In the spring of 2016, the whisky community gathered in New York City for the fifth annual Whisky Jewbilee. Produced by the The Jewish Whisky Company, the event had become a gathering of the whisky tribes from the all over the United States, from the Tri-State area to the western shores of the Republic. It’s a story fraught with angst, desperation, alcohol, fortunes won, fortunes lost, brisket, and, yes, murder. Or was it… moiduh?
Messrs. Hatton and Johnstone-Yellin sans Klaskin, all principals in The Jewish Whisky Company planned throughout the year like a father planning a bat mitzvah for their darling 13 year old princess which would be an apt analogy if it wasn’t for the fact that wives do all the planning for such simchas. Duh. But the gentlemen did their best party planner impersonations. Phone calls led to texts which led to Snapchats that had to be interpreted by preschoolers which led to e-mails which led to face-to-face conversations with vendors, exhibitors, caterers, and therapists all in hopes of raising the bar from the prior year’s Jewbilee, if that was even possible. The Jewish Whisky Company’s little baby is five years old now – young for a bat mitzvah, indeed – and as any parent knows, 5 is that age where those little darlings learn precociousness, sass, independence, loogies and the Happy Birthday song. Tame them now or they’ll be playing bass in a Hungarian lo-fi surf death metal band by 2nd grade. Challenging times.
Starting in 2012 on a shoestring budget, Jewbilee has become a fixture on the whisky calendar, and with recently added versions in Seattle and Chicago, it’s spreading its wings. Whisky Jewbilee was initially created in part to give the more observant (than me) Chosen Peeps of New York City a whisky show that didn’t fall on Shabbat. The boys of Single Cask Nation – their other moniker – are no dummies and went all Moneyball by finding an undervalued data point (the local Jewish community who love good whisky) that correlated to success (ticket sales). Too inside baseball? Translation: Hit ’em where they ain’t. And they did….
Josh Hatton (President, Jewish Whisky Co.): Big picture? We didn’t have an idea of a big picture way back in the beginning. Yes, we wanted to eventually start a whisky festival but did not expect to have one during the first year of our company’s inception. We really just wanted to launch an independent bottling company (Single Cask Nation) during our first couple of years and then see where things would go from there.
Raj Sabarwal (Exhibitor, Purple Valley Imports): We’ve been part of Jewbilee since the beginning. This is a more intimate show (although pajamas and lingerie are optional). The event continues to grow and attract new faces. Although it’s good to see old faces (you know who you are). The New York show seems to be getting established and gaining a reputation.
Stephen (Blogger, Malt Impostor): I’ve only attended Jewbilees in 2014 and 2016. I can’t believe I missed three of the five! But then again, that one year I made my plans to attend the ill-fated and ultimately canceled Connecticut Jewbilee that I believe was going to be held on a paintball course or some such. Damn Connecticut lasses always ruining the fun for the rest of us. And at least one other Jewbilee ended up scheduled against my
covert mission summer travel abroad.
Josh: That first year, another much larger festival moved their event in New York City from Tuesday to the Jewish Sabbath (it’s like White Shabbat as opposed to Black Sabbath) and BOOM, we had a ready made group of attendees that needed a good festival to attend.
G-LO (Blogger/Troublemaker, boozedancing.com): October 2013. Whisky Jewbilee II. That was my first. As the saying goes, you never forget your first. The venue for that event was Zanger Hall at the West Side Jewish Center. Instead of the remodeled top two floors of an old warehouse (Studio 450) that the show is in now, it was on the ground floor and in the basement of a 125+ year old building.
Aaron Krouse (Blogger/Comma Lover, boozedancing.com): 2013 was my first one. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. There was a line stretching down the street of mostly Jewish men waiting to get in this old shul. Hmmm. Too early for buying High Holiday tickets. This must be the place!
Joe Gratkowski (exhibitor, Diageo Masters of Whisky): I was talking with Ari Susskind at the Water of Life event a few weeks ago while drinking some of Josh Hatton’s old booze. Totally messed up my memories and misinformed Ari that I was at one of the first Jewbilees…public apology here. I had to go back through my notes… I almost worked the show in 2013, and definitely hung out with the Single Cask Nation crew on the NYC Whisky Guild Cruise that year, but actually physically attended and worked WJ for the first time in 2014, and have worked it ever since, regardless of whisky affiliation.
Stephen: The 2014 one I attended was great: I didn’t embarrass myself (overly), I negotiated the stairs well very late into the evening, and I got the voices in my head to quiet down for at least half of it.
Susannah SB (Blogger/Spirits Writer, whattastesgood.net): I went to Jewbilee in its second year, 2013, when it was held at a synagogue hall on the west side. That was especially memorable because Johanne McInnis, a Canadian whisky blogger and writer, came down for it and enlisted my help in surprising fellow bloggers just before the event. We went to Jewbilee together and she witnessed my epic hangover the next day with great sympathy. The event was fabulous, but I don’t miss those scary narrow, steep stairs.
Aaron: There was a fair amount of freaking out when Johanne McInnes popped in from the Great White North. It was surreal meeting all these people for the first time. Characters everyone of them, all built up in my mind around 140 characters oddly enough. No one disappointed, aside from me. It was crowded and hot. Josh Feldman found me at Raj’s booth and bearhugged me into the next borough. After it was all over, I found myself sitting and talking to a rabbi in the social hall for about an hour about this and that while SCN boys finished the clean up. Josh Hatton was so pissed off because someone walked off with a case of their first bottles. Wonder if they got them back?
G-LO: That first Whisky Jewbilee was outstanding and I’ve been lucky enough to attend each one after that. If I were a baseball player, I’d have a batting average of .800. If I were a basketball player, I’d have a field goal percentage of 80%. With stats that impressive, only one question remains: How do I monetize this? I took the train back to Philly right after the event and missed Susannah’s epic hangover the next day. Maybe next year.
Sarah Baumberger (Blogger/photographer, boozedancing.com): 2014 was my first year at Jewbilee. I remember thinking that Aaron was/is nuts to fly across the country for one day for the event, and I was right, he is nuts, especially since he came back again this year!
Aaron: Hey! I’m right here. I can hear you.
G-LO: While I’m no stranger…
Aaron: yet very strange…
G-LO:…to large format whisky events, there was something a little different about Whisky Jewbilee. This was an event that was created by whisky geeks for whisky geeks.
Joe: There are a few hazy memories that pop out from 2014. As a newbie to Jewbilee, I was green to a few topics and wondered, “Where are the promo models?” Some topics still haunted me years later, such as: How can we improve the whisky lanyard? Later solved by Matt Lurin.
Josh: Six months of planning and coordinating for a 3-hour event does not seem to make a bit of sense, at least not until we’re in those three hours, then it’s all magic. Jason and I have planned each and every event since its inception and don’t really like delegating. We are, however, very thankful for the teams that help us in each city. The day would not go smoothly if not for them (we’re looking at you Nachi, Jamie, and Kevin, and the teams you help manage!!). Our wives are amazing too and support the &!?*%#! out of us.
Raj: The folks behind WJ (Joshua, Jason, Seth) are whisky geeks. They live, breath and sleep whisky. This means that they get access to unique offerings. Who else has ever offered a single cask of Wild Turkey for a festival bottling?!
Josh: Festival bottlings are non-existent for whisky shows in the US. Throughout the UK, Europe (that’s a tricky combination of words these days, eh?) and Asia, festival bottlings are the norm and well sought after. As festival goers ourselves, we’ve always been a bit jealous of those shows. We thought, why not bring this sort of tradition to the U.S.? And, if you will it, it is no dream. To date we’ve had six Whisky Jewbilee festival bottlings and each one has been an American whiskey. We’ll see what the future holds…
Aaron: The Festival Bottling is a fun idea. You don’t see that at other U.S. whisky shows. And the story being told on the labels of the WJ bottles is creative as heck. I’m waiting for the manga version.
Susannah: Jewbilee always has a few new faces and exhibitors that I’ve never seen before, though I may have heard of them. The auction tables are a special treat, and my guess is that only events like Jewbilee, which caps the number of attendees, would be able to entice these sorts of exclusive exhibitors. Jewbilees past and present are where I’ve had my first taste of brands like Kavalan, Westland, and Wolfburn, plus plenty of excellent independent bottlings (I’m looking at you, Creative Whisky Co.).
