People have been making booze from grains for thousands of years, but no field of human endeavor is immune from fads, as last month’s 17th WhiskyFest amply demonstrated.
Held on Oct. 29 at Midtown’s Marriot Marquis, Whisky Advocate magazine’s annual event was dominated by trendy artisanal American producers, where only five years ago, Scotch whisky prevailed.
And among the small-scale domestic producers, the in thing is to age whisky in barrels that had previously been used to age Pinot Noir wine. At least five distillers from three different countries tried to sell me on their Pinot Noir-aged whiskies.
All of this cutting-edge moonshine comes at a price, of course. Over the four-hour, Oct. 29 event, 2,000 paying participants, some who paid as much as $295 for admission, had the opportunity to sample 410 different whiskies in addition to some non-whisky booze.
Because of schedule changes that at times had WhiskyFest falling on Shabbat, the Jewish presence at the event has diminished, but a faithful remnant remains.
Some were old hands, such as Shlomo and Ruth Shinall of New Rochelle, who were attending their fifth WhiskyFest, and happy to be able to come back for “both the Scotch and the lectures.” While others, such as Charles Pollok of Randolph, N.J., who was attending Whiskyfest for the first time, described it as “tremendous. I came straight here from the airport, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. There are whiskies to taste that fit our needs and fit our shuls. … It’s thrilling.”
Next year, WhiskyFest is scheduled on Thursday, Sept. 24, one day after the end of Yom Kippur, but despite the inconvenient date, most of the Jewish attendees interviewed indicated that they planned to attend. None more enthusiastically than Pollock: “If it were post-Yom Kippur and I had time to get here I would come,” he said, adding that even if it were on Yom Kippur, he would come after sundown and break his fast on a single-malt scotch.
The following are four of the most interesting, moderately priced, recently released whiskies I tasted.
Lot No. 40, Single Copper Pot Canadian Whisky, 2012 Release (Coby Distilling, Windsor, Ontario): This pure rye, pot-stilled whisky has had a cult following in Canada since it was first, briefly, released in the late 1990s. In 2012, Corby revived the brand to critical acclaim, and while the 2012 Release has long since sold out in Canada, a small amount was exported to the U.S. earlier this year. According to Don Livermore, the master blender for Corby’s J.P. Wiser’s brand of whiskies (which includes Lot no. 40 as a blending component), a new release of Lot No. 40, which has been aged for an additional two years, has just been bottled, and should be available in the U.S. within the next six months. With a coppery-caramel color, and a nose redolent of fresh baked rye, pumpernickel and spice, this whisky has a lot to offer. Look for flavors of rye bread, fresh rye grain, pumpernickel, allspice, candied ginger, and Seville oranges. Perhaps the best young rye I’ve ever tasted.
Score A/A- ($54.99. Available at Heights Chateau, 123 Atlantic Ave., Brooklyn,  330-0963)
Green Spot, Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey (Midleton Distillery, Cork, Ireland): Throughout the 19th century, and up until World War I, pot-distilled Irish whisky was the bestselling type of whisky in the world, but the confluence of grain restrictions during the war, economic depression post-independence, and, prohibition, all but destroyed this once popular style. In recent years, Midleton Distillery, Ireland’s largest distillery, and currently the only producer of single pot still Irish whiskey, has not only begun to produce a growing number of such whiskies, but also to export them to the U.S. One of the most recent to arrive in the U.S. is Green Spot. A blend of 6- and 10-year-old whiskies that were distilled from both malted and unmalted barley, this rich caramel colored mix has a lively aroma of heather, apples, toffee and toasty oak. Look for flavors of vanilla, apples, and allspice, with a note of sherry and a smooth-creamy undertone.
Score A/A- ($47.99. Available at Beekman Liquors, 500 Lexington Ave., Manhattan,  759-5857)
Jura, Brooklyn, Single Malt Scotch Whisky (Isle of Jura Distillery, Argyll, U.K.): Last year Jura Distillery’s master distiller, Willie Tate, brought samples Jura to a group of foodies from a dozen Brooklyn-based businesses (including the Bedford Cheese Shop, Brooklyn Brewery and Brooklyn Magazine) in order to create a new Brooklyn-inspired expression of Jura. Jura Brooklyn is a vatting of Jura from a bourbon cask, a sherry cask, and a pinot noir cask. The nose of the whiskey has notes of honey and espresso, but is mostly dominated by the European oaks. Look for flavors of honey, dark fruits and smoke, but here, to, the flavors from the pinot noir and sherry casks tend to dominate.
Score B+ ($61.99. Available at BQE Wine & Liquors, 504 Meeker Ave., Brooklyn,  389-3533)
Defiant Single Malt American Whisky (Blue Ridge Distilling Co., Bostic, N.C.): First released in 2013, Defiant is a good example of one of the truly unique American whiskies, created by an ever-growing number of craft distilleries that have been popping up in the last few years. What makes this whisky truly unique is its method of aging. Distilled from 100 percent malted barley in a hybrid pot/column still, the whisky is aged for only 60 days in a barrel containing hand-cut spirals of toasted white oak. The resulting whisky is far darker in color, smoother, and oaky than one would expect from such a young whisky. With a light-caramel color and a light body, this smooth, easy-drinking whisky has a nose dominated by the aroma toasty oak. The flavor, which has only the slightest hint of oak, is sweet and malty.
Score B/B+ ($41.95 Available at Sherry-Lehmann 505 Park Ave., Manhattan,  838-7500)
Please note: whiskies are scored on an ‘A’-‘F’ scale where ‘A’ is excellent, ‘B’ is good, ‘C’ is flawed, ‘D’ is very flawed, and ‘F’ is undrinkable. Prices listed reflect the price at the retailer mentioned.