Some of my good friends invited me to be a judge at this years LAISC, at the Fairplex – where the Los Angeles County Fair is held.
Prior to my drive out there looking at google maps, I was expecting to see a desert like environment, devoid of any trees, grass, or water. I was pleasantly surprised to find an oasis like environment, friendly people, vast golf courses, and high quality accommodations.
Our first dinner of the competition was in Upland, California. My good friend and travel companion Ryan Steely, one of the best artists I know, as well as all around good dude gave a nice talk about the area of Upland. Apparently the place was a veritable garden of eden around the turn of the century, with some of the earliest orchards and vineyards in California.
My panel was a great group of industry insiders and veterans, and I feel that we took our job of tasting 63 whiskey’s from all over the world extremely seriously. The color and aroma’s truly ran the gamut, from rich amber, pale honey, and dark molasses. The most difficult spirits were certainly the cask strength, some definite nostril singing stuff came across the table on several occasions.
The staff was top notch, taking care of our every need, providing us with fantastic local olives to cleanse the palate which we all agreed were quite effective.
Personally I fould the bourbons, aged 10 years or less to be the most pleasing, but there were standouts in every category. The greatest variance for me was the use of oak (imparting some soft phenolic aldehydes) and peat ( smoky and mossy flavors). Interestingly enough our panel would find itself split into two camps more often than not regarding a score, usually along with the preference of these components, as well as the presence of residual sugar.
It’s tough to start tasting whiskey at 8am in the morning, unlike wine, the alcohol tends to permeate your mouth regardless of swallowing or not. Everyone at the table was sporting a grin and/or smile by lunch time.
Regardless of what I like to think, I am a lightweight when it comes to imbibing spirits (one of the reasons for my adoration of high altitude wines and their lower alcohol levels). My fellow judges though, were seasoned pros. Our second night out we were treated to fantastic dinner at Tutti Mangia in nearby Claremont.
A patron there brought in wild arugula for the chef, who then sent us a fantastic cappellini pasta featuring the spicy green. I normally don’t eat much pasta, but I found this really delicious – the arugula wasn’t as peppery as I expected and extremely tender.
Naturally, one of the judges brought a Methusalem ( 6 liters ) of 2010 Caymus Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon from 100% estate grown fruit in Napa Valley. This was a monster at 15% alcohol. Definitely the biggest wine bottle i’ve ever seen opened table side. Several decanters were brought out to handle this beast of a wine.
I will say that the wine had a certain barrel taste going on; on the nose I got oak, oak, and more oak. The fruit was dark, rich, with blackberry jam and baking spice. Not much acidity here, nor expression of terroir just incredibly ripe fruit. The malolactic fermentation here reminded me of agave syrup in the mouth and the finish was like a silk dress sliding off the tongue with smooth tannin. For sure a once and a lifetime experience, but way too young. This wine could’ve easily gone (and needed) for 20+ more years.
I surprisingly didn’t feel the alcohol as much as I anticipated, though I certainly could’ve been densitized at this point. I was more astonished that our group of 9 judges polished this whole bottle off, I think we worked it out to almost a bottle of wine per person. After my recent tastings in Napa I was expecting to dislike this wine, but it was quaffable. The main reason why? I ordered the Ribeye.
This thing was a vegan delight that I could not conquer, though I tried. There is something about meat I find so beautiful. The Maillard reaction gracing my plate with a dark crust, a fleck of hard herbs, rare, encased in a caul of warm chewy fat. Meat Bliss.
Dessert was something the chef whipped up with my friend and Chopin proprietor Tad Dorda’s (the Polish James Bond), Dorda Double Chocolate Liqueur. This stuff is like my secret weapon for dessert cocktails. Normally I don’t really do desert in attempts to limit the calories. As I looked at my fellow judges, every plate was scraped clean after eating this rich chocolate vodka crepe with caramel. Superb.
The results of the judging are going to be released in a few weeks. The second day we decided to be extra diligent and retaste all of the liquors we felt were worth of a gold medal to award best of class and show.
A great experience overall, I’m excited to hear who the winners are (the entire tasting was blind). After all the whiskey, wine, and martinis I’m fairly certain that I will be taking a drinking hiatus for a while to let my liver recover.