G-LO: Well, you did it again! A red-eye flight from LAX to JFK on Tuesday evening, an afternoon of eating and drinking in Midtown Manhattan on Wednesday afternoon followed by a 4 hour Kosher BBQ and whisky event in Battery Park at a little thing called Kiddushfest – World of Whisky, Brews, and Que, post-event whisky and cocktails at The Dead Rabbit, a MASSIVE slice of artichoke pizza in the West Village at 1AM, 2.5 hours of sleep, and then a 9AM flight from JFK to LAX on Thursday morning. What’s your secret???
AK: We can sleep when we’re dead. Or at work. The thrill of the whisky festival chase gets the adrenaline flowing. So we chase. And chase. And chase. Oh, and the thought of seeing you was a huge thrill. Zzzzzzzz…
G-LO: WAKE UP! No sleeping on the job!
AK: I’m awake now! Jeez! That was my good ear you were yelling into.
G-LO: And yes yes, whisky festivals always get the blood pumping. Though as we’ve said before, it’s less about the actual whisky, and more about the opportunity to see friends. Whisky is THE excuse for all of us to get together. It’s a catalyst for chrissakes!
AK: Oh, indeed, we’re surely at the point these days in our whisky journey to admittedly care more about the people we see, the sights and sounds, and the food. Cask Strength GlenOak 12 “The Overly Ryed Series”, Single Barrel Old Whipper Snapper 18, and similar mean less now after realizing that all are overpriced, pretty horrible, and unnecessary. Whereas the friends we see at these events are none of those things.
G-LO: Whipper Snapper 18? I must have missed that one. I really should pack my reading glasses when I go to these things. I’m really glad you mentioned the food by the way! The NYC Jewbilee always took the food really seriously, so even though they’ve been mothballed for an undetermined length of time, I was very VERY pleased when we broke the news that their caterer, Ari White of The Wandering Que, was launching Kiddushfest to take its place. Mmmmmm….. BRISKET!
AK: Did someone say Brisket? Mmmmmm…I so gloriously recall Jewbilee II that we attended at the West Side Jewish Center in Midtown Manhattan. The Center was packed with people. It was packed, hot, and sweaty. I didn’t know anyone except from this thing called the internet. For all I knew, you were were a 5’ 8” blonde bombshell in 8” stilettos and fishnet stockings. Boy, was I wrong! I was scared beyond the capacity for rational thought. But I was also overwhelmed by the smell of whisky and cholent. I felt like I was in my grandmother’s house in Inglewood, CA. All the fear left my body as I waited in line for Ari’s delectable offerings. My head basically exploded. Then my stomach. I might have the order wrong.
G-LO: Explosion is an ugly (and messy) word. How about if we describe your experience at the outstanding Jewbilee II as a food and whisky-gasm? Much more appealing, and a little naughty too. In a nice way. The tagline for Jewbilee II should have been, “Leaves you satisfied and yearning for more…”.
While Kiddushfest was built around the same framework as the Jewbilees of Yore (that sounds like the name of a new BBC mini-series, no?), going from the West Side Jewish Center and Studio 450 (home of NYC Jewbilees III through VII) was quite a big change. We went from the hustle and bustle of Midtown Manhattan and the monolith that is Penn Station and Madison Square Garden to the just slightly less hustley and bustley area of Battery Park. In a way, we went back to the beginning, i.e. back to where the first settlements of what was once called New Amsterdam took place.
AK: Found this in my research (i.e. Wikipedia) on the origins of Battery Park as a public space in the 1840s:
Proponents said that the park would serve three purposes: abetting good health, improving the behavior of the “disorderly classes”, and showcasing the refinement of the city’s elite.
Well, my brand of public policy and civic benefit clearly believe that Kiddushfest is a great example of all three of those. Ok, maybe not the second one and the third one is kind of iffy but I’m sure we’re in way better health after the event. Who doesn’t feel better after a night of whisky and BRISKET?!
