Spirits Confidential with Max Solano
A Look Into San Francisco World Spirits Competition Part 2
As we continue where we left off last month, I hope that a good image was portrayed as far as the overall process, amount of work, collaboration and countless details that go into making this competition a success! In retrospect, it’s certainly a very humbling experience. Now I would like to focus on some of the winners and standouts from this year’s competition.
Sweepstakes, which always takes place on the very last day of the competition, is the day that the judges, as a cohesive group, get to taste the best of the best of the spirits (all double-gold medal recipients) from every category that was sent through by the individual panels from the previous days. I think I can speak on behalf of every judge when I say that everyone really looks forward to this day as it not only gives the opportunity to taste (typically) one stellar spirit after another, but there are always a handful of unique standouts.
As we wait for the room to undergo its final preparation for us, we wait outside chatting with our fellow judges about the cool San Francisco weekend experiences, or in some cases, the shenanigans. As we finally get called in, there are no seat assignments, so one of my best buds, Fred Minnick, and I sit next to each other. To my left is another longtime friend and Corporate Mixologist for the Wynn properties (and first year spirits judge), Andrew Pollard. This year we had 83 total double-gold selections that made it to “Super Sunday.” Because there are too many spirits to put in front of us at one seating, we are usually given a lunch break to give them time to reset for the next round. The whole purpose of this day is to further narrow down the selections and pick out the best not only from each spirits category, but also the best unaged and aged spirits. The Chairman of SFWSC, Anthony “Andy” Dias Blue, kicks us off, and along with the Director of the Competition, Maddee McDowell, help narrate and guide us through the order of the spirits we are blindly tasting.
One of the bourbons that was a complete standout not only because of its quality, but also its uniqueness, was the winner of the special barrel-finished bourbon category: Belle Meade Honey barrel. Yes! I did say honey barrel! Please! Do not confuse this with honey flavored whiskeys, which are actual liqueurs made with a whiskey base that will have flavorings and sugar added. By law, this is Belle Meade straight bourbon that goes from its original virgin charred oak barrels and dumped into oak barrels that once stored honey and aged additionally for just a handful of months. Remember, by law, nothing but water may be added to bourbon. This no age statement bourbon, bottled at a whopping 112 proof beautifully displays the integration of the honey and floral notes working seamlessly with the light spice, caramel and vanilla and a gorgeous extended finish.
Another standout, and winner of world’s best rye whiskey this year, was Baltimore, MD-based Sagamore Rye Port cask finish edition. Historically, Maryland was one of the two (Pennsylvania) largest rye whiskey-producing states up until the start of Prohibition at the beginning of 1920. Once the Volstead Act was repealed in December 1933, bourbon became the frontrunner of American whiskey. Many previous rye producers from Maryland either never revived, or entually went out of business or were gobbled up by a bigger company. Sagamore is aiming to change that and making Maryland rye “Great Again!” This young distillery is using rye whiskey approximately 4-5 years of age for this expression, in standard-sized 53-gallon American oak barrels and finishing in a combination of used port casks that are slightly larger for up to six additional months before bottling. This whiskey, for being 101 proof and less than five years old, is beautifully well-rounded, full bodied and elegantly complexed.
With so many more amazing gold medal winning recipients deserving mention, alas, we only have room to spare for one more. So, why not include the whiskey that stole the show, right? Drum roll, please……………… Ladies and gentlemen, the winner of the 2019 world’s best whisk(e)y, Henry McKenna 10 year Bottled-In-Bond Single barrel. But, wait, barrel number 4976 (pictured below), to be precise. Just to be clear, this is HUGE for the bourbon industry. It wasn’t only the best bourbon, McKenna beat out the best of all other whisky categories! Sure, there is a lot of controversy and arguments to whether or not single barrel entries are truly fair entries, or if they should be eligible to win “Best In Show.” However, in defense of Henry McKenna, this brand also won “Best Bourbon” at last year’s competition. And, this has been one of my top value bang for the buck bourbons for the last four years, so I know that this has been consistently good quality bourbon.
However, based on its recent successes and accolades, please do not be upset when you have trouble getting your hands on some of this amazing bourbon. Until next time!