The Whisky Round Table – November
November already? Where does the time go? It’s my turn this month to host The Whisky Round Table and I thought it pertinent to ask about festivals since I will be running my first such event in a couple of weeks. Here’s the question:
Since I’m organising my first whisky festival this month I really want to ask about this sort of event. Which whisky festivals do you attend? What makes a good festival (and a bad festival) and which is your favourite?
Jason Johnstone-Yellin – Guid Scotch Drink
First, congratulations on organizing Glasgow’s Whisky Festival with Bill Mackintosh. I’m excited to attend and sample my way through an incredible line-up! To answer your question, I’ve attended Whisky Live in Glasgow, WhiskyFest in San Francisco and looking forward to GWF in November and Feis Ile in 2011. I kick myself often for attending Aberdeen University for four years and never making it over to the Spirit of Speyside festival — I’m a dunderheid, what can I say! When attending a whisky festival I’m looking for three things:
1. A sample list that includes whisky I can’t find or can’t afford (WhiskyFest’s VIP hour took care of this very nicely!). It’s not that I’m a fan of expensive and exclusive whiskies but if I’ve paid money to attend a festival I want to feel like I got serious bang for my buck. Having very good, young whisky also makes me feel like I spent my money wisely so they don’t all have to be 42 Year Old Strathislas or 30 Year Old Highland Parks!
2. I’m always looking to talk with whisky people instead of ogling the beautiful ladies pouring the drams so having distillery representatives on hand who actually drink the stuff and know what they’re talking about makes for an enjoyable time (and makes me feel like my money was well spent – can you tell I’m Scottish?).
3. A venue that can comfortably hold the attendees and the exhibitors, as well as enough exhibitors to cover the number of attendees. I like my personal space and don’t want to be jostled when trying to enjoy my drams. I also don’t want to spend ten minutes standing in a queue, only to get the company line in ten seconds flat and then pushed out the way by other thirsty punters. It’s whisky, my limited sampling time should be enjoyable and relaxed and, ideally, I should know more about the whisky after I’m done tasting it than I did before I started.
Chris Bunting – Nonjatta
The whisky festival that I have attended most regularly is Whisky Live in Tokyo. It is a big event with lots of participation from Scottish, U.S. and, of course, Japanese makers, which means lots of interesting samples, but I would say the reason it is a good day out is that the organisers make it more than just a cheap drinking session. There are some excellent talks and discussions, but what I really enjoy is standing in the main hall listening to the entertainment. One year, they had a Japanese Noh group performing a specially written drama about whisky. Another year they had a Punk bagpiper. This attention to entertainment other than the whisky makes it feel more genuinely like a festival. I have also attended another, smaller event in Tokyo called the Whisky Festival. It has a much more cosy feel, with lots of the familiar faces on the Japanese whisky scene in attendance. The entertainment is more conventional. The piper is a friend of mine who plays in the old school. But, again, the efforts to make the event a rounded experience, rather then just a drinking session, make it a day to look forward to.
Ruben - WhiskyNotes
At a whisky festival I’ve come to expect a few things:
1. Good whisky of course. The noteworthy new releases (enough independent bottlers please) but also stands with must-try bottlings from the past. Over the years I’ve started to skip festivals with too much focus on the standard bottlings but I guess this is still useful for whisky enthusiasts who have just started.
2. Fair pricing. At some festivals exhibitors seem to forget that their main goal is promoting the products rather than making instant profit on the drams. I’m not paying € 25 for a small sip of the latest Port Ellen.
3. There should be some sort of “no drams” ticket for drivers, enough water at the stands and something to eat around the festival place.
4. Enough space to move around is essential, I hate not being able to get to a certain table.
In Belgium, we are spoiled with at least seven festivals a year and The Whisky Fair and Whisky Live Paris within driving distance. While I attend many of them, I’m afraid I can’t pick one as my favourite. It’s great to have so many festivals, but on the other hand I see two major problems: 1. too many festivals will force distributors to choose – therefore each festival will offer a scattered view of the market and 2. most festivals have a concept that’s too similar and too wide (last year I saw loudspeakers made of whisky barrels). I think we’ll see more niche festivals in the future, like the Lindores Whisky Fest in Oostende (the best place to meet collectors and try legendary old bottlings).
Keith Wood – Whisky Emporium
Hi Mark and good luck with the festival.
I have attended various different styles of whisky festival, from Whisky Live, to two different formats here in Munich and then what I consider to be ‘the master’; Limburg.
As you also know, I was once looking at running my own festival here in Bayern but various events conspired against me doing so, but I’m still hopeful for the future.
Anyway, having put together my own plan for a festival I have some firm ideas on what I think the format should be:
Firstly the aim of the festival should be to expose attendees to as great a range of whiskies as possible, which means current bottlings from the major distilleries and also smaller ones. Independent bottlers should also be well represented as this is a great opportunity for them to build reputations and get known to the general public who may primarily only be aware of the more common and better marketed OBs.
There’s also a third category which many people wouldn’t immediately think of and one which Limburg primarily concentrates upon, which is that of older, obsolete and more collectible bottlings. This category means including specialist whisky sellers who should be allowed to sell older bottlings by the dram, but also by the (unopened) bottle.
Apart from these sellers, all other bottle sales should be via an official festival shop and if possible, partners should be found to help offer one-off official festival bottlings.
OK, let’s get contentious now:
There should be no consideration of using tokens or vouchers for drams!
(I know of one organisor who uses these as a means to take a percentage of all dram sales as well as his fees for the stands and customer entrance fees. This is something I personally disagree with).
I also disagree with the (general) UK concept of paying a single entry fee and then all drams being included within that fee.
Just charge a fair entrance fee, maybe include one or two drams, but that’s all.
Well, I want to get as much as possible out of a festival, this means as many drams as possible, but there is a finite limit to what can be drunk and also accurately written about within a single day at a festival. In fact, I’d call it a good festival if I could talk to people within the industry, many of whom I know, exchange opinions on various whisky topics and sample only a few drams on the spot. Otherwise I want to bring away as many samples as possible. My last visit to the Munich whisky festival saw me leave having only sampled around 9 whiskies in a 10 hour visit, but bring away something like 25 other samples for later assessment.
If it’s an ‘all-inclusive’ event then I’m sure sample bottles would be frowned upon.
Let the stands offer or sell drams as they wish, don’t impose a structure which encourages more drinking on the spot as opposed to (more responsible) later sampling.
Another necessity is food, again not inclusive, but just availability of a good range of options either within the festival or right alongside.
Lastly, Masterclasses are important, both for exposing people to good whiskies, but also to educate and guide them through their journey of whisky knowledge.
Gal Granov – Whisky Israel
It’s a really tough one since there are no festivals in Israel.
Yes you heard me right! there are none. and being far from Europe, it’s very hard for me to just pop on a plane and fly say 5 hours and return…. Driving on the seas is also not an option, so i am pretty much stuck here in Israel with no Whisky Live, or WhiskyFest or anything of the like which is rather depressing.
If i could attend a festival i would say a good festival has at least some of those:
1. Master classes – Sampling new expressions is fun, but to really get to know your whisky or your beloved distillery, a masterclass with the brand ambassador or malt master is a priceless experience. So, a broad selection of masterclass will win me over .
2. A lot of un-common whiskies : what i mean by that, drams it’s hard to taste locally. World whiskies for one, or limited editions which have not yet arrived to the country are a nice addition
3. Refreshments : It’s not easy to be tasting a lot of drams without some cheese to cleanse the palate or even some a few nice pasties to help you stay cool and not get drunk. so it’s a really welcome addition.
4. Good value limited editions : It’s always nice to come home with a very cool bottle of malt which is very collectible (if you collect) and also of fine quality. Sometimes there are over priced bottling for such events, which i do not like. Solid Cask strength “festival” only are really nice when they are solid and well made.
5. Online – i would love to see some online live broadcasts of events from a festival. Say live broadcast of a masterclass via youtube / or the like.
6. Social Media – a live twitter account which updates about how things are doing, and send pictures live from the show, letting people not attending see, and experience.
7. Some competitions among the festival comers to get some rare bottling or another whisky related price (or sample a very rate whisky – like the Dalmore trinitas for example).
Karen & Matt – Whisky For Everyone
Being thorough city dwellers, we tend to go to Whisky and Spirit festivals that are based in London. This year we have attended Whisky Live, The Whisky Show and Whisky Lounge. Each event really has its own character and attracts different crowds. The ticket price asked had a strong influence on this and cannot be overlooked. Beginners were more attracted to the Whisky Lounge with its informal atmosphere and interactive sessions, while The Whisky Show is unashamedly aimed at the connoisseur with many higher priced and limited drams available to taste. Luckily, each festival is spread out over the year that anyone who loves a dram can attend all of them and be sure to try something new.
Other spirit events that we have attended, such as the Boutique Bar Show, have been aimed at the bar and general spirits trade but have offered a perspective that has often intrigued us more than the whisky only affairs. These shows have showed us how whisky can be used by some of the world’s finest mixologists with flair and creativity to create cocktails and mixer combinations that not only taste fabulous but open up the whisky market to more than just the regular whisky drinker. They also put whisky in to a wider context within the entire spirit genre and the flavours and uses of whisky are compared and matched with that of other spirits without prejudice.
Joshua Hatton - The Jewish Single Malt Whisky Society
Well, living in in the Northeastern part of the US and being only about 1.5 hours from New York City and 2.5 hours from Boston, I get have access to a few different events. With regards to what makes for a good event or bad event well… that’s very subjective. Each event has a mood and/or style and I know what I’m going to get before I go into the show so I therefore mentally prepare for what I am about to join in on.
For instance, WhiskyFest is known for being one huge-ass show and you’re alway very prone to sensory overload due to the amount of people, whiskies served, etc… A nice way to break it up for me is to only go for the whiskies I’ve not yet tried and make it a point to attend a masterclass or two (I’m not just there to drink – I’m a whisky geek, I want and need to learn!).
WhiskyLive and the Single Malt & Scotch Whisky Extravaganzas are much more subdued but tend to be more navigable than WhiskyFest. However, there are less whiskies to try and the Extravaganza doesn’t have any masterclasses to attend (though you get the opportunity to taste some great SMWS bottlings and there is an hour long symposium prior to the event where you get a chance to pose questions to the Brand Ambassadors). Lastly, there are the Whisky Guild Cruises in Boston, NYC and (I think) Philly. These happen a few times per year and they are just a shit ton of fun. The last one I attended had the Balvenie room which featured more than 30 Balvenie expressions. It was a good night.
My two biggest complaints for all of these events is that A) they always seem to be on a weekday and B) they’re not long enough – there’s never enough time to do everything I want to do.
Peter Lemon – The Casks
Having been “serious” about whisky for only a few years now, I’ve only attended two festival-type shows here in the Bay Area, WhiskyFest and Whiskies of the World. WhiskyFest SF in 2009 set the bar pretty high, the selection was great, the seminars and classes were great, and the amenities were great. The room was very accommodating to the number of people and overall, I felt like it was an excellent value for the ticket price. The same can’t be said for 2010′s Whiskies of the World, the room was tiny, the place was crammed and hot, and the amenities were non-existent. I know the venue kind of screwed the new organizer in this case and I’ve been reassured next year’s will be better, but that doesn’t take the sting out of paying a high ticket price for a bad event. So there you go, two events, two ends of the spectrum. For me, a good event all comes down to the perceived value: is the selection mind-bogglingly good? It doesn’t have to be huge like WhiskyFest’s, but it does need to offer things not usually seen around town (that seems pretty obvious). Are brand ambassadors and/or knowledgeable reps pouring or is it just overly made-up trade show girls? Does the venue allow for relative ease of tasting & mingling? (I did more of the latter at this year’s WhiskyFest SF). How’s the food & water situation? Life-giving water is pretty vital for surviving an event like this, and though all Whisky expos feature some kind of “sumptuous buffet”, we all know it rarely is, but as long as there’s some kind of pasta in a white cream sauce, more people will make it safely through the night. Are there amenities, even small ones, that give the ticket buyer something to take home? This sounds petty and cheap I know, but for me, it makes a difference (I guess I’m petty and cheap). A great example of this is WhiskyFest’s detailed booklet and logo’d Glencairn glass. The booklet is indispensable during the event for planning and notes, and very handy the next day when you’re trying to remember how you spent the evening. As for the Glencairn glass…c’mon, who couldn’t use more engraved tasting glasses?
Mike Connery – Whisky Party
Combined, the members of WhiskyParty have attended several festivals – WhiskyFest, World of Whiskies, and SMWS. Our favourite aspect of them all was the accessibility of the experts, whether they be the master distillers, brand ambassadors, or even just executive within distribution and marketing. The accessibility of these experts and their willingness to talk with people about their product or several end-to-end aspects of the whisky industry is paramount. A close second was the quality and rarity of the spirits available. Though we all have good spirits at home, it is the spirits combined with the element of informative and friendly discourse that would seem crucial for a successful festival.
On the same level, a bad festival is one in which the atmosphere is more frenzied – where there are too many people, competing for too few spirits, in too small an amount of time and space. It makes for a harried time and the event becomes more about trying to compete with others for drink as opposed to enjoying the community and learning more about the spirit of life. Spirit producers should realize that this type of environment defeats the purpose of both drinking rare and expensive malts as well as the desire to purchase them later.
Neil & Joel – Caskstrength.net
Whisky festivals are great. If they’re well advertised and policed properly. The biggest issue with running a festival which supplies booze, is damage limitation. There will always be people taking advantage of the fact high alcohol strength fluid is being pretty much free poured. And if drinks companies have paid to be there, they are going to want to pour, to get their product to people.
Sensible brand ambassadors using common sense often sorts this out, but I think the real way to limit it is to have a couple of high end festivals such as the Whisky Show for the hardened fan and then smaller, more intimate local tastings as a way of educating people and turning people on to whisky.
The big issue with expensive, high end festivals is selling tickets. Availability for people on a lower budget is going squeeze many whisky fans, who already pay a lot for bottles, out of going. However, this might be able to be solved by offering deals to people who are part of whisky societies and clubs. At the end of the day, if you really appreciate whisky, you should be able to get in at a reduced price.
I’ve not been to a great deal of festivals (both whisky shows, a couple of whisky live events and a couple of whisky lounges) over the past few years but for the hardened fan, you won’t find a better selection of amazing whisky from all the leading brands (and some you’ve never heard of before) than at somewhere like the Whisky Show. Just make sure you give your liver time to rest after…!
Tokens for dramming is a good idea, but at events where they have been used, I always run out! I’m sure everyone feels that way!
Other tips for a good festival: have plenty of places to sit down, lots and lots of free water and a great selection of food… and whisky!
Lucas & Chris – Edinburgh Whisky Blog
Just a few words on this one. Of all the whisky fests I’ve ever been to I liked Edinburgh Whisky Fringe 2009 most. Why? It was casual, compact and relaxed but still everyone was there in terms of exhibitors, there was juice there I hadn’t tried before and I didn’t have to queue to get to stands. Dave Broom’s Rum Chapel rocked too. Now the opposite end for me was this year’s Glasgow Whisky Live. Big players ignored it… as did most of the small ones for that matter. Queues to stands were bad, food served in the canteen outrageous, master classes gumped.
Overall I feel like the format is just growing so bloody old.
What I would love to attend would be a proper convention! A gathering of whisky anoraks, packed with technical lectures and discussions, amazing tastings and social events spread over a couple of days. An overnight stay mandatory. Now I know this would cost a few bob but hey, it’s just money!
Mark Connelly – Glasgow’s Whisky
Oh, my turn!
Living in Glasgow I was always perplexed at why we all had to go to Edinburgh and Ayr to visit a good whisky festival. The annual event in Glasgow became poorer as each year went on and became more of a showcase for the magazine that ran the show rather than about the whiskies themselves. I decided to do something about this and enlisted Glasgow’s Whisky Club Chairman Bill Mackintosh to help. This month, Glasgow’s Whisky Festival launches at The Arches in Glasgow and we hope that it will bring the spirit – pardon the pun – of both Whisky Fringe in Edinburgh and Whisky An’ A’ That in Ayr to Scotland biggest city.
For me the best thing about Whisky Fringe is the fairly relaxed atmosphere and no voucher system. There are no frills, just lots of tables with good whisky. Similarly Whisky An’ A’ That is about the whiskies without too much fuss and commercially-driven sideshows. I hope that’s what we achieve on the 13th!
Well, that’s them all for another month. Many thanks!