The spirit of it all: 5 things I learned at Distiller’s Showcase

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MANCHESTER, NH – The annual NH Distiller’s Showcase is an exciting way to sample more than 400 spirits and food from several local restaurants, learning more than you can retain about alcohol, all while supporting a meaningful cause: the Animal Rescue League of New Hampshire (ARLNH).

I was lucky enough to attend this year’s event on November 9 at the Radisson Hotel – my first time. But if you missed it, don’t worry: I’ve pulled together a list of the Top 5 things I learned since attending the Distiller’s Showcase:

1.    Everything is good

I went with the express goal of sticking to whiskey – it’s my favorite, there was plenty of it, and my body would probably feel better if I didn’t treat it like a bartender’s sink. I rapidly found that this goal was impossible. There was simply too much good stuff!

Somewhere between Caledonia Spirits’ gin and Tall Ship Distillery’s rum, I lost any sense that I was simply a “whiskey-drinker.” Their ability to make clear alcohol taste smooth and complex surprised me. Suddenly I found myself tasting absinthe and limoncello, and I realized: it’s all delicious.

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I’m still thinking about this Barr Hill gin, made with 100% raw honey. Photo/Bill Robidoux

Every spirit that’s made thoughtfully with care, purpose, and good ingredients is going to be high quality. And drinking high quality alcohol is enjoyable, no matter what your tastes are. And on that note…

2.    Free your mind, free your taste buds

As I’ve aged, I’ve become less selective with cuisine: I’ll now eat things I normally wouldn’t have a few years ago. Though I’ve never had too many restrictions when it comes to alcohol, there were a few things I’d always respond with a hard “no” to when offered. For example, Sambuca – I hate the flavor of licorice.

At least I thought I did. Drinking absinthe with friends, half-listening to the man behind his booth explaining the traditional way to imbibe the fabled liqueur, staring at the intricate glass contraption used to measure and mix the absinthe with additives, I had one of those “a-ha” moments. I “got” absinthe. I liked it.

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Aforementioned glass absinthe contraption. Photo/Bill Robidoux

Under the right conditions, with the right understanding, you can change your palate. It’s a beautiful thing, like setting your tongue free from prison. But that doesn’t mean you should find a reason to drink just anything…

3.    Once you taste forbidden fruit, there’s no going back

Remember how I just said I’ve become less selective? I’m now going to immediately contradict myself: I’ve been kind of more selective since the showcase. Not for everything, though – just for crap.

For instance, the night following the Distiller’s Showcase, some friends wanted to go out drinking. They wanted to drink Dr. McGillicuddy’s, which is an infamous alcoholic drink that tastes like mouthwash yet doesn’t get you quite as drunk. At first, I refused. How could I go from top shelf alcohol one night to a beverage you’d usually find under a bartender’s sink?

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It’s almost as if the giant bottle of Fireball was scaring people away… Photo/Bill Robidoux

A few drinks later, I found out how: a few drinks. And I regretted every millisecond of the disgusting mentholated shot. The next morning, I swore off “the Doctor” for good.

4.    I love these people, and they love you too

Talking to distillers while sipping their alcohol is one of the best ways to drink. I love distillers. They always have an eclectic background of skills that, coupled with a unique combination of passion and necessity, seem to breed an infectious motivation for experiencing flavor.

I’ve noticed the same thing in the brewing industry. Drinking with the people who make your booze totally opens up your palate, and you’ll discover flavors and feelings that you typically wouldn’t notice. With some producers, you can even taste a bit of their story in their product – like John Pantelakos, founder and owner of Tall Ship Distillery in Dover, a former paver who started making rum after his wife told him he was now “too old to pave.”

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Owner and founder of Tall Ship Distillery John Pantelakos, right, with Tall Ship distiller Matt Witham. Photo/Bill Robidoux

Whether their spirits are dedicated to the spirit of a deceased loved one, to highlight the culture of a region, as an ode to their own distinct personality, or just as a result of hard work, it all becomes clear once you share a glass with its creator and ask them about it.

Overall, the spirits were good and we were all in the spirit. Attendees were cordial and friendly, the room was bursting with grins, and the food was perfectly executed, complementing the flavors coming from the distillers’ booths.

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Owner of Flag Hill Winery and Distillery, Brian Ferguson, talking whiskey with an attendee. Photo/Bill Robidoux

Before too long, the event was over. I managed to snag a taste of Japanese-made scotch as the room began breaking down, and surveyed the fallout: practically none. A sign of pure satisfaction, people filing out slowly and without complaint, ready to move on the next phase of the night. For me, that meant pizza at Caesario’s down Elm Street, where I learned my final lesson of the night…

5.    Cheap pizza is always good when you’re a little drunk

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Where all good nights end.

Enough said.

All spirits at the event are available for sale at NH state liquor stores, by the way. With that in mind…

Highlights of the night:

Flag Hill Winery and Distillery, Lee, NH: Balanced and enjoyable local rye whiskey, though I like most of what they make.

Tall Ship Distillery, Dover, NH: Rum, rum, rum. All of their rum is good. Start with White Island.

Caledonia Spirits, Caledonia County, VT: Their Barr Hill Gin changed my mind about clear liquor. Turns out, it can even be enjoyed neat.

Green Hope Organic Vodka, Sonoma, California: The difference in taste between their cane vodka and wheat vodka blew my mind. You rarely think of a “flavor” for vodka unless it’s been added, but they’ve found a way to make their alcohol’s base essence shine.

Infuse Spirits, Las Vegas: With a full peach in one bottle and eight-feet of lemon peel in another, their infused, not artificially flavored, vodka would go over well at a cocktail party.

About the event:

“Since 2013, the New Hampshire Liquor Commission (NHLC) has raised more than $237,000 to support the Animal Rescue League of New Hampshire through its annual Distiller’s Showcase,” said Grace Ames, spokeswoman for the NHLC. “More than $85,000 was raised during last year’s event, and already the NHLC has raised $20,000 this year from a donation made by Tito’s Handmade Vodka.”

The total amount raised from the Distiller’s Showcase is still being calculated, according to Ames, but we’ll update this article when the numbers are in.

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