I landed Friday at noon, feeling the familiar pang of excitement for the weekend ahead as I let the past week’s stresses slough off, slowly but surely. I was, once again, in the city to meet up with some of my chosen family; those with whom I’ve shared many a drinks and laughs over the past 16 years sine we started this silly tasting club. Yes, it was time for another Whiskies of the World adventure in San Francisco, and I was gearing up for some serious professional level drinking this weekend.
Friday started as it has in the past: with many of us getting into the city at different times, all meeting up in whatever venue we happen to be in at the time. For me, as the first one to arrive, this meant loitering around the hotel lobby waiting on the next. When Rhawnie and Brian arrived, we began the weekend in the hotel’s executive lounge with wine and beer to while away time before the next round of friends arrived. Having a slow start to the weekend isn’t always how things go when we arrive (often times jumping right into on the plane or even on the way to the hotel), but this time it felt right as we all eased back into familiarity and away from our real life worries without grinding too many gears as we gained traction. Little by little others began to filter in, and our little party grew in numbers as we collected friends on the way.
Dinner was had at the Irish Bank, our local go-to spot where we either begin or end every day when we are in the city. While it started as an intentional choice, our collective ability to end up at the Bank has become a default setting. It is the 3DC home-base, always the first place to look for anyone if they aren’t where they said they’d be, or just to assume that is where we should meet up unless otherwise specified. We shy away from calling this tradition, as we’ve found that trying to force anything as tradition typically fails in spectacular ways. As such, we merely find comfort in the familiarity of a space like the Irish Bank that has a decent whiskies list, good food, and a space in the back that can accommodate a large and fluctuating group such as ours.
Over dinner, we ramped up the evening with Raz and Fergus who had joined us earlier at the hotel. It was a later dinner, so after a few pints we decided to move on out since Fergus was falling asleep at the table and needed motion to remain conscious. It was at that point as we made our way out of the Bank that we received the best recommendation of the weekend: the bouncer at the door told us the checkout the Rickhouse a block and a half away, noting their spectacular cocktails and whiskies list. Let me tell you here and now, he wasn’t joking.
The Rickhouse is an interesting bar on Kearny st. in San Francisco; consisting of a front bar, back bar, and little known downstairs bar, the tenders at all three are slinging some of the best cocktails I’ve experienced. Raz immediately ordered a whiskey sour and in doing so ingratiated himself to the staff who inquired if they could use egg whites, to which Raz’ reply of “well, are you going to make it right?” was met with adoration. That adoration didn’t ware off either, and somehow transferred to the rest of the group as we moved downstairs and continued to order old school whiskey cocktails that were delivered with exceptional precision and care. The downside here is that I can’t recollect the specifics of what I had, as I was ordering bartender’s choice, and they were riffing on Old Fashioneds and Manhattans in new and amazing ways. All said, after having a sip of Raz’ Whiskey Sour, I have to agree with his statement that it was indeed the best whiskey sour I’ve ever had.
It is while we are in a world of mixology induced ecstasy that the remainder of the 3DC crew arriving on Friday finally show up. It is with warm welcomes, hugs, and exuberant effusive exclamations that Sean and Justin enter the lower bar. As when more in our group arrives (regardless of location) a scene is made and the bar pauses to determine if the commotion is a threat. Quickly determining that there is no threat, nor celebrity sighting, the bar goes back to ignoring us and we continue to passionately imbibe and share our cocktails as if we were Ponce de Leon discovering the fountain of youth. And, perhaps in that moment, we really had discovered the mythical elixir, as for me at least, it was as if I were thrust back into the wonder of it all 16 years prior; a them I found would repeat itself throughout the weekend. Having drunk our fill (and being herded upstairs as they closed the lower bar), we opted to move on and head back to the hotel for more drinks in Fergus’ room where he had some special bottles waiting…. but alas, we were sidetracked on our way.
Another not-quite-tradition ran us into a delay as we were derailed from our due course into an alley bar boasting a bright blue flashy light as the siren song for Sean. You see, Sean has a history with the 3DC of leading us all into some of the worst bars we’ve encountered, one of the more magnificent failures being a hair salon serving beer in the back. We know this will happen, and are always expecting it, but are never really prepared for when it happens. In this case, we only spent a few minutes in the bar (enough for one drink, though a few of us declined to imbibe there), and we were soon enough on our way back to the hotel were we found ourselves once again among quality whiskies and a less-divey more subdued environment in Fergus’ hotel room.
For the next hour or two we imbibe in some of the most spectacular whiskies around: a flight of Knappogue Castle, beginning with the 1954 and working our way to the 16 year, with a number of other Knappogue Castle expressions in between. Since it was so late at night, I didn’t bother with any proper tasting notes. There are some times and situations where it is simply more important to experience the whisky in the moment, enjoying the company and passion surrounding you than focusing on documenting the tastes. This was obviously one of those moments, and truly one of the main reasons the 3DC do what we do; it is the bonding of lifelong friendships with the excuse to come together imparted by the whiskies, not the whiskies themselves.
Moseying to bed around 3:30am, I slept the sleep of the intoxicated; deeply and impervious to the snoring in the bed next to mine. As is normal for traveling (even after such a late bedtime) I was up, showered, and out the door by 9am. Gathering in the lobby awaiting the others, we finally collected and headed out to find sustenance. With the group moving rather slowly, and relatively ambivalent about where we chose to eat, we soon found ourselves looking for any place without a wait. Luckily we stumbled upon Original Joe’s where we found meals in abundance over our appetites. I don’t think any of us actually finished more than half of our plates.
Bellies full, we determined the hotel was an appropriate place to be, some of use noting that naps before the event Saturday evening would be a solid idea to ensure the rest of the day and night were not wasted. I can vouch for the fact that rest was indeed the right idea at this point and in no way impugns my status as a professional drinker. With an hour and a half of an air-conditioned nap, another shower, and a 5-hour energy drink behind me, we made our way out to yet another non-tradition that seemingly sneaks up on us every year: early dinner at Kennedy’s Irish Pub and Curry House. You may think curry before a whisky tasting is a bad idea, but I assure you it hasn’t impacted our experience at Whiskies of the World in the least and in fact serves us well to have a light dinner before hand. It was at this point even more of the group came together, and I was able to introduce two friends from Portland (Carrie and Courtney) to the wonders of the 3DC and a Whiskies of the World weekend.
I was really looking forward to Carrie and Courtney’s visit as it allows me to see the event through the eyes of first-timers and renew the passion and once again find the wonder in it all as seen through new eyes. Mind you these two aren’t any slouches when it comes to whiskies; they have now hosted a few PDX Whisky events themselves and have proven their own preferences and tastes fit right in with the 3DC crowd. These girls know their whiskies and because of that level of knowledge I was very interested to see how they reacted to Whiskies of the World and the immediate barrage on the senses when you enter the boat.
Having finished our dinners and reconvened at the boat to queue up for entrance, the final remainder of our group began arriving, making introductions and chatting through the wait for the doors to open. Lots of disparate conversations were to be had and I found it difficult to pay attention to many, rather finding myself focusing in on a small group at a time, which of course meant I didn’t get to interact with as many people as much as I’d have preferred. Ah, one of the few down sides to a group as large as ours. Even so, once the doors open, our group takes the free for all approach and tries not to move in packs as that tends to slow everyone down. Instead we flow through the tables finding what we are individually looking for, then as we cross paths during the night, trade information about any new discoveries or fantastic drams we think the others would enjoy. This always ends up with ad hoc small groups coming together for 10 minutes, then splitting off again, only to reform in a different group minutes later.
This particular event was different for me, however. While I’d normally taste and note down my findings in our 3DC Tasting Book, I found this year I was more focused on the experiences and talking with a few of the reps and distillers presenting their products. It’s no surprise why this was my focus, especially once I realized how many new American whiskies, and specifically American single malts were being shown. I’ll admit, I was initially deflated when I realized how many were there, as my own business was built with my partner to focus on an American Single Malt Whiskey when there were none on the market. So, to see so many now was a bit like the wind in my sails had just been taken by larger ships in the same tack. It took me a moment to regain my composure and remember that competition like this is what our company thrives on; that it just pushes us to do better and improve at every opportunity. So, with renewed vision, I was very please to make another observation: the hit tables of the evening were all the American distilleries. While the Scotch tables were busy, some being busier than others, there were also a number of tables from what I’ll call the “big boys” in the industry which were virtually unattended; no lines, no queues, no one clamouring to talk with those reps… just open space around them while the crowds gathered around the small independents who are admittedly putting out some remarkably good drams.
Two of note for me were the Westland Single Malt and Peated Malt whiskies, as well as the Wayward Single Malt by Venus Distilling. Both companies are created some wonderful expressions right in line with my own. Of course I also sought out Corsair Artisan Distillers since they have been a very influential part of my own focus on innovation in the industry. Speaking with Jason, the Director of Sales for Corsair, he walked me through all of their expressions including their newest gin and the barrel aged version of the same. Having the opportunity to sample their line of products was a highlight for me even though I could have obtained them easily elsewhere… but here I was able to talk about them with Jason and experience them anew next to Courtney and Carrie whom had found space at the table as well and were eagerly enjoying the samples as I was.
For the early part of the night, I moved from table to table alone; but quickly connected with James, my friend from our old LiveJournal days who shares a love of The Balvenie with me, and we then moved together from table to table comparing notes and ideas about what we were experiencing. Just as I enjoyed experiencing the event through others’ eyes, it seems James was enjoying seeing it through mine, with more of a technical, business, and production focus than I’ve had in prior years. Again, not entirely surprising.