Josh: We like having a good mix of exhibitors and really focus on small, independent producers be they from Scotland, ‘Murrica, India, Ireland, etc… Still, other events will have many of the same exhibitors that we have, so we try to go the extra mile by laying down our simple rules to our exhibitors: First, no “dolly birds.” – No eye-candy models doing the pouring, female or male. We want brand or distillery direct people behind the tables that can speak intelligently about the whiskies being poured. And second, no VIP hour. We really believe that everyone is a VIP and should be treated as such. If an exhibitor has that special VIP hour bottle under their table, then bring it and pour for those who are really interested in your brands.
Sarah: There seems to be more interesting choices here. I always feel like I get to try more new drams there than at other shows, ones that I haven’t seen before. Isn’t that one of the reason in going to these things?
G-LO: There are several smaller brands that I ONLY get to see at Jewbilee. Kilchoman, Tamdhu, Koval, High West, Blackadder, The English Whisky Company, Amrut, Westland, Balcones, Brenne, and many others were in attendance this year. As a guy that loves to try new, exciting, and occasionally weird whiskies, Jewbilee is my kind of whisky event.
Joe: You do see many of the same faces regularly on the whisky circuit. I love seeing all the members of the Whisky Fabric and catching up over drams. It is a lot like Melrose Place, sans all the hooking up!
Stephen: There are some different faces at the WJ. I mean, this year Scotch Whisky Auctions had a table! As did Rick Wasmund from Copper Fox in Virginia. Not the typical faces at these (NYC) events, to be sure. Plus, for at least a little while, several of us were wearing Groucho Marx glasses. Hardly the typical faces in that case.
Josh: Exhibiting goes two ways. We have the ability to fit 600+ people in the venue and could likely sell that number of tickets if not more (thanks to our supporters!). However, we cap the attendance at 450 people so that people have time to talk with exhibitors. We want it to be a fun event as much as it is a learning event.
Aaron: Crowds suck. Ever been to a mall on a Saturday? Less is more and that’s a big draw for me at WJ. It’s rarely a long wait to get a pour or to talk to a pourer. And what’s the worst that happens while you wait? You kibbitz with your friends. Well, that actually may be the worst. Forget I said that.
Raj: While the Big Boys and Girls will always be present. WJ allows the little fish to play in a big pond. Keeping the table fees EXTREMELY reasonable so smaller distilleries and importers can participate without having to take out a second or third mortgage (you do realize that the word mort means death?!). It’s great that WJ does not allow show models to handle table duties. Although I’d still question the knowledge of some of the reps: One rep for two large brands had never heard of the term “teaspoon whisky”, even though his distillery offers those – LOL!!
Aaron: At one point, I’m upstairs (probably eating) when a nice couple comes up to me. Raj sent them over because they’re from Southern California too, and we have some mutual friends. It turns out the woman is a ballet fan so I hustle them downstairs to meet former ballerina, Allison Patel of Brenne. They start talking dance and the next thing I know, I’m behind the Brenne booth pouring for attendees. How the hell did that happen?!
G-LO: Everyone in attendance that I talked to, both the people working behind the tables and the people walking from table to table in search of that special pour, knew what they were talking about when it comes to whisky. And speaking of those in attendance…
Raj: It’s an event that attracts interesting participants.
Susannah: I like the people who self-select for Jewbilee. Sure, there are a few of the “give me your oldest whisky” types who only seem interested in getting their money’s worth, literally, but for every one of those, there are five or ten true enthusiasts who want to chat with reps and fellow attendees. People are much less pushy at Jewbilee than at other events, to the point that the whole thing feels very laid-back and unhurried and I’m always surprised when the closing bell rings. All the neurotics either stay home or are quickly subdued by the booze. I’m talking to you, Aaron!
Raj: The New York WJ certainly attracts a larger proportion of Jewish attendees. I admire their love of whisky and the want to learn.