G-LO: While I can’t speak for you and your delicate constitution, I can speak for my very robust, Sicilian constitution, and let me tell YOU, I felt fan-freaking-tastic after Kiddushfest! I am quite confident in saying that the heady mix of yummy vittles, bottomless pours of The Water of Life, and delightful company in a picturesque waterfront location left me feeling refreshed and ready to take on The Town. Ok, so maybe not the WHOLE town, but I was definitely ready for a couple cocktails and some late-night snacks. And speaking of yummy vittles, you spent quite a bit of time speaking with the orchestrator of said yumminess, i.e. Sir Ari White! What was that all about?
AK: First off, my constitution is as robust as anyone!
Narrator: It wasn’t.
G-LO: Who was that???
Narrator: This was true. He was clueless.
G-LO: OK, that’s just freaky. I’m feeling like the Priest in Season 2 of Fleabag right now whenever that 4th wall was broken!
Narrator: But not as freaky as this blog.
AK: I’m forging ahead, pretending it’s one of the many voices in my head. Where were we?
G-LO: Ari White and The Wandering Que.
AK: Sounds like a band I’d like to be in. Talking to Chef White about smoky heaven. He can get all bbq nerdy or meaty egalitarian with ease. I’ve been nerding out on The Gospels of Aaron (Franklin) and Steven (Raichlen) as of late, trying to change my life, and make the perfect brisket on my Weber Kettle. Talking to Ari is another step in the process. And from a whole different angle since he cooks Kosher meat. But let’s not get too deep in the coals.
G-LO: You and your goddamn Brisket! I’m still holding out for an invite to the next West Coast Office Brisket & Whisky Fest. Bastard.
AK: First, it’s G-d damn Brisket. Let’s be respectful, you heathen. And second, my table always has a place for Elijah the Prophet, Scarlett Johansson, and you.
G-LO: I only heard bits and pieces of your Q-chat with Ari. While you two were talking, I was also listening to the Whisky Advocate peeps (Susannah and her Minions) discuss some stories that they were working on. I may be an eavesdropper, but I ain’t no multitasker! Especially when it comes to listening to two conversations at the same time. Tell me more about this Que-chat with Ari.
AK: Oh, we chatted about pink butcher paper, Aaron Franklin, wood, smoke, bark, cooking for a large group. You know, regular stuff. Probably the same stuff Ms. Skiver-Barton was going on about. You know how she is. She gets rolling on a topic and before you know it, you’re in the North Carolina weeds lost amongst the sycamores and fist-sized bugs wondering where the nearest fillin’ station is.
G-LO: Please, don’t even get me started on that Skiver-Barton woman. You know how it goes with those hyphenated last name people. Trouble with a capital “T”! Yes, I know that rhymes with “P”, and that that “P” rhymes with pool. But this ain’t River City, Pal! And we’re not talking about starting a marching band for wayward youth. We’re talking whisky and BBQ! And Madame of The Hyphenated Last Name most definitely knows her way around a North Carolina BBQ pit and a whisky distillery, so yes, we were most definitely in the weeds that night, but thankfully, the bugs weren’t so bad, and they were nowhere near fist-sized. What the hell were we talking about again???
AK: There may be nothing scarier than a hungry Susannah Skiver-Barton (aka SSB or Super Sonic Barton for short) waiting in line for brisket. The stomping of sensible shoes was surprising, I must say. I expected the drooling since I was too and, to be factually correct, we were standing by the door to the kitchen with the wafting of barbecue coming our way. Who wouldn’t drool? C’mon!
G-LO: Drool is such an ugly word. It’s right up there (or right down there depending upon your perspective) with moist. I prefer to say that our mouths were watering, and that the brisket was juicy and delicious. You know, cause it really was!
All this talk about brisket is making me hungry. Again! Let’s talk a bit about the whisky. Thoughts on the selections? Was there anything that really tickled your fancy? I mean, I certainly wasn’t gonna tickle your fancy! There’s a Mrs. West Coast Office for that bit of funny business.