As happens, the later the evening gets, the more our group tends to congregate and linger together with one or two running off to discover a new dram we’ve all been talking about, or to nurse our waters and while away the remainder of the evening until it is time to disembark and head on out to the next watering hole. The pack migrated from the 3rd floor down to the stern of the boat, outside as we waited to collect the others. Just outside the door, as the attendees were leaving, Sheridan took it upon himself to remind all participants about the “Irish whiskey tasting tomorrow morning… details are on the site”…. There are few pure amusements as watching Sheridan troll inebriated whiskey fans with so much confidence and unadulterated deception.
Here’s where I skip ahead to the Rickhouse as Courtney, Carrie, James, and I were the first to arrive. The bar was busy as you’d expect for a Saturday night, but the cocktails didn’t suffer (the wait might have). As we were waiting on the rest of the group, the main bar erupts in a loud chorus directed at a single individual… “RAZ!” we hear the bartenders shout, as the godfather himself enters the bar. A true 3DC rockstar entrance if there ever was one. Mind you, we’d only been to this bar once before and Raz is already being welcomed like a famous regular. Unfortunately, after another 40 minutes of waiting for drinks, we determined that the Irish Bank was going to be better for the group, and so made our way the block and a half over, where we find more of our group had already landed for a late night bite. The remainder of the evening was spent in inebriated bliss, surrounded by friends and chosen family singing Irish drinking tunes, inducting new members, and feeling like home is not necessarily a place but a feeling when events/circumstances/and people align just right. For those fleeting moments, I realize that I am no longer a 3DC in exile, but rather a 3DC at home when 3 or more gather with the passion of friendship and whiskies surround us.
Like the night before, the evening ends with us in Fergus’ room drinking whiskies. After all, there were new people to share the Knappogue Castles with! Pizza was ordered, and consumed, more whiskies were imbibed, and at some point we all made our way to our respective rooms and passed out…. again at 3:30am. It was a long day, but a day that will continue to bring me down to the city for fear of missing such amazing people and experiences that you just can’t plan. Weekends like this are organic in their flow, and any attempts to force the flow one way or another are met with disaster…. following it like an inner-tube on a lazy river always rewards with rich experiences.
Sunday comes far too early, but most of us are up, showered, and at the hotel’s breakfast buffet by 9:30am. A nice leisurely meal is had while our group filters in and caffeinates, rehydrates, and takes sustenance for the trip home. As most of our group is leaving in mid afternoon, we opt to take a quick walk through China Town, partially in hopes of having a drink at Li Po, but alas they were closed when we passed by. Without much fortitude for thought at this point, we all opt to go back to the hotel, collect their bags, and have some final drinks at the hotel bar before it is time to depart. When everyone flitters off, Raz and I are left and we decide to go find a late lunch which involved another walk through China Town, only to end up back at the Irish Bank for a last meal. A nice, quite time for us both as we chuckle, recap, and reflect upon the weekend. I can’t help but consider myself unbelievably blessed with such an amazing group of friends that can come together as we have, time and time again, to enjoy life in a hedonistic frenzy of whiskies and love for one another. We really do enjoy a very special kind of life together.
I see Raz off, and realize I now have the city to myself. I get a hold of James, who invites me over to a friend’s house where they are watching their children play and enjoying some adult time. This is big for me as I am finally able to meet James’ wife, but his nearly 2 year old child as well. I’m quite touched by the warm reception I encounter, and have a lovely late afternoon sipping wine and whiskey. James’ friend invites a neighbor over, who owns a wine and spirits shop in the city, to sample the whiskey I brought and we chat about the industry some. Such a random unplanned connection, that I am hopeful may help in some small way down the line. I only wish I had distribution set up already so I could get bottles into his shop! Truly, more 3DC luck, quite like what we have experienced all weekend long.
After a wonderful, but all too short visit with James, his wife, and kidlet, (in which they introduced me to a Hungarian brandy-type drink called Pálinka that made me feel like part of the family, though that could be the liquor talking), I found my way back to the hotel for a late dinner and an early night to bed. The next morning I travelled back to Portland, with San Francisco all but a memory now. Another year at Whiskies of the World under my belt, and another year of amazing memories in my head. Someone remarked during the weekend that it seems the actual event Saturday evening isn’t really what we all travel for… and they’re right. We don’t travel for Whiskies of the World. The event is merely the excuse we use to join one another year after year, to enjoy our chosen family and let loose of all the things binding us down elsewhere…. to partake in a safe weekend of debauchery in only the way the 3 Drunken Celts can. Cheers to you all, my brothers and sisters. You are the reason we do what we do!