Aaron: There does seem to be quite a few Jewish people at Jewbilees. I feel right at home. I just need someone to kvetch about something then I’d really feel at home. I’d kill to hear someone whine that “this whisky is tooo OLD!”
G-LO: Jewish? Really? And all this time I thought it was just a bunch of guys trying to cover up their bald spots. Who knew?! I’d say I could use one of those yarmulke thingees, but they don’t make ’em big enough to cover up my chrome dome.
Aaron: I wonder what the Jew to Gentile ratio is.
Josh: The ratio of Jew to Gentile at Jewbilee 1 was about 99.44% to 0.56%. The same ratio would apply when it comes to men to women (or is it Boys II Men?) – there wasn’t a foreskin within 300 feet of the venue. Did I just say that?! Jewbilee 5 had a Jew to Gentile Ratio of 70-30, and the men to women ratio followed suit. We’re incredibly happy about this evolution. We’ve always said that it’s “Whisky first, JEWbilee second.” We wanted to create a whisky show for whisky lovers/geeks. And, to that point, we find that many of our attendees are very knowledgeable and those that are not (yet) are there to learn and ask A LOT of questions.
Sarah: Yes, there does seem to be quite a few people of the Jewish persuasion at this event. Curious! Lots of people get caught up in what others are wearing to these things. As far as attire, I’m too busy worrying about my own outfit to bother seeing what anyone else is wearing! Two years ago it was hotter than hell in the city and I was schvitzing walking from across town with Aaron and G-LO. I thought they were going to die until we cut through the air-conditioned heaven of Macy’s. I almost stopped in the women’s section to buy a dress to change into.
Joe: Attendees? Attire? I ain’t talking! I have a mortgage to pay.
Stephen: There were more attendees this year than there were in the 2014 event (again, I was under extraordinary rendition abroad in 2015, so I can’t comment on that event), and it felt a bit crowded compared to previous events (read: 2014). But it really wasn’t crowded. I’ve been to events where I’ve wished I’d worn a tie, because that would’ve helped hide how I sweated through my shirt – and this was nowhere close to that. But the number of people is a strain on the elevators, I’m sure [please note that I said “number” not “amount” of people – both because I actually know how to speak English, and because I was commenting on the number of times the elevator has to go up and down, not on the attendees’ girth.]
Aaron: Nice save, Stephen.
Raj: Having participated in shows for a number of years, both as an attendee and an exhibitor, I’ve noticed that there are certain types of attendees. Now, not all of these “stereotypes” are present at every show and I mean no offense to anyone, but over the years they’re always represented.
G-LO: The people in attendance at Whisky Jewbilee aren’t your typical whisky drinking slobs. No Fireballers here or they’re hiding it well. There are some serious whisky discussions going on at every single table, and on more than one occasion, I was pointed in the direction of a “must try” whisky by one of my fellow attendees.
Raj: Let’s see. We have the The Rookie or Novice (“I don’t know anything about whisky, my friend’s brought me here. Where should I start?”). And there’s The Snob (“What’s your best whisky?”). The Mathematician (“What’s your oldest whisky?”). The Enthusiast (“What can you tell me about your whiskies?”). The Engager (“I’ll be at your table for a while and want to taste everything you have – tell me, I want to learn.”). The Silent Type who holds his glass out to you without saying a word. The Swag Grabber who takes anything on your table and after the show goes around to grab glasses, and anything that isn’t nailed down. And the Geographically Impaired (“I love this Indian/ Australian/Japanese/French Scotch!!” or “Where in Scotland is your distillery?…It’s in India…”There’s an India in Scotland?”).
Stephen: I’d say that Samoans were a bit underrepresented. The dress was a bit more casual than other events – and I dearly, dearly love that – but that’s only because some of us wear our Single Cask Nation work shirts. It’s very much like my Red Sox jersey: I paid good money for it, but truth be told, I’m only wearing that thing to a game – or this year’s World Series Parade down the streets of Boston.
Aaron: Ladies and Gentlemen, the 2016 World Series Champions… your Los Angeles Dodgers!
G-LO: In years past, I never really paid attention to the food.
Aaron: And you love food.
