by Susan Mary McReynolds
I confess. Up until just a few years ago, I was still a virgin tippler. But I took a deep breath and plunged right into the fragrant well of Scottish single malt whisky.
Serendipity made me do it. My good friend Sheila, a Glasgow native, had two tickets to Whiskies of the World (WOW) Expo, an annual celebration held here in San Francisco, and wanted a lively companion to take with her. Sheila was going for the auld lang syne of hearing the brogue and tasting the flavors of her youth. I was going for the Men In Kilts. We both ended up getting more than we bargained for: Sheila met and made some fantastic new friends from the old country, and I fell in unexpected love at first sip.
Repugnance is the only proper word to describe my former sentiment toward scotch. Sloshes of foul-smelling spirits slopping from various boyfriends’ glasses onto my clothes had been enough to keep me at a lifelong arm’s distance from ever tasting the stuff. Fear and loathing, combined with a healthy dose of trepidation, was the working mode that first day of March in 2001 when two handsome lads beckoned me over to the McTarnahan’s Brewing Company booth for my maiden tipple.
I admit, it was the easy good looks of those fellows that tempted me to first raise my glass. But, with my eyes closed and my head swimming with pleasure, it was the enveloping warmth of the scotch’s dusky black cherry flavor that made me smile in delight and stay until I had drained my glass. The rest of that first WOW Expo is a blur of the wheeling crowd and the many presenters—although I clearly remember spending a good while at the Duncan Taylor booth, sipping an unbelievable Highland Park and ogling the Sean Connery look-alike who poured it.
Since then, I have learned to set a different personal goal for each Expo. I always try and meet new folks, learn more about fine whisky, and—most importantly—taste some of the best single malts available, which I would never have the opportunity to try anyplace else.
Then again there are always, always, always Men In Kilts.
My goal for WOW 2005? Not to have to toddle down to the Market Street BART station through late-night panhandlers after a delightful and very spirited evening of hard drinking. In years past, I could only desperately hope I wasn’t too inebriated to sleep through my stop and wind up at the end of the line. I researched Union Square and its immediate area for hotels and booked a night at the Carlton.
The Hotel Carlton was built in 1935 and through the years had fallen on hard times. But Joie de Vivre, known for its boutique properties, recognized the value of the Nob Hill location and has just finished restoring the building to vintage glory.
Walk in the Carlton’s front doors and you think you are filming a scene from your own blockbuster, The Aviatrix. The hotel lobby has been redecorated in the glowing shades of an Indian sari. Lanterns hang over coral-studded antiques from the Far East. A fire crackles in front of deep leather chairs and oriental rugs that look out to Sutter Street.
After checking in with the gracious monsieur Blondel, I rode the zany elevator to my floor. Completely mod-podged with maps of the world, the elevator made a slightly surreal trip of the short two flights up. The hallways, too, were eye candy. Imagine the deepest, darkest, most indulgent Hershey Bar chocolate-brown paired with calm azurean turquoise blue A little demi-globe, instead of the same old boring brass plate, announced my room number on the door. Inside the cozy room I found spare simplicity accented with colors from Lost Horizon. The co-owners of Hotel Carlton are members of the American Himalayan Foundation, and the walls are not decorated with smaltzy mass-reproductions but with photographs of the faces and places of Tibet. (There is even a Sir Edmund Hillary suite in the hotel, where the son of Tenzing Norgay—the sherpa who led Sir Edmund on his successful ascent of Mount Everest in 1953—stays whenever he is in the Bay Area.) Quickly changing into my chinoiserie for the evening, I excitedly left the hotel and walked down the concrete angle of Sutter Street to the gigantic Hilton San Francisco.
WOW, the brainchild of whisky entrepreneur Riannon Walsh, has been held in San Francisco for six years now. Walsh wears a coat of many colors, and organization is a primary hue. In addition to running one of the most respected whisky gatherings in the world, she rescues abused mastiffs, raises pygmy goats and makes cheese from their milk, has a distillery start-up in Scotland. 2005 was the second year that WOW has been at the Hilton. Next year the Expo is due to undergo a literal sea change and will be staged at San Francisco’s Pier 33 in conjunction with Hornblower Yacht Lines. This annual event has definitely outgrown standard hotel ballroom accommodations!
Attending a Whisky Live Expo of any kind has a few important ground rules. Never expect to show up at the doors and purchase a ticket. Security is very tight at these events, and check-in is closely monitored. When you receive your ticket in the mail, you’ll find guidelines, such as the dress code, along with it. Follow the suggestions! It may not be a fancy-dress ball, but folks are here to have fun, not to get drunk. The Expo should never be an evening of aimless wandering from booth to booth, or you may end up like the expensively dressed but unsightly guys in major disrepair outside the men’s room groaning “Shoulda paced myself!” and “No fun spewing chunks!” (No fun indeed! And not what a proper Whisky Chick cares to hear about!)
All Whisky Live Expos are comprised of at least one large tasting hall and several seminar rooms. In the tasting hall, you can grab one glass (hang on to it!) provided by the sponsors and wander among some 150 pourings. Obviously, you cannot imbibe from all and survive the night, so you have to plan your course. The doors open to the general public at five pm, and the seminars start an hour later. During the first hour, tour the tasting hall and sample a few of the major Scottish houses. Avoid American distillers—you are here for what you cannot find elsewhere. Bruichladdie is always a good starting point for first-timers. Bruichladdie representatives are consistently cordial, well informed, and enthusiastic, and their whiskies are more widely available than some of the others—should you decide you favor any of them, distributors are easy to find. Be patient as you wait in their perennially long queue, and don’t leave the table until you have sampled three of the distillery’s editions, as each one carries its own special notes. And don’t be afraid to tell the rep you are new to whisky and ask him or her to guide you through the tasting.
Next, scout a smaller house like Caol Ila. The line won’t be quite as long, and you may find a whisky that you absolutely adore. But don’t fall in love too deeply! Many of these whiskies are near to impossible to get here on the West Coast, so enjoy your pour and savor the moment. If you can, be sure to chat it up with the lad behind the table. Trust me: young or old, thin or fat, they all have the endearing gift of gab and a sparkle in their eyes.
This year, while my palate was still fresh, I discovered a new favorite, Benromach Traditional. Maybe it was because it was March and the daffodils were just bursting into bloom, but when I tasted that whisky it brought the first flush of spring to my lips. I tasted tender new sweet grasses and tree-ripened Minneola tangerines as I sipped my pour. Light and airy as a breeze, I knew this was a special find. When Michael Urquhart gave me a pour of their cask strength cousin, I found it to be cloying and heavy compared to the verity of the traditional. If there’s one thing you must remember about whisky it is this: to thine own self be true. Drink a whisky because you like it, not because you think you ought to.
By 5:45, you should have studied the speaker schedule and be on your way to your first seminar. Whisky seminars are not boring and certainly not dry! You are seated in front of a place mat with three pours of different whiskies. During the course of about an hour, you will hear the history of the presenting distillery, learn about any new updates, sample three of its finest whiskies, and hear some great songs and stories along the way. I always attend all three hours of seminars, both for their intimacy and for the chance to get to know more about the whisky distilling process. This year there were nine seminars to choose from. Some of the best presentations are put on by Bruichladdich, The Dalmore, Compass Box, and—if you must insist on hearing what’s going on in America—Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery. (It’s a real hoot!)
There are breaks between the seminars and that’s when you should be lining up at the buffet tables and eating. This year, while waiting my turn at the curried samosa platter, I met Karen Gorman.
A Balvenie drinker, Karen’s been coming to WOW for years. Karen was first introduced to fine single malts at the local Scottish Highland Games, where she is a heavy thrower. She’s done a lot of exploring and tasting on her own, but she always attends the Expo. She even bought tickets for her family so they could share in the celebration! Dressed in tartan and gleaming marcasite, she cut a splendid figure.
The last seminar is over just before closing time, 10 pm. This is a nice time to take one last stroll along the tasting hall. A last dram of one of the sweeter whiskies in hand and a stop at the Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker table always feels like fond farewell. The noise level has dropped a decibel or two and the crowds have thinned out enough for you to see old friends and meet new ones. This was when I met my one and true salvation, Whisky Drinking Jesus (WDJ).
He was there with his fiancée, Lorrie, and they had sanctioned—if not sanctified—the entire event. Whisky Drinking Jesus (who goes by Tom Monday through Saturday) has his own WDJ blog. All I can say is, I want one of those t-shirts! Tom has attended several local whisky tastings, and turned me on to a great local distributor. I honestly have to admit that breaking out of your shell and talking to total strangers is part of the experience at the Expo. In the years I have attended, I have never been bored by anyone or embarrassed by unacceptable remarks. It’s all good!
At 10 pm, final bell sounds, and it’s out to the crisp evening air to wait for a cab. It’s such a treat not to have to worry about the ride home this year! My double bed at the Carlton, swathed in russet and aqua, was only seventy-nine dollars a night, thanks to the hotel’s special friends and family rate.
Well rested after sleeping in, I passed up the hotel’s sumptuous Sunday brunch and ambled down Sutter Street. This time my destination was Sears Fine Food, home of the Eighteen Tiny Sourdough Swedish Pancakes Oozing with Lingonberry Sauce breakfast. This place is part of San Francisco’s history, and draws a crowd seven days a week. Sunday is an especially long wait, but well worth it. Noise level is way up there, but the crowd is jolly, the food is great, and the prices are super reasonable. Check out their menu ahead of time online: if that doesn’t convince you of a visit, I don’t know what will.
Knowing my weekend was drawing to a close, I took my time walking back to the hotel. Packing my bags, I reflected on what a terrific decision it had been to stay overnight. With a little research, I had found an interesting, affordable, and very safe hotel. I had been able to eat, drink, and make merry without worry because I had planned well. Next year, with the change of venue, WOW will provide me with the opportunity to do it all over again. I really look forward to it, and hope to see some of you there!
Whiskies of the World is held every March in San Francisco, but there are other Whisky Live Events held around the world, including Whisky Live New York, April 7. For information on all Whisky Live events, log on to www.whiskylive.com. For more information about Whiskies of the World 2006, log on to www.celticmalts.com. And remember to book early—these expos often sell out well in advance!
Sears Fine Food is located at 439 Powell at Sutter. It can be reached at t 1.415.986.1160, but logging on to www.themenupage.com/sears.html is probably a lot more useful.
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About the Author
An avid Oakland “A’s” fan,
Susan McReynolds is a San Francisco Bay Area native. She has a degree in Journalism
and was the campaign manager for Eldridge Cleaver for Congress in 1984. Upon
leaving the political scene she became an elementary school teacher. Her current
assignment is Kindergarten. Although her family came to California’s wine country
in 1890 from Scotland to build a brandy distillery, her professional interest in
wine and spirits was not kindled until the year 2000, when she first attended a
Whisky Expo and discovered the delights of single malts. She has since been
traveling the byways of California and Nevada in search of “spirited” adventures
that combine the pleasure of whisky and the natural bounty of the American West.