AK: You’re such a tease. Well, we knew that Ari’s food would be A+ and it was! I might have had a couple of helpings of brisket. Only my tailor knows for sure. But we had no idea (at least I didn’t) what the whisky offerings might be. Seeing Señor Joshua (née Jose) Hatton downstairs manning the IMPEX-JVS booth made us muy happy. Kilchoman, Port Askaig, Penderyn, and Single Cask Nation offerings! Woohoo! There was one table that was confusing. Port Ellen, Laphroaig, old Macallan and more!!! Butttttt….that was for some kind of raffle that I didn’t quite understand. There was also an odd table of some spirits from Gardena, CA(!). Now this intrigued me if only because Gardena is where this chap started out in life. Who knew the little bedroom community has a distillery? Or does it? We need to research.
G-LO: I am most definitely a tease. I’m the teasiest tease that ever teased. You know who isn’t a tease? Señor Hatton! He’s no tease. He aims to please. He brings the whisky AND delivers one hell of a hug! While he and IMPEX-JVS definitely delivered The Goods, I gotta say, there were some significant holes in the whisky selections when compared to the last Jewbilee we attended. Wassup with that, Bro?
AK: Upstairs at Battery Gardens… did we mention where we were for this shindig?… there were plenty of spirit tables. Well, about 20, I’d guess. Mostly names we knew but definitely some unfamiliar ones like the tequila table whose name escapes me. It was great to see Laws Whiskey House from Denver. I love their Rye. Señor Hatton turned me onto them at Jewbilee in Chicago-bang bang. And who doesn’t love Compass Box? Corsair had a table too. But I was hoping for more Scotch names. My guess is that it’s hard starting up a new festival and getting commitments from brands to attend.
G-LO: You’re right! We did NOT mention the venue. Battery Gardens was the name. Battery Park is where it’s at. While I definitely enjoyed what was on offer, I can’t help but be a bit chagrined by what wasn’t there, i.e. Ardbeg, Laphroaig, Glenmorangie, The Balvenie, Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Lagavulin, Talisker, The Glenrothes, and many many more. I’m sure you’re right about the difficulty in getting brands to sign up for a new event, especially in a hyper competitive markets like New York where they’re constantly doing promotional work. I also think that part of the problem stems from the fact that whisky is HOTT (that’s right, HOTT with two Ts!) right now, so well known brands probably get less impact from events like this. On the flipside, there’s no shortage of new brands out there, so if you can’t get the established brands, why not go for the up and comers? Speaking of up and comers, it was neat to see the Heaven’s Door whiskies at the event. While what I tasted from them was pretty good, it’s the artwork on the bottles that really blew me away. Me likey the pretty shiney packaging!
AK: I’m no Bob Dylan fan, but the artwork on his Heaven’s Door bottles was pretty cool. And yes, H-O-T-T, Baby! That’s what whisky is these days. And I’ve seen the lack of brands at shows here in LA too. It’s depressing. I was at show and there was a winery with a booth. They were pouring a wine that had rested in a bourbon barrel. That might be stretching the product definition a wee bit. I think for Ari & Co. it will be an ongoing effort to bring in bigger names, and if anyone can do it, he can. I can’t imagine the logistics of putting on this type of event and all the tentacles that need slaying.
G-LO: I’m sure it’s a royal pain in the ass to get brands to sign up, and if anyone knows from royal pains in the ass, it’s me. Mostly cause I am one. Kudos to Ari & Co. for fighting the good fight and making our NYC Whisky event in June dreams come true! There’s definitely room for improvement with regards to the whisky selections, but I’d say he nailed it with the venue, venue location, and food. And with regards to the food, I know we talked up the brisket quite a bit (and deservedly so!), but I gotta admit, the Kosher fish dishes on the ground floor were nothing to sneeze at! Love the Salmon Pastrami, and a few of those herring dishes were quite delicious, especially the one with the Israeli spices. Molto molto buono!
AK: OMG!, as the kids say. The smoked salmon and herring from The Rebbe’s Choice. Can I just roll around in that stuff for 7-10 days with crackers nearby? May G-d bless us all with this on our plates. Baruch HaShem. I believe you speak of the za’atar spices which are a must for the home or office. Ask for it by name. Accept no substitutes.
G-LO: You know what would be awesome? Getting Ari’s perspective on this whole Kiddushfest thing which he is definitely turning into #AThing. Do you think two can-do guys such as ourselves can make that happen?
AK: Let me wave my magical barbecue tongs…POOF!