G-LO: I’m talking here! This has more to do with the fact that we usually do quite a bit of snacking BEFORE the event, so I’m rarely hungry, but I’m always very thirsty, so most of my attention goes to the whisky being poured.
Josh: We thank our lucky six-pointed stars that the Brisket King of New York (Ari White of The Wandering Que and Gemstone Catering) is our caterer for our NYC event. He’s been with us from the very beginning and the event is as much a passion of his as it is of ours. Leah’s Catering in Seattle has gotten some of the best praise we’ve seen, too. Why have mediocre food paired with the best whisky in the world?
Susannah: The food is A+, though I’d like to see some more carbs.😉 The tuna poke was outstanding!
Raj: The food and service is exceptional. Where else will the “runners” fix a plate for an exhibitor?
Aaron: I’m a fresser from way back. I could snack on this chow all night if that damn whisky wouldn’t get in the way. How about a Kosher Food Jewbilee?! Anybody? Anybody? Hello? Is this mic working? It’s fascinating to me how the food seems to be a bit of a star of the show, and draws people aways from the whisky booths!
Sarah: I think the fact that people lined up for the food says a lot about it. Hands down Jewbilee has the best food of any event I’ve been to. You just aren’t getting tuna poke, salmon pastrami and smoked brisket at any other whisky events. Damn, we’re spoiled.
Stephen: In my review of the event on The Malt Impostor, I raved about the brisket. That brisket kicked the crap out of any other whisky event food, all by its Kosher self. The pasta and quinoa and such on the second floor should have been replaced with pizza, because that’s the only way the vegetarians might not have ended up feeling royally screwed. But royally screwed they were – and by the two vegetarians who organized the event! Amazing (I’m shaking my head here in amazement. You can’t see me so I wrote it out.)…But also, really outstanding brisket. Did I mention the brisket?
Aaron: It is kind of crazy how good the food is. At one point I’m eating herring (I think). I haven’t eaten herring since I was, like, 8 and I spit that up on my dad’s shoes. This was not my father’s herring.
G-LO: Prior to Whisky Jewbilee V, we did a good bit of walking and a little less snacking, so by game time, I was pretty darn hungry. Since the SCN boys were kind enough to let us in early to take photos before the crowds piled in, I was able to really examine the buffet before everyone started digging in. The Ahi Poke Tuna, Gravlax and Pastrami Lox, and Smoked Beet Salad on the top floor looked so good that I pretty much stalked the buffet…I’m sure Security had me scoped out early…and immediately made a plate of goodies as soon as the buffet opened. Since it tasted even better than it looked, I had several helpings of the stuff.
Joe: I ate at last year’s but didn’t at this time. I usually eat before and after events so I can technically be on the clock the whole time. I try not to take too many breaks. Towards the end of every event I generally feel the same way: “I’ll pour you anything I have in my bag for a slice of pizza.”
Stephen: True story: the pastrami was tolerable, and I don’t even like pastrami. I went up to the “meat” line, fully intending to get me another round of that briskety nectar, only to have some dude plop a bunch of pastrami on my plate. I did what I could with it, but I don’t dig the fat on pastrami, so I let it go. Sometimes you just have to.
Aaron: If you start singing a medley from Frozen now, we’re shutting this whole thing down.
Stephen: So, I went back again, and this time I targeted the brisket dude, to whom I said, “I want a real lean piece or two,” to which he responded, “Brisket has no fat on it, man!” But rather than exclaim, “Dude! I KNOW! I just got fatted by your bro there with some pastrami I never wanted, and I’m here to set things right!”, I just said, “Thanmphhloo,” as I shoved some of that beefy goodness into my brisket-hole. Did I mention the brisket?
G-LO: The first floor was all about BBQ. It was packed most of the night, so I didn’t partake until later in the evening. The brisket and pastrami were insanely good. Damn, I regret not having more of it. And then there’s the pulled beef sliders. Three words: Sliders on Staves! During the final moments of Jewbilee, I tried them as they were being walked around by the servers on barrel staves! Two more words: ridiculously good! Bonus two more words: beautifully presented! I can’t think of a better way to end the night.
