Japanese Whisky And The Problem With Food Festivals

29 September 2016

Suntory Whisky Toki and miso-glazed chickenI had planned on helping to weed the nearby community garden on Saturday, followed by some light packing for my trip to Vancouver. But before bed on Friday night, something told me to check my email. “I’ve been able to secure a ticket for you for Saturday!” a message from a PR firm read.

I felt a most extraordinary and peculiar sensation: disappointment that I would have to forgo weeding in order to attend Chicago Gourmet.

Before I delve further into my perversely skewed priorities, duty requires that I spend a moment describing the delights of Suntory Whisky Toki, a Japanese whisky released this past June. Suntory’s PR firm organized my Chicago Gourmet media pass in spite of sell-out conditions on Saturday, and even went so far as to procure me a “Staff” bracelet when my media pass was stolen from the PR rep.

The very idea of Japanese whisky was met with grave skepticism even just a few years ago, according to Gardner Dunn, the Suntory Japanese Whisky Senior Ambassador. “Eight years ago, I had to convince people it wasn’t made from rice,” he said, as we chatted in Suntory’s shoji screen-clad tent. (The whisky is made almost entirely from corn, with a touch of barley added for its enzymes.)

Oddly enough, this whisky hasn’t yet been released in Japan. I asked Dunn why, and he said, “We think it’s good enough, and maybe we’ll release it there in 2018. We’re not sure.” In the meantime, this Japanese whisky is available only in North America, the market for which it was tailored. “We know what the U.S. consumer wants,” Dunn explained. “I’m seeing a craze for bourbon, rye… sweeter whiskies. That’s why this whisky has a little complexity but is easygoing.”

Suntory Whisky TokiHe’s exactly right. I tried this blended whisky neat, and though it had a fresh and light aroma undergirded with some wood, it felt lush on the tongue. That initial richness quickly gave way to big spice and some fresh tobacco on the finish, and on the whole, it felt very well-balanced. Peat-phobes need not fear this whisky.

It’s pleasant enough neat, but really, it was intended to stand up to dilution in a highball, a cocktail which is reportedly wildly popular in Japan. In fact, I met a man dubbed “Mr. Highball” in the Suntory tent, and he told me that though highballs were an American invention (“Be sure to write that they’re an American invention,” he said), they have become exceedingly popular in Japan, where people drink the mix of whisky and sparkling water with food, “like a beer.”

The Suntory Whisky Toki is big enough and spicy enough that it doesn’t entirely lose its character when mixed with sparkling water, as some whiskies do. With a twist of citrus, it makes an exceedingly refreshing (and low-sugar) cocktail, and it indeed works well with food, as I discovered when I paired it with some savory and bright miso-glazed chicken with Fresno pepper and burnt lemon. “You need to have a soda water with big bubbles,” a companion of Mr. Highball explained. The best, according to her, is Fever Tree.

The whisky costs about $40 a bottle, which doesn’t seem at all a bad value, particularly in comparison to other Japanese whiskies, which typically cost upwards of $70. A search of Binny’s selection revealed only one less-expensive Japanese whisky, the Mars Whisky Iwai.

If you’ve never tried a Japanese whisky, you certainly couldn’t go wrong by starting with some Suntory Whisky Toki.

Chicago Gourmet 1With my duty complete, I turned from the Suntory tent towards the heart of Chicago Gourmet, a sea of tasting booths and hungry people. And tasting mean one thing to me: work. Weeding is like meditation. Tasting I’ve turned into work. It’s pleasant work, to be sure, and I love that it’s part of my work. But delightful though the work may be, it’s still work.

I looked around at all the people who weren’t working, and I can’t deny that I felt a bit baffled. Chicago Gourmet ranks among the city’s most expensive events. Tickets this year cost $185 per person, plus a shameless $22.27 ticketing fee charged by Eventbrite. That totals an insane $207.27 per person.

Unless, of course, you want to spring instead for a Grand Cru ticket. And at this point, why not? Those will set you back $229.57 per person, including fees. That price doesn’t necessarily include seminars such as “The Tao of Tacos,” however. That run for the border costs an additional $106.92.

Chicago Gourmet Line 2You then get access to a beautiful park full of tents offering all-you-can-eat nibbles from notable restaurants as well as numerous all-you-can-sip tastes of various wines, spirits and cocktails. It’s all very fancy.

You also get access to lines. Long lines. And it’s hard to feel fancy when you’re standing in a line — several of them had amusement park-style switchbacks — with an empty plastic plate in your hand. The line for the seafood pavilion alone easily held more than 100 people.

I decided to try a little experiment. I selected one of the shortest lines, the line for Tasting Pavilion #8, to see how long it took to get something on my plastic plate, and whether that something was worth the wait. There were no switchbacks. Switchbacks make me feel like I’m waiting in an airport for my luggage to be searched and my body to be backscattered. Just a line.

Agnolotti, crudo, burger and pork croquette at Chicago GourmetIt took me exactly 15 minutes to make it through, and for my effort, I was rewarded with some overcooked butternut squash agnolotti (actually an agnolotto) with a pomegranate/balsamic reduction, serviceable shrimp and scallop crudo with cilantro and Fresno pepper in a citrus marinade, a decadently rich burger of braised short-rib with peppercorn aioli and baby arugula, and a savory pork croquette with sweet-and-sour cabbage atop a celeriac/truffle oil purée.

I adored the burger. But I know other adorable burgers that can be had for about $15. With fries.

The wine and spirits booths also proved to be hit and miss, and the hits tended to have lines as well. The Prisoner sentenced people to waits of about 10 minutes, by the look of things. But to be fair, those unwilling to wait for Roederer, for example, could walk right up to the Prosecco booth.

I felt unwilling to wait for Roederer, and I didn’t even have to pay for my ticket. How did people who plunked down more than $200 to attend Chicago Gourmet feel about queuing for their Champagne? I just don’t see how it’s worth it, paying that kind of money to access food and drink — after a wait — that’s presented, in many cases, as if it were part of a sales pitch.

Do any of you pay to attend food festivals like Chicago Gourmet? Why not just have a fabulous dinner for $200 a person somewhere? Somewhere that serves food not on plastic plates.

Obviously I’m missing something, because Chicago Gourmet sells out every year. What am I missing? Write a comment and fill me in.

My Buttons Get Pushed

21 May 2015

Wine All-in-One For DummiesIt will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that I have a soft spot for an underdog. That’s one of the reasons I love to highlight unusual and obscure wines and spirits. It gives me great joy to write about wonderful bottles that far too few people know about, and wine regions that don’t get nearly the attention they should.

It was with some irritation, then, that I listened to a woman at a recent lunch held to promote Chablis complain about the state of Chicago wine lists. “Nowadays, sommeliers here seem to think the weirder, the better,” she opined, “and I think they’re not doing their job of educating the consumer about wines they really should know about.”

I thought about it, and I realized that this judgmental comment most likely results from her feeling threatened: If someone considers themselves to be something of an expert in wine, and a wine list confronts them with all sorts of unfamiliar options, it potentially calls their expertise into question. I wish instead that she would look at such moments as opportunities to learn and grow as a wine consumer. But I know that’s difficult — for some of us, myself included, it takes some effort to keep our wine knowledge and our self-esteem untied.

Later at lunch we discussed the price of Chablis, which tends to be much lower than other white Burgundies. “The Chicago wine consumer just isn’t as sophisticated,” she suggested, irritating me yet further. “So you can’t charge as much as you might in, say, San Francisco or New York.”

I protested, but her neighbor at the table agreed. “No no, the wine scene is definitely more sophisticated in New York and San Fran. You could charge a lot more for a bottle like this,” he said, gesturing to a Premier Cru, “in Manhattan than you could in Chicago. The consumers there know that it’s worth the money.”

I felt defensive of Chicago and our wine scene. I’ve always taken pride in Chicago wine shops and wine lists, which tend to offer a surprising breadth of wines from around the world. Lacking a wine region of our own, we serve wines from everywhere. And we have demanding palates as well, as evidenced by our weird (some might say adventurous) wine lists.

But you’ve no need to take my word for it. Lettie Teague, the New York-based wine columnist for the Wall Street Journal wrote a fascinating article in 2011 comparing the wine scenes in Manhattan and Chicago. She gives the edge to her home town, but if you look at the evidence she presents, Chicago appears at the very least to tie the Big Apple in terms of wine sophistication.

I still wondered, though, if the Chicago disparagers across the dining table from me could be right. Were New Yorkers more willing to pay for quality than Chicagoans? Does the wine market there bear higher prices?

With so many Chablis producers each producing a variety of wines, it can be difficult to compare apples to apples. After some hunting, I finally found a store in Chicago and a store in New York each selling exactly the same wine: the 2012 Louis Michel & Fils Les Clos, a Grand Cru Chablis. Binny’s, which ranks among Chicago’s best-priced wine shops because of its immense size, sells the wine for $89.99 a bottle. Flatiron Wines & Spirits in Manhattan, however, sells the wine for $84.99.

While not thrilled that Chicago has a higher price for this Chablis than New York, I can’t deny feeling vindicated.

Chicago may be the Second City — pancake-flat and in the middle of the Midwest — but that doesn’t mean we don’t know what we’re doing. You don’t have to go to New York or San Francisco to get great wine anymore. That duopoly ended years ago, and it isn’t just Chicago that ended it. You can find compelling wine lists and wine shops in all manner of cities around the country these days.

New York, San Francisco, you’re fantastic. I love you. But the rest of the country is doing just fine.

Our Handy Local Distillery

2 May 2011

When two friends and I entered the diminutive Koval Distillery, a heady aroma immediately struck us. I thought it smelled like yeast, Andrew sensed vinegar and Mark caught a whiff of elephants. Something special was brewing here.

Chicago’s first legal distillery since before Prohibition opened just 2.5 years ago, in a charming old brick building next to some commuter railroad tracks. Robert and Sonat Birnecker decided they wanted to start a family business, and since Mr. Birnecker had learned the craft of distilling from his grandfather in Austria, they opened Koval.

Now, they work to rejuvenate the boutique distilling traditions lost to the ill-advised experiment of Prohibition, creating unique, painstakingly handcrafted whiskeys and liqueurs. All are organic, and all are kosher.