G-LO: Wait… Magic??? I thought magic died when Claudia Schiffer and David Copperfield broke up. Tell us more about these magical barbecue tongs of yours. Can they make a perfectly cooked smoked brisket appear at any time? You know, the kind with the perfectly burnt, burnt ends, bark, smoke ring, and juicy center. Can they also make pitchers of sweet tea and bottles of vintage Port Ellen appear? If so, work your magic, Mr. Blaine, and make that Wandering Que interview magically appear before our eyes! Are you an “Abracadabra” or a “Hocus Pocus” kinda conjurer? Or do you just let your hands and those tongs do the talking? You know, like a Marcel Marceau type. Friggin mimes.
AK: Jeez, I wanted Teller, and I get Penn. Chill, Houdini! Wait for it…
Fade to wavy visual with eerie piano music…
We spoke to organizer and master barbecuer, Ari White, via e-mail on various topics including Kiddushfest, event planning, the Jewish side of whisky festivals, and barbecue!
AK: Ari, great event! We were excited to be there for the first one! How did Kiddushfest come about and what made you decide to jump into the whisky festival world?
Ari White (aka The Wandering Que or TWQ): Going back 11 years, my wife Gemma and I threw our first Kosher whisky festival which grew into a series of catered paired Whisky Dinners, Burns Suppers and the like around NYC. I first met Mark Gillespie at our first one (click the following link and listen to one of Mark’s early podcasts: http://whiskycast.libsyn.com/whisky-cast-episode-134-march-2-2008) where a young newly married me gushes while my blushing bride talks about her grandfather rubbing her teeth with whisky (swirling a Straithisla ’64 in her glass). The events were high end, pour lists epic, and locations varied. It was within the midst of those early whisky dinners that [Whisky Advocate magazine’s] WhiskyFest made their fatal move, and we were connected to Joshua Hatton in Single Cask Nations’ infancy. It was love at first dram, the rest is history.
Editor’s Note: Whiskyfest was held on a Friday night in New York City back in 2012. Since this is the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath, many of the local Jewish community could not attend. Single Cask Nation saw this as an opportunity to bring a high-quality whisky festival to the New York while not excluding the Jewish community by having their new event – Whisky Jewbilee – on a Thursday night initially.
AK: For sake of conversation, let’s assume you’re a whisky drinker (HA!), when did you start your whisky journey?
TWQ: I grew up down in the West Texas town of El Paso. Cheap Mexican beer and tequila were the wet nurses of my youth. In college, my horizons expanded to include bourbon, based more on price point then pomposity, I reckon. At 23, passing through the World of Whiskies in London’s Heathrow Airport as newlyweds, we were tasked with spending a £100 note on our first bottle. The statesmanlike salesman named Michelle spent an hour (at 8:00 am) sampling with us before we settled on a 25-year-old Glenmorangie for 75 quid (he called it a “lady’s dram”) [and] leaving room for a Glenfarclas 17 to boot. He gifted us a leather-encased flask that I still carry for kiddush on Shabbat today.
We called East 109th Street our home back then, across the cultural divide left behind at 96th Street. South of that border, Shabbat and Hashkama [morning prayers] Kiddushes at Congregations Orach Chaim and Kehilath Jeshurun [on New York’s Upper East Side] never ever disappointed with pours the likes of Springbank 33’s, Port Ellens, and countless single barrels of all ages every single week after services, maybe a few times in between, who’s to say?!
AK: What’s your go-to dram?
TWQ: Asking for a go-to dram is like saying what song do I like on the radio. Punk rock of young Kilchomans do me pretty right. With that said I’ve got a finger of Tamdu 001 left as I finish this second question.
AK: Putting together any large event like a wedding, bar mitzvah, or whisky festival takes a lot of planning. After three b’nai mitzvahs in my house, I know! Tell us about your plan of attack for Kiddushfest.
TWQ: Large scale events is what we do, day in and day out, year-round at the Wandering Que and for the last 13 years under Gemstone Catering. The logistics of this beautiful Hudson River waterfront beat the crap out of what we had to go through the last half-decade pulling off Whisky Jewbilee at Studio 450’s penthouse and its one service elevator.
