Anyone who’s been drinking whisky for more than a minute knows that the word originates from the Gaelic uisge beatha, meaning “water of life.” It’s a logical phrase when you consider that it came about during an era when medicine was limited to muddling up some compounds of roots and herbs at best, and a whole slew of more disturbing remedies (roasted, gutted cat stuffed with hedgehog grease and bear fat, anyone?) were common. High-proof alcohol, with its sanitizing and disinfecting qualities—not to mention its ability to dull pain during crude surgeries—surely did seem to have life-giving properties that could make the difference in a sick patient’s prognosis.
These days, of course, we regard the phrase as much more tongue-in-cheek. But in New York recently, whisky lovers got a chance to reflect on the historically health-promoting properties of the spirit while also supporting an organization that actually does help heal the sick. Dr. Matthew Lurin and The Life Raft Group, a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting patients with and finding a cure for gastrointestinal stromal tumors (GIST), a form of cancer, held the first annual Water of Life charity tasting at Battery Gardens on May 6th, and based on the turnout and feedback from attendees, it’s sure to be followed by many more iterations.
The evening was designed to resemble speed-dating, with 25 or so tables representing Scotch, Irish whiskey, Bourbon, American whiskey, and more, pouring a few different whiskies apiece. Small groups of guests would move from table to table, tasting each whisky and chatting with the table host and each other. After a few minutes, an organizer would announce that it was time to move on, and everyone would move up one table. Attendees could purchase raffle tickets for a series of special prizes, including rare bottles of whisky, photographs and accessories. There was also an outdoor terrace where VIP guests could partake in cigars and some special pours, passed hors d’oeuvres and an ample buffet to ensure that everyone padded their stomachs well, and a bar with water, soft drinks, and special cocktails.
The speed-dating idea was a good one, but it quickly became clear that most attendees weren’t paying attention to the schedule of rotations. (Not paying attention seems to be a natural byproduct of whisky-drinking, of course. ) Instead, folks fell into a natural rhythm of moving on when they were ready and switching from group to group as desired. The number of guests in the room was just right—busy, but not crowded—so that no one ever had to wait for a table. And rather than taking a designated dinner break, people noshed at the buffet at will. It worked out well and gave the event a completely different feel than the other whisky festivals that occur in New York, most of which are free-for-alls held in cavernous halls with hundreds of attendees glomming on booths where some poor brand reps have to give the same spiel over and over again.
Here, it was good fun to have the chance to talk on a personal level with brand ambassadors, importers and retailers. At most other whisky events, there are too many people and it’s too noisy to have a meaningful conversation with the person pouring drams. But the laid-back nature of this event meant that I could ask as many questions as I wanted and spend plenty of time chatting whisky. And the conversation wasn’t limited to the people pouring the drams, as I found that the other attendees were as passionate about whisky as I am. Since I’m married to a medical student and have a particular interest in medicine and science, it was especially fun to chat with the many doctors who attended—about hospitals, specialties, and medical stuff, but also about whisky, trading opinions and recommending different drams. On top of it all, the rooftop space afforded beautiful views of New York harbor and the Statue of Liberty, and by the end of the night everyone was in such a good mood that it was hard to clear the venue.
I’m guessing that next year the organizers will devise a different model for the event, especially because it was clear that many folks were lingering over the different drams and conversation at various tables, reluctant to rush themselves off to the next one. In any case, this year’s inaugural Water of Life tasting was a huge success, raising several thousands of dollars for research into GIST and adding a unique element—and good timing, between Whisky Live and the Whisky Jewbilee—to the calendar of New York whisky events. I extend my sincerest thanks to the man behind the evening, Matthew Lurin, for having me as his guest, and I recommend the event to anyone looking for a more intimate, relaxed whisky tasting. Check the website in the fall for more information about next year’s event, which will likely take place around the same time.
(Please note: No medical professional at this event actually endorsed the health properties of whisky. But if you ask me, a few drams for a good cause never hurt anyone—and in this case, they actually help!)