Earlier this month, the annual Harlem Whiskey Festival returned to the popular NYC neighborhood, and with it, the event brought some of the coolest new options in the liquor world uptown.
Going into the Harlem Whiskey Festival, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I’m not really a whiskey drinker, and I certainly didn’t know nearly as much about it as most people who arrived, but it turns out that expertise wasn’t needed to have a good time at this party, and surprisingly, neither was a taste for typical whiskey.
The focus of this year’s event seemed to be what’s new in whiskey, which is something of a funny thing to say, as it is a spirit respected most when it’s been sitting in casks somewhere cool for years, if not decades. The theme wasn’t promoted, and it wasn’t something that seemed to be chosen by those leading the event, but rather one that came about organically. The whiskey brands that showed up were the ones that had something to say and something to show off, and many of them are just trying to make their name known.
There was a cream/whiskey flavored beverage that came in a steel can (Magnum), a whiskey mixed with water from the Himalayas, which technically makes it the only brand to come from that part of the world (K5), an option that is working to become the first company to be entirely self-sustaining whiskey company (Whistlepig), an Indian whiskey (Paul John), and one man shilling several different brands, which he has found himself and which are only available in very limited quantities. He goes from small distiller to small distiller taking a bit of this and bit of that, and once he’s sold it all, it’s gone.
Those are all interesting takes on an industry that from an outsider’s view, seems to be a bit stale. How much can one talk about whiskey before it all begins to blend together? Only so much brand-speak can be spouted by representatives, and tasting dozens of options in a short span of time doesn’t often reveal one drink to be superior to the others. Instead, the Harlem Whiskey Festival showed that there are plenty of enterprising distillers who want to breathe new life into the industry, and that’s wonderful to see.
Heading to a whiskey event, I was expecting to hear a lot more about Kentucky, or perhaps Scotland, but that wasn’t the case. It was clear that everyone there knew their whiskey, and they certainly had a proper respect for the more traditional options and tastes, but this specific staging was all about the future. It might have seemed somewhat gimmicky to a true whiskey expert, but for those of us who were simply curious and looking to sample something tasty, this was an enjoyable evening of learning and tasting, and when it comes around again next summer, it’s worth a visit for any New Yorker—yes, even those all the way downtown.