AK: How did you assemble your team and the roles that they played?
TWQ: The team assembled itself when friends and industry colleagues alike stepped up to the plate offering their help in everything from vendor hunting and social media marketing, to day of ticket check-in, and swag bag assembly. It takes a village. With way too many to name, I’d be remiss to not mention Ari and Leah Cohen who just went way above and beyond any level of normalcy to make the evening a success.
AK: Whisky Jewbilee became iconic as a hardcore whisky-centric show. Your amazing food only added to the festival’s high regard in the community. We’ve been to many expensive festivals with pretty sad food offerings that leave us…hungry! But the boys of SCN (Jason and Joshua) have “moved on” from it, leaving a sad void in the festival world. Why do you think Whisky Jewbilee succeeded and how do you see Kiddushfest filling that void to the whisky community?
TWQ: The Jewbilee made everybody happy. The vendors loved the exposure to a knowledgable purchasing market segment that based a year’s purchases on to what they would be informed of that night. The kosher crowd loved access to events of that caliber where they could drink AND eat everything making a $100++ ticket price easier to wash down. #BrisketChaser. The food was always just the hook; it was the bonus of putting on our own festivals. Bless Joshua. The guy is a vegetarian and still enabled my brisket and sausage debauchery every year.
What really set the Jewbilee aside in my book was the accessibility to the brands and their ambassadors in comparison to all the larger or more established festivals already on the circuit. Our crowd was always engaged and curious rather then just on the road to drunken dipshittery. The venue was iconically NYC with 360° rooftop views and cigars to boot. It became the best bang-for-the-buck kosher event in NYC hands down and even when everyone laughed at the Jewbilee for moving to the middle of the summer, nothing could stop us from selling out year after year. I knew we were doing something right when over a third of our tickets were being sold to non-Jewish Kosher keeping guests. It put us nose to nose with the biggest festivals NYC has ever hosted. [With Kiddushfest] even with a space expandable to over 1,000 guests, we are totally set on keeping the size approachable and mob mentalities at bay.
AK: Jewbilee was created as a whisky festival “by and for whisky geeks”. It was an event that whisky brands wanted to be at. What’s the strategy for Kiddushfest to get those names to attend in the future?
TWQ: This was by far and large our biggest challenge this year. With a glut of new festivals popping up every year in both the non-kosher and kosher food scenes, I totally appreciate many brands’ main challenge is choosing which ones bring back the best ROI. Any hope that my involvement in the Jewbilee from its inception would guarantee the same excitement was quickly dashed. With a new location and new name we were on our own and starting from scratch. There were enough vendors excited to not lose this summer event that we had some great momentum from the get-go. With 12 months to plan next year’s Kiddushfest rather then the 12 weeks we pulled the last one off in, I’m excited to say we’ll fill all 40 brand tables with 15 more breweries and ciders outside.
AK: I’ve yet to use the words “Kosher” and “Jewish” (but YOU have!). They are important in the discussion, especially for an event called Kiddushfest. Tell me how you see the cultural and religious aspects to the festival, and your thoughts on bringing in a wider audience.
TWQ: There is a rogue element within the observant world that get together for a quick dram on the Sabbath. They get together between and sometimes just maybe during the prayer services. On the one hand, they often catch flack for the time and place chosen for these rendezvous. On the other hand. they are for many of us, the one short chance to catch up with old and new friends with or without a Highland Park and piece of herring. No different then the Kiddush Club #safespace we built at the Whiskey Jewbilee, Kiddushfest was very [much] modeled around the same Sabbath-like setting complete with Smokehouse cholent, potato kugels and yapchik (mind-blowing, look that one up) [We did… https://www.kosher.com/recipe/potato-flanken-kugel-yapchik-6966]. We aimed to create an environment where friends could get together, without ditching the family or Rabbi’s sermon.
