Photos and words by Ruben Gzirian
In my previous life, I was a bartender at The Gibson. And while you’d be right in thinking that many of my nights devolved into hazy recollections fitting of a quite evening with Hunter S. Thompson, I also picked up a fond respect for the nuances of whiskey; so much so that when people ask me what my favorite cocktail is the answer is almost always “bourbon whiskey neat.” With my bartending days behind me, I was worried that as I made my way past the PETA protestors and into Washington City Paper’s 5th Annual Bacon and Bourbon Festival, I was entering a stupor in sheep’s clothing.
The showroom was awash with display tables hawking whiskeys from local Virginia distilleries, more established distilleries (such as Four Roses), and even our very own District Distilling Co. and Jos. A. Magnus & Co. Distillery. The variety was impressive, but was somewhat indiscernible. Prior to hitting the showroom, I decided I needed a sensory warm up and headed for the Michter’s table to have some of their Unblended American Whiskey. The sweet butterscotch and vanilla hit me immediately, lingered and evolved throughout, and disappeared in a rush of heat that only a 83.4 proof (41.7% alcohol) whiskey can provide. Feeling warm and confident, I walked out onto the main showroom floor.
Overall, the whiskeys on offer were very good. Each whiskey, whether it was the Virginia-Highland Whiskey from Virginia Distilling Co with its woody undertones or the Backroom Bourbon from District Distilling Co. with its effervescent rye spice notes, offered something for every whiskey palette. And while I loved trying brands I never heard of and some that I faintly remembered from my Gibson days, I couldn’t escape the feeling that the presence of well-known producers like Four Roses and Highland Park made it that much more apparent why small producers often struggle to get their name out. Local distilleries not only find it difficult to establish name recognition, but they also immediately lose out when it comes to price. For example, one Virginia Distilling Co. representative told me that one of their bottles was going for around 58 dollars, which for a lot of casual whiskey drinkers is a non-starter when you can get a bottle of comparable (if not better) whiskey from a major distillery for cheaper. But I suppose that’s the whole idea. Whiskey (especially Scotch) has an air of exclusivity, and many of these local brands are banking on the hope that you’re tired of drinking a “typical” whiskey you can find in any liquor store or bar. It’s a romantic idea, but not one that I feel really resonates when you’re standing in the whiskey section of your local liquor store.
In terms of food, the options were limited compared to the whiskeys, but had a few standout hits nonetheless. The Old Blue BBQ buffalo sausage slides and the bacon ricotta crostini were two dishes that you want when you want more than one. Each dish was savory and wrapped in salty smoky notes that helped quell the intense heat of the surrounding whiskeys. The best dish was by far District Distilling’s dates wrapped in house-made bacon. The classic contrast of sweet and salty was so perfectly paired with their in-house Backroom bourbon that I overhead someone nearby deep in the throws of bacon lust remark “those PETA people don’t know what they’re missing.”
After having as much whiskey and bacon goods as I could stomach, I hastily exited the event onto a bustling 14th street. As a I stood there on the precipice of intoxication, I thought about what this event meant. Events like this are supposed to showcase diversity, and for the most part this event did that. The whiskeys were varied, and the food was in perfect lockstep. I can only hope that for next year’s iteration the focus is even greater on local producers and allows attendees to better understand some of the intrepid distillation happening in and around D.C.