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Independent Spirits Expo Packs Bottom Lounge

By Roger Kamholz in Food on Sep 29, 2011 7:00PM

Bottom Lounge was awash with strong drink last night as the Independent Spirits Expo came to Chicago for the first time, gathering dozens of upstart liquor brands, as well as some familiar names hawking the results of their latest experiments. Although the crowd felt densely packed at times, it never seemed to degrade into sloppiness - as one might expect when the tipples are flowing at the rate they were yesterday evening. In fact, any spirits enthusiast would have been encouraged by the gleeful scene. The renewed attention on hand-crafted American-made spirits over the past several years has produced a broad and encouraging array of domestic distilleries turning out intriguing and inventive products.

The goal of the Indy Spirits Expo is for guests to "meet the distillers, brand owners, importers and others who make it possible for you to enjoy a great a variety of small batch, unique and artisanal spirits from around the world." It certainly succeeded.

We sampled bourbon made in the Finger Lakes region of New York state, apple brandy from Iowa, rye bottled in Utah, and rum from New Orleans, just to name a few. Our local distilleries were all represented, including the newest kid on the block, Evanston's F.E.W. Spirits.

Not all products hailed from the U.S. Bols Genever, from Amsterdam, was pouring debut samples of a new barrel-aged Genever at its booth. The genever spends at least 18 months in French Limousin oak barrels, which brings this malty, funky, herbaceous spirit - typically associated with gin - closer to whiskey territory. (It makes a tasty reboot to a traditional Manhattan.) Mexico was well represented. The Fidencio Mezcal booth presented its well-executed line of agave spirits, including a mesmerizing small-batch mezcal called Madrecuixe.

Given how brash and young some of these distilleries are, it was not surprising to encounter a fair amount brash, young booze. Many companies are bottling unaged "white" whiskeys or pulling their juice after only after a year or so in the barrel. Others are buying and bottling spirits from other, more established distilleries, while their own stuff continues to mellow out for a release in the coming years. So for all the tasty stuff we tried, it's exciting to know that there's even better stuff yet to come from these fledgling operations.