Susannah: I love the venue! I hope they never leave. The light, the open-air upstairs, the clean and spacious ladies’ rooms (never to be underestimated) – it’s the total package. And it never feels crowded. And that high ratio of men to women means no lines for said ladies’ rooms. It’s like a Rush concert.
Aaron: Heh heh. Heh heh. She said “package”. Heh heh. Heh heh.
Sarah: I love the venue too. Gorgeous place and I love the fact that there’s a terrace too. The only downside is the cigar booth being next to some of the whisky exhibitors. I wish there was a designated space for cigars. For me, the smoke really ruins my tasting experience. I nearly spit whisky in Peter Silver’s face as I choked on cigar smoke, but he’s a dentist so I guess he’s used to being spit on once in awhile!
Joe: The venue choice is borderline reckless! These gorgeous large windows let in a ton of natural light. Aside from oxygen, what is one of the main enemies of whisky??? Light! What good are breathtaking views if over an extended period of time they hurt the beautiful liquid? But it’s really a beautiful place. I dig the industrial feel and the skyline. Plus, I love a huge elevator. Ha!!
Josh: We can thank our good friend Aaron Menche and his business partner, Steve, for finding Studio 450. It’s the perfect venue for what we’re trying to do with the Jewbilee in New York.
Raj: Studio 450, is no Studio 54, but then again my disco days are over. I like the venue, especially the roof top. Much better than the location for the first New York WJ.
Josh: The only challenge is the elevator ride on the way up but as of 2015 there was a new elevator put in place to reduce the ride time to the 12th floor by 50%, and we have a freight elevator, too, if people want to use that.
Stephen: Two floors are key to a) avoiding boredom; b) avoiding certain people; and c) suckering a bunch of people away from the brisket.
Aaron: It’s a pretty dramatic view for a dumb west coaster. Empire State Building over there. Freedom Tower over there. New Jersey over there. Well, two out of three, ain’t bad.
G-LO: Though it’s in an odd and somewhat remote feeling part of town (it’s just a stone’s throw away from the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel), the views and wide open floor plan make this the perfect place to host a whisky event. And if all that weren’t enough, the weather was just right, so we were treated to a glorious Manhattan sunset no matter where we were in the venue.
Josh: In years past, the check-in process was 100% manual, slow and a bit of a pain for everyone. It is now all automated with some handy-dandy phone apps. Welcome to the twenty-teens!
Susannah: This year’s must-try-whisky was Westland’s Garryana cask. What the heck was that?! Like drinking cinnamon red hots in the best possible way. I can’t wait for this one to hit the market so I can drink it over and over again.
Sarah: For sure it was the Westland Garryana. G-LO and Aaron took me back for seconds. Or was it thirds?
Stephen: This year the “IT” whisky was Westland’s Garryana. Named for the Cooperative Republic in the northern part of the South American continent, known for its capybaras… Wait. Wrong place. Ah, garryana, as in Oregon oak. Yes, that Westland was boss.
Raj: Aside from what I was pouring (ha!), I loved the WJ Show offerings, the Douglas Laing Dundas Single Grain, and a few others. I really don’t get a chance to get to many tables as I’m stuck behind mine. But it is fun to trade drams with other vendors.
Joe: The Jewbilee bottling of Wild Turkey was unique for a WJ. Didn’t see that coming! Yummy! Compass Box Circus, Port Dundas 27 YO, and there was a beautiful Springbank 9 YO that was aged in a refill Marsala hogshead. And Lagavulin 8 hands down! Soft, fresh, chocolate and smoke…besides, I have a mortgage to pay!
G-LO: So many special whiskies to be talked about. Did anyone mention the Westland Garryana? The not-quite-ready-for-prime-time but still really friggin’ good Balcones Rye. Blackadder Raw Cask English Whisky Company 7 YO. Those three whiskies (and several others that I won’t mention since I’ve already gone over my favorite drams quota) would be very welcome additions to my wee whisky cabinet.
Aaron: Did anyone try the Westland Garryana? It was a barn burner. I was at Jewbilee in Seattle back in the spring and was disappointed that Westland didn’t have it there though it was scheduled to be. There were those old ones – Cabin Still and Ambassador – that were more interesting than good, like most old people, present company included.