by Gina Horan

When it comes to alcoholic beverages, I like to keep it simple.

I can’t say the words “bar-chef” without giggling nervously. I won’t pay $18 for 2 ounces of infused “anything.” And if it takes longer to make my drink than my entree, I’m out the door faster than you can say “shaken not stirred.”

So when this bona-fide “beer and whisky” gal got a chance to attend the 12th Annual Whiskies of the World® Expo aboard the “San Francisco Belle,” I donned my plaid party pants, jumped on the “N” Train and headed down to The Embarcadero at Hornblower Yachts, Pier #3.

Right at 5 o’clock, the VIP members began to file-in, hoping to get a spot in one of the master classes taking place on neighboring boats. I was hoping to get-in on the popular Laphroaig seminar with Scot Simon Brookings, but I was held captive by the two main tasting rooms and the sounds of the Bushmill’s Irish Pipe Band, who seemed to appear at every turn.

I realized quickly that we wouldn’t disembark at all during the entire affair, which was probably best as it would have been a bit dodgy to carry a boat full of passengers steeped in whisky.

Thanks to a respite from the storms, cigar aficionados were able to climb to the upper deck where the clouds parted and smoke ensued. The stogies were enjoyed with whisky and chocolate, a trio which never would have made sense until I saw it first-hand. I eschewed the cigar, though, and left it to the men who huddled under the tarp puffing away.

From my experience, the cigar and whisky events are reserved for men so being a single girl, I couldn’t resist. At first glance I figured it was at least 7-1 in my favor.

I kept wondering, however; Should I swirl and spit in a lady-like manner? Would I stand out because I don’t drink Chardonnay? Would I be the only woman there not only tasting the whisky, but enjoying the “water of life.”

In anticipation of the dozens of vendors hawking hundreds of products, ranging from single malt scotch to local artisan jerky and bottle palate cleanser to Celtic chutney, I prepared my digestive system with a hearty meal of roast beef sandwiches, antipasti, cheeses, fruits, chocolates and pastries. The lines were long but it was worth the wait.

There were also a few great local artisans offering samples of food. Among them were, Krave Jerkey, Scharffen Berger Chocolates and McQuade’s Celtic Chutney, to name a few.

Fashions ranged from men in suits, jeans and Fedoras to ladies in stilettos or Ugs. There were kilts galore, (I believe I counted 47) including one worn by a gent who looked suspiciously like “Hagrid” of Harry Potter fame. I even spotted a guy dressed as Thirsten Howell with yachting hat and scarf, obviously waiting in-vain for a three-hour tour of the Bay.

As I collected my share of schwag, wishing for a Sherpa and trying not to spill a dram of whisky, I spotted two women laughing hysterically. One had a cigar and the other was wearing a t-shirt that read “Real Women Drink Whiskey.”

“If I’m going to come to an event like this with my fiancé, I’d better know what I’m in-for,” said Laurel Sutter, who was visiting from Michigan.

She and her sweetheart, who is a local, have attended the event three years running. She says that over the years she has developed a taste for single malts and other blended whiskies.

“I’m not afraid to try new things, and even though I am still a novice, I’m getting better and better at understanding all of the nuances of each brand. I like the good stuff, the finer side of life.”

She and her future husband are planning a Whisky tour of Scotland for their honeymoon.

As I swirled and spat my way around the room, I noticed that I was drawn to certain types of single malts and shied away from American brand single-barrel styles.

It seemed I gravitated towards drams of peat and smoke, and away from sugar and caramel. Was that normal for a woman or was my tom-boyish nature carrying over to the whisky? Was I about to run up and smoke a cigar for the first time?

I bellied-up to the Johnnie Walker bar and asked the whisky master for some guidance.

“I’ve found in the tastings I’ve conducted throughout the country that women actually tend to have a more evolved palate,” said Richard Sickler. “So, it’s quite natural that you would go for smoke, peat, salt and other nuances in your whisky.”

He went on to say that whisky is the wine of the spirits world, because all of the taste is due to factors like barrel type, aging, soil, region, etc.

And, like wine, tasting and appreciating whisky takes time, patience and knowledge. Most masters will guide you through five aspects of a style; color, nose, body, taste and finish. It’s also important to swirl the liquid under then to the middle of the tongue, to get the full effect.

It’s also best to cleanse your palate in-between taste. I over-heard from several vendors that still or bubbly water is recommended, or you can purchase a cool product called SanTasti, a palate cleanser in a bottle. I found it rather genius sine the company is run by women.

With swelling tongue, I headed out, and stopped at one of the no-host bars for a bit of water. There, I spotted a girl drinking a snort and chasing it with a bottle of Anchor Steam beer.

We clinked glasses and I told her that it was refreshing to find a girl from my tribe. Meet Jennifer Ackrill, San Francisco bartendress extraordinaire.

“People will ask me to make them something interesting, based on what I like, she says. “Maybe it’s a gentleman asking for his lady friend. I always tell them that I can make them anything, but if they want to know what I like, it’s beer and whiskey.”

When she isn’t slinging cocktails at Rye Cocktail Bar, 688 Geary Street, she says she can be found at one of the many watering holes around town, drinking beer and trying out new whiskies. Like any good City girl, and one after my own heart.

***The word “Whisk(e)y” can be spelled both ways, depending on the region. Mostly, one leaves off the “e” for Scottish Single Malts, but the debate goes-on.

For more information:

Popular San Francisco Whisk(e)y Bars:

Bourbon and Branch-501 Jones St., SF. 415-931-7292

Elixir-16th and Guerrero, SF. 415-552-1633

Occidental Cigar Club-471 Pine St., SF. 415-834-0485