In Its Second Year, Houston Whiskey Festival Takes Steps Forward

You may remember that I covered the inaugural Houston Whiskey Festival last year. While I enjoyed myself, learned a lot, and discovered a couple of new personal favorites, the event showed some seams, as many first-year events do, and as much as anything, I was interested in seeing if the organizers had ironed those out. (Okay, drinking the whiskey was first, but after that, seeing what the organizers learned from last year as much as anything.)

This year, the event moved from Downtown and the Julia Ideson Building (501 McKinney) to the Bayou City Event Center (9401 Knight), just off the southeast side of the Inner Loop. While I enjoyed the class and decor the Ideson Building brought as a backdrop, the Event Center was a much more suitable location and a welcome change for a number of reasons.

The first improvement was both immediately obvious and solved the event's biggest problem: The space was much bigger, and the overcrowding problem disappeared. The larger space made navigation much easier and alleviated congestion.

Having an open space for the tasting conferred an added benefit. I was thinking about how great it was that the organizers hired live music this year, except that I remembered that there was live music last year-- but the layout of the Julia Ideson Building separated the tasting room from the stage, so the music was an afterthought. This year, it was prominent enough to be a soundtrack to the evening without being overly intrusive, a vast and welcome improvement.

(For an odd specificity, '90s R&B and hip-hop was en vogue that night: Over the course of the night, I heard covers of Montell Jordan's "This Is How We Do It," Blackstreet's "No Diggity," and Luniz's "I Got 5 On It", the latter an instrumental version by New Orleans' Hustlers Brass Band. We also heard sets from Jason Allen, Scott Gertner, and Jon McConnell.)

I thought the VIP Lounge was a nice added touch. Highland Park was serving its 12-year and its Dark Origins single malts, and another booth had a mixologist serving cocktails. The hors d'oeuvres selection was solid.

But one of the biggest problems last year was only alleviated in part: While almost no water was made available at last year's festival, this year's festival stocked bottled water on tables around the main tasting room-- yet they still ran out before the event was finished. That's not something you can afford to do when you're serving people 80-100 proof liquor.

In an odd twist, I was surprised at the number of offerings that weren't whiskey: I saw two vodkas, a rum, and a cognac, plus a number of spirits made with whiskey that weren't really whiskey. I tried a pecan pie whiskey that tasted like pecan syrup; I didn't try any of the other spiced or flavored whiskey. I don't begrudge the variety at all, but I would have liked to have seen more brands of whiskey whiskey-- that is, more single-malts, more bourbons, more ryes, more whiskeys made without adding other flavorings. (Even a number of whiskeys that were served were spiced, flavored, or blended somehow, which are not to my personal preference.)

It's not like the other spirits were keeping whiskey out of the festival, though: One attendee I encountered remarked that the space felt empty. It certainly could have fit more booths. More spirits available would probably have helped with the long lines at some of the tables as well. (To be fair, this was only a problem at a few especially popular booths.) I spoke to Tim Briscoe, head of the festival, about the process of selecting brands for the festival, and he told me that he was contacted by many artisan distilleries interested in participating and featuring their spirits at the festival, hence the relatively large percentage of boutique spirits.

Although some of my favorite Texas distilleries, like Balcones and Garrison Brothers, didn't make it out this year, the Lone Star State did show up: Rebecca Creek, Ranger Creek, and Houston's own Yellow Rose were represented. In fact, much like Balcones surprised me with its Baby Blue last year, its unique flavor becoming a personal favorite of mine, I discovered a Texas whiskey that uniquely piqued my interest. The Ranger Creek Rimfire, a mesquite-smoked single-malt, was both easy to drink and carried a smokiness that was unique among whiskeys I'd tried: not briny and salty like a peat-smoked Scotch, nor overwhelmingly smoky and barbecue-flavored like the Balcones Brimstone, this was a rich, woody smoke that rounded off the grain nicely. I haven't tried it since, but I'm going to have to soon to see if it confirms my first impressions. (Ranger Creek brews beer as well as distills whiskey-- I may have to plan a trip to San Antonio soon.)

All in all, the second Houston Whiskey Festival was a solid improvement over the first and a good time. Personally, I'd like to see more brands of traditional whiskey next year, and for a higher percentage of what is offered to be whiskey. More water is an imperative. As far as everything else goes, though, I though the festival made some good strides last year and was overall a success. I expect I will be more than happy to attend again next year.

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Nath Pizzolatto