Mad scribblings and inexpert musing

Engine Yard Whisky Dinner, CodeConf 2011

published: 2 May 2011 01:05:00PM

Update 5/3/11: Scroll to the bottom to see a near comprehensive list of what we drank. If I missed anything, do let me know.

Firstly, I'd like to thank Engine Yard for knowing that geeks tend to be inter-disciplinary and enjoy geeky discussion of things other than code! They also made an excellent choice in inviting Craig because he's clearly one of the biggest geeks on the planet... in the field of Scotch Whisky. Since the Whisky dinner was at Engine Yard's office a group from the Convore chat for the conference decided to meet at and walk from the hotel. I had to run back to the Nowmov office to grab the rest of my stuff since I was intending to take the train home directly from dinner. So myself, Steve Klabnik, Tom Preston-Werner and his wife, and a bunch of other folks from the conference all walked down over together. About three blocks from the hotel, I found $20. I'm not lying, nor am I lying when I say that that was without a doubt the worst part of my evening. The rest was just that awesome. Upon arrival we were told to snag t-shirts, which were created specially for the evening and parodied GitHub's "Fork You" shirts, which you can customize with your GitHub handle by placing your name on the back in the blank after, in case you haven't seen them yet.

After snagging a shirt, we were directed toward the "soft drinks" which consisted of Guinness, Stella Artois, and Lagunitas IPA. It was hard not to notice the sea of clear plastic cups all around us, each filled with a small measure of brown liquid. I had a beer or two over good conversation while Craig and Randall were finishing up. I have to admin, I was a little anxious to get started as I noticed that on the last table was a bottle marked Lagavulin, which is a distillery which comes highly recommended by @vanden and @mcnalu on, but which I haven't been able to try yet. Add to that, the fact that it is getting on toward 8:25 and the last train home for the night departs at 9:15 and is a ten minute walk away. Things finally start up and Randall introduces Craig, who is very tall and has been wandering around enigmatically the whole time. After a brief introduction by Randall, Craig tells us a little about his history and current job:

The only difference between myself and an alcoholic is I get paid.

He launches into the official definition of Scotch Malt Whisky which is any spirit which meets the following criteria:

  1. It is made using malted barley from Scotland exclusively.
  2. It is distilled in Scotland.
  3. It is aged in oak barrels for a minimum of three years.

That's it, that's all that you need! Once everyone is on the same page, he introduces us to the first whisky of the night.

Johnnie Walker Black Label

The Johnnie Walker, he explains, is significant because it sells. And provides jobs for a vast number of people relative to the other distilleries. Economic reasoning aside. We also discuss the very quick finish of the Johnnie Walker which attempts to make up for some of the sweetness, whilst simultaneously letting you get another glass without delay.

Glenfiddich 12 Year

Throughout the night, Craig's explanations of the different whiskies was both narrative and informative. Even if you didn't care a hoot about the history of Scotch whisky, he carried you forward with the story of it. I certainly saw more faces in rapt attention than lost in smartphones. The Glenfiddich itself was as smooth as I remember it being when I sampled some at Christmas, it lacked the complexity of some of the ones we had later that night but I'll definitely consider it as a potential light whisky, or breakfast whisky, as Craig called it.

Aberlour 12 Year

The Aberlour was the first of these that really got my attention, it was complex yet smooth and had a much stronger oaky aroma than the others. Not much was said about the Aberlour distillery itself though the transition topic between the Aberlour and the Macallan discussed the difference between Scotches from the Highlands, Speyside, and Islay. The gist of which was that they have historically produced whiskies with certain characteristics but that the region is no surefire indication of the actual product.

The Macallan 12 Year

I found the Macallan to be a little underwhelming, considering it's such a high profile Scotch. It certainly wasn't bad, mind you, but it's priced much higher than Glenfiddich and has a very similar flavor profile. Though, I may have to revisit it as I drank it rather hurriedly in order to get to the first of the peated Islay whiskies.

Caol Ila 12 Year

Wow, just, wow. This was the stand-out Scotch of the evening for me. Tremendously oak aroma which was also present, though subtler, in the taste. The Caol Ila did not taste as peated as the Lagavulin or many of the whiskies later enjoyed in the smoking room but it really made up for it with the great oak flavor. I'm just raving at this point so I'll say no more about it.

Lagavulin 16 Year

Before the Lavagulin we were treated to a brief and somewhat premature announcement regarding the Fandabbydozy and the difficulty getting it into the country, but more on that later. The Lagavulin has been recommended to me by @vanden for some time. Basically since I asked the internet for Scotch recommendations. Sadly I was never able to locate any. But Craig provided I actually recall feeling a little underwhelmed by it, but I expect that's because I was so keen on the Caol Ila. This is another one I want to try again a little earlier in the evening.

Non-Smoking Room

After the Lagavulin we were released into the wild to to visit the three rooms which had been mysteriously marked Smoking Room, Non-Smoking Room, and Exam Room since our arrival. Those who were familiar with certain properties of Scotch like myself probably guessed at the difference between the two rooms and were correct. The Non-Smoking room held the unpeated whiskies. In here I tried things like the Macallan Cask Strength and the Clynelish 14 year, which was my favorite of the non-smoking room. There was a third bottle in here but I can't recall what it was as there was no room for it on the back of my shirt.

Smoking Room

This is the room for me I knew it'd be awesome, what I didn't know was just how awesome it would be. My notes rapidly begin to decline in quality in this room. So I know the scotches were excellent. In here was an Ardbeg 12 Year, the Laphroaig Murray McDavid, and again, a third which I cannot recall because I ran out of room on the shirt.

Exam Room

When he introduced the other two rooms, Randall also introduced the exam room. In this room there were a number of cups containing an unnamed spirit. Our goal was to try some and identify in as much detail as we could, using the techniques we learned from Craig, the spirit in the cups. Everyone would pitch their card with their guess written on it into the pile and the winner would get a bottle of something wonderful to bring home. I was one of the last people in the room and submitted my scrawled flavor notes just as they were getting ready to pick the winner. What I wrote follows:

  • Cardamom, floral, juniper
  • Almost like a genever
  • no peat
  • 47% - 55% a.b.v.

The instructions were to put as much detail as you could, so I rather hubristically attempted to add some technical details in the hopes that it would set me above the competition. It also proves I was pretty well into it that evening. As it turns out, the exam room contained a gin rather than a whisky, which had been aged in oak barrels. It was really good and I've been informed that it's available at Bi-Rite in San Francisco and intend to make my way down there to get a bottle for myself as in addition to my newly acquired scotch habit I'm also a gin drinker. So I wasn't all that far from the mark and I have to confirm with Randall but I'm pretty sure the alcohol content conforms to my guess as well. However I didn't take first place since a gentleman from Engine Yard had received a bottle of the very same gin for his birthday and had sampled it the previous night. There are two possible reasons for the events which followed. Either everyone else was way more drunk than I was, or I have an incredibly silver-tongued alter ego when drunk. I managed to convince Randall that A: The guy from Engine Yard kinda sorta cheated by having had some the previous night, and B: There should really be a runner-up prize anyway. By the strangest of coincidences I just so happened to be the runner-up. Fancy that!

At the end of the night, they found an untouched bottle of the Murray McDavid to award me with and I have been saving it for the launch of my side project which I will talk about in a later post when it's closer to being done. Right now the powers that be (school) have conspired to take all of my free time and replace it with homework. If there's any justice I should have it up and running by the end of May, but Tanj!


What can I say about it... well, the Fandabbydozy was brought from Scotland under unusual circumstances but we drank all the evidence of it away so it should be fine to discuss. It was excellent. Certainly the first time I'd had a single cask whisky. I didn't pick up as many of the flavors described on the bottle but I certainly did enjoy my first, and second, and third drams of this bottle. (Randall was very generous with it though I tried to protest and let other people enjoy it.)

Photo credit goes to Jacob Helwig.The originals are [here][1]

In the End

All in all, it was a great night, I took home a bottle of Laphroaig for my fanatical devotion to flavor and by the time I left I was sober enough that I got back to Union Square without getting lost. Thanks again to everyone at GitHub and Engine Yard, the CodeConf speakers, fellow volunteers and attendees, and in particular to Tom and Theresa Preston-Werner, Jacob Helwig, Steve Klabnick, and Chris Bertels, all of whom were a source of excellent conversation throughout the weekend. It turns out Chris and I work in the same office suite, with different folks and in opposite corners so I'll likely be pestering him about Fancy for some time. And lastly, a HUUUGE thanks to Craig for his fantastic presentation and excellent conversation. I look forward to having a few drinks with you next time you're in San Francisco. If anyone would like more detail on the scotches or topics I wrote up here, I urge them to ping @whiskycraig on Twitter.

Complete List of Drinks

  • "Soft" Drinks
    • Lagunitas IPA
    • Stella Artois
    • Guinness
  • Main Stage
    • Johnnie Walker
    • Glenfiddich 12 Year
    • Aberlour 12 Year
    • The Macallan 12 Year
    • Caol Ila 12 Year
    • Lavavulin 16 Year
  • Non-Smoking Room
    • Macallan Cask Strength
    • Glengyle
    • Clynelish 14 Year
  • Smoking Room
    • Ardbeg 12 Year
    • Murray McDavid
  • Exam Room
    • Ransom Old Tom Gin
  • Special Appearance
    • Fandabbydozy Single Cask