whisky event of the year took place last weekend at the Marriott Marquis. Stretching from sundown Friday to a later Saturday night, WhiskyFest NY was attended by hundreds of aficionados of the pungent malt. Sadly, I couldn’t make it this year, but I managed to stop by the first so-called “Whisky Jewbilee” run by Single Cask Nation just before the weekend.
Single Cask Nation is an attempt to turn a hobby into a business. Joshua Hatton, Jason Johnstone-Yellin and Seth Klaskin took what began as a blog and the Jewish Single Malt Whisky Society and turned it into a niche bottler and importer of whisky. Though I was interested to see (and taste) what the hosts had found to put in their bottles, my expectations were fairly low. The location was a synagogue hall on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, I didn’t recognize the names of many of the whiskies being poured and the price seemed high at $75 (though, full disclosure, members of the press were not charged).
The extra nights refer to no Hanukkah miracle, but the (expensive) extension of WhiskyFest New York. As I reported on November 11, in response to heavy demand for tickets Malt Advocate has decided to move WhiskyFest from a Tuesday night to a whole weekend and to rename it WhiskyFest Weekend New York.
With a $675 price tag and a Friday night start time, it seems like the demand and the demographic for next year’s event will be different from previous ones. Granted there are many more sessions to attend and granted you can also sign up for a “Grand Tasting” on either Friday or Saturday night for around the same amount as the 2011 event ($175 if you book before July), but it seems there’s no hope for Sabbath-observant Jews trying to make it to a “Grand Tasting” on a week when Sabbath does not end until 6.30pm.
Convincing ten straight men to talk seriously about an artisanal product for half an hour is like pulling teeth: Convincing 2,000 straight men to pay over $100 each to discuss nuances in its process and product for three or four hours on a Tuesday night, is marketing gold. And that’s the genius of WhiskyFest New York (and Chicago and San Francisco) — getting a crowd of men to approach a premium, gourmet product as if it were baseball.
And, despite this year’s WhiskyFest New York on November 1 being held inside the Marriott Marquis hotel, a sprinkling of baseball caps were indeed in evidence. They were, however, not being worn out of respect for America’s secular religion, but worn by some individualistic members of the Modern Orthodox population who were extremely well represented at the event. Largely, though, black kippahs were de rigeur for those sipping the smooth, honeyed grass flavors of the 30-year-old Old Pulteney or the beautifully rounded peaty tones of the 17-year-old Balvennie.
As the Forward’s international whisky correspondent I was hoping for some modest representation of the tribe at the 2010 New York WhiskyFest this Tuesday. What I wasn’t ready for, though, was a minyan davening maariv in the lobby just before the doors opened for the non-VIP guests.
That sense of hevruta set the scene for an evening where, among the 2,000 or so attendees sipping, sniffing and talking whisky there was a disproportionate presence of Jews with kippahs, Jews without kippahs and, in a couple of cases, even Jews wearing shaytls. A relative dearth of Jewish women, though, was entirely in keeping with an event that was an almost exclusively male affair.
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