I wouldn’t call the festival a religious one. I do hope that the values that we have tried to embrace show with this [festival] bear fruit. I am proud that we were able to raise $4,000 that evening for our two charity partners. I can’t imagine too many other whisky festivals where a group of 50 guys would go outside at 9pm past the cigar bar and riverside cabana facing east to pray Ma’Ariv – the evening service – before diving right back in for the last 30 minutes of the show. Cholent [Jewish comfort food] is the original melting pot, [and] it fits the NYC scene just fine. I love that we have had such large numbers of women attendees and was thrilled with the large groups of non-Jewish guests as well. I hope it means we are doing a few things right.
AK: Let’s talk barbecue. It’s obvious that this is your happy place being from Texas. Barbecue and Kosher are generally not words you hear together too often! How did you get into it? How did The Wandering Que start? How many events do you do in a year?
TWQ: Shit, Hoss, that’s a horse of another color! Wood smoked BBQ is like home for me, and moving up to NYC all those years ago I got homesick. There wasn’t so much as a lick of smoke in anything they were calling BBQ up here 10 years ago in the kosher world. I’m glad to say those days are done with the fires of southern cooking burning low and slow everywhere. Having grown up in a town without any kosher food (way before the days of Food Network), I am fortunate to play Johnny Appleseed traveling around the Tri-State, smoking up one community at a time before hitting the road to do it all over again. We cater well over 100 events a year with our BBQ and Charcuterie products now going into supermarket and gourmet food stores all over the country. Throw in five kids under the age of 11. Sleep is highly overrated.
AK: You were in Philly the weekend after Kiddushfest. The Wandering Que travels! How do you take your show on the road?! Do you have a food truck type of set-up?
TWQ: I do have two offsite BBQ Setups and teams. One is based around a 7,000 lb. 18′ offset stick burner BBQ pit by Gator Pit in Houston Texas. The other is our new 28′ BBQ Concession Trailer which is a little more closely related to a food truck, just minus the truck part and 3 times the size with an 8′ porch sporting a two ton Hog Cooker from Bubba Grills. And we have spent the last two years installing and building out my new kitchen to operate an Oyler 1300 by J&R Manufacturing in Mesquite Texas. It has an 1,800 lb capacity and runs entirely on burning wood. It’s a game-changer for me and by the Grace of God, I get to turn it on for the first time in 10 days after our final inspections by our local Departments of Building, Fire, and Health.
We travel far and wide hitting street fairs, music festivals, [as well as] private, corporate, and charity events. I run out of china at 700 people and we have served as many as 1,500 over a six-hour service. My pit crew and team are hardcore and I would be remiss (again) to not mention Samba, Joe, One-Stop, Lala, Mario and the STAR-K for being the real superheroes that make really make the magic happen.
AK: Last question for the barbecue nerds: What type of wood is your wood of choice?
TWQ: My favorite wood to smoke with is Pecan leaving me plum outta luck up here. We generally burn oak, cherry, and maple. I love any fruit wood I can get my hands on.
AK: So Kiddushfest #1 (or Echad) is in the books. The gates are closed! How do you think it went? What are the areas you’d like to work on for Kiddushfest #2 (or Steim)?
TWQ: The night’s early piss poor weather forced us to abandon the outdoor space and reset everything upstairs to include the dozen booths and our entire Wandering Que food station. [A] logistical nightmare I’d love to circumvent next year with blue skies, please. With that said, the venue was stunning and [we’ve been] invited back next year already where we are shifting back to the Thursday night model. The vendors seemed thrilled with both the turnout and the level of engagement. An interesting observation one pointed out to me was that at no point in the night did they have an empty table. I look forward to expanding the beer garden next year as well to really take advantage of that outdoor space. With room for another 200 people next year, I also look forward to doubling the numbers of [whisky] on the pour. Small things come to mind: digitized check-in, printed pour lists in advance, much more water on the floor, spit buckets, beef ribs, and world peace. All pretty doable after smokin’ them Beef Ribs.
AK: Amen! Ari, mazel tov on Kiddusfest I and thanks for taking some time to chat. We hope to be there for next year’s and all of the future ones.
TWQ: It’s 2:00 am and my Tamdu is long since turned over, so I’ll wish y’all a hearty l’Chaim and my thanks for all the love along the way, not just this year but for the many past as well. It’s been a great trip so far, I’m excited to see what we get to share together along the long road to come.