Lew recounts the rise of whiskey festivals
I went to a lot more whiskey festivals than usual last year, even though I had an illness that laid me low for two months. I traveled across the country – Seattle, Denver, Chicago, New Orleans, Boston, DC – talking to folks about Bourbon and rye and Scotch and Canadian whiskeys, sometimes on a panel, sometimes just on my lonesome. It was enlightening.
I’ve seen whiskey festivals from the early days. I was at the first WhiskyFest, in New York, back in 1997. It wasn’t large, and most people didn’t really know what to do, how to ‘fest.’ It’s amusing to recall, though, that even at that first modern American whiskey festival (first I know of, and no one’s ever corrected me) people knew how to get to the front of the line at a favorite distiller’s table and then just stand there, enjoying their dram, and holding up the line behind them. It’s still the thing that drives us mad. Get your drink, and step aside! There’s always someone who will talk to you at the side of the table.
I went to whiskey festivals all through the Naughts, usually two or three a year. They were roughly similar: fairly posh affairs, some more than others, masterclasses, food, the odd raffle, sometimes cigars, and the struggle of the really big companies to stretch the boundaries imposed on the size of booths. Thanks to some early rules laid down at WhiskyFest, there has always been a pleasingly egalitarian feel to these shows, as opposed to the big electronics shows (or weapons shows, the one time I visited) where the big companies flex money-muscle with massive, towering displays that spill out into the walkways.
But I recall a late-night post-festival discussion, sometime around 2010, with another writer who was musing that commercial enterprises – like distilleries, or festivals – had to keep evolving, had to keep changing, either getting bigger and better, or simply being different, offering different things to different people. “If the established events don’t keep up, don’t allow themselves to change,” he said to me, “they’re going to wake up some year and find that faster-moving festivals have eaten their lunch.”
“Judging by the look on folks’ faces, you can have a lot of fun”
And in 2012, there was what I think was the first of those really different events: the Whisky Jewbilee. Whisky Jewbilee was born when WhiskyFest New York moved their date to a weekend. The large number of Orthodox Jews who regularly attended the event took this as an affront. An event was quickly put together, and it was… different. It was less ritzy, it was smaller and more intimate, and had, naturally, a Glatt Kosher buffet. People loved it, Jews and non-Jews alike.
Whisky Jewbilee didn’t go away, it thrived. As it did, more festivals popped up. WhiskyLive shows continued to open around the world, and in America, we saw the New Orleans Bourbon Festival and the Whiskey Extravaganza shows, the Whiskey Obsession in Sarasota, the Kentucky Bourbon Affair and Kentucky Bourbon Festival, Chicago’s Independent Spirits Exposition, a state liquor store-sponsored expo in Pennsylvania, a variety of state distiller guild shows… there are well over a hundred now, and they do vary quite a bit.
What do the exhibitors get out of it? I think at the bigger, established shows, there’s a sense of obligation. You have to be there, or people wonder why. The big shows also serve somewhat as trade shows. A significant number of attendees are retailers and bar managers, and business is taking place as the rest of us sip and listen. The smaller shows allow for more brand linkage, as attendees make a personal connection to a particular whiskey. Most American distillers will bring a distiller or senior brand manager to the shows, and that’s a thrill for people.
What do you get out of it? I’d gotten cynical, and old, and tired, and thought, “Not much.” But this last year reinvigorated me. There are so many new makers, and new drinkers. I got involved in some brilliant discussions about innovations in Bourbon, and how many historically different ways rye whiskey can be made, and the fascinating evolution of American single malt whiskey. You can learn, you can make connections and meet new friends, you can always sample whiskeys. Judging by the look on folks’ faces, you can have a hell of a lot of fun. Somewhere there’s a whiskey festival for you. Get out there and enjoy it.