At this year's Whiskey & Fine Spirits Festival, some traditional tastes stood out | On The Rocks | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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At this year's Whiskey & Fine Spirits Festival, some traditional tastes stood out

Falling for a French apple brandy, a Pennsylvania rye whiskey and more

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The Pittsburgh Whiskey & Fine Spirits Festival, a salute to all things distilled, stampeded through Rivers Casino late last month. The annual event showcased hundreds of spirits from around the world, accompanied by shot girls, elaborate displays and an all-important buffet.

Since then, I've had the chance to reflect on — and sleep off — everything I took in that evening. The casino was awash with new products, many of them capitalizing on America's still-voracious appetite for flavored spirits. From coffee tequila to fiery bourbon, distilleries of all stripes are scrambling to stand out in an increasingly crowded field.

But the best thing I tried wasn't flavored, nor was it new. In fact, my favorite sip at the Whiskey Fest wasn't whiskey at all. Just before it ran out, I snagged a taste of Calvados, a French brandy distilled from apple cider. This particular Calvados, made by Boulard and aged for 20 years in oak casks, smacked of apples, with hints of caramel and vanilla. In other words, autumn in a glass.

Though Boulard hails from across the Atlantic, some of the night's other stars came from much closer. Dad's Hat, a whiskey distillery near Philadelphia, debuted a straight rye whiskey, the first in Pennsylvania in more than 25 years. It was spicy and full-flavored, a wonderfully meaty backbone for a Manhattan or Sazerac.

Boyd & Blair brought along its award-winning vodka, which is made in Glenshaw, just minutes from the casino. Though I often find vodkas interchangeable, Boyd & Blair's has a distinctive starchy sweetness, redolent of the local potatoes from which it's made.

The trend of flavoring spirits with everything from birthday cake to wolfberries shows no signs of stopping, of course. But sometimes, simpler is better. There is beauty in an apple brandy that tastes only of juicy apples, or a rye whiskey that explodes with the assertive earthiness of the grain itself. No flavorings — or shot girls — necessary.

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