Someone asked me this a few weeks ago: Should a newbie whisky lover consider going to a whisky show like WhiskyFest, Whiskies of the World, or one of the similar shows held annually across the world? Obviously, I can’t answer the question for everyone, but I thought I’d break down my thoughts on the matter and maybe help you decide for yourself if a whisky show is the right choice for you.
Before we begin, a caveat: I have been to exactly two of these (one WhiskyFest in San Francisco in 2011, and one Whiskies of the World in San Jose in 2014), so my opinion might not be as valuable as a jaded whisky marketer or representative who has been to hundreds of the things. Then again, my perspective might be less jaded and thus more useful. You decide.
First, you must ask yourself why you want to attend a show. They’re short (2 hours, or so), crowded, noisy, and usually require you to establish alternative transportation home. I’ll organize my thoughts based on the possible answers to this question.
1. To drink a lot of free whisky!
Tickets to a whisky show will range from $50 to $150 (or much, much higher) per person. At my last show I tasted about 40 whiskies in the two hours allotted and paid $65 for my ticket. That’s a little higher than $1 per taste, which would be a good deal if I’d been able to taste ANYTHING after the first eight pours or so, or if I’d been physically capable of swallowing more than about 10% of it (I spat or poured the rest out). You’d likely be able to enjoy the whisky more by spending $65 on 6 to 8 decent drams at a well-stocked bar, and taking your time.
Also, you will not be able to taste everything you want. Most tables have between 2 and 10 bottles, and there are dozens of tables. Hit your “must do” tables early in the evening, and then focus on tables without long lines. You can’t possibly taste them all, so know that beforehand.
2. To try things I couldn’t afford to buy, or can’t find.
While it’s true that whisky shows will attract big brands with pricy bottles to pour, the vast majority of the product on the floor will be either cheap (bottom-shelf brands trying to drum up business in an industry increasingly focused on premium product), bad (“craft” producers riding the craft wave with 18 month-old swill), widely available (everything at the Diageo table, and of course the 10, 12, 15, and 18 year products from all of the major producers), or not even whisky (brandy, vodka, gin, rum, tequila, etc. also trying to ride the wave of whisky popularity). You will certainly find a few gems: 18, 21, or 25 year-old bottles, choice independent bottles or rare distilleries (I had an awesome Mortlach from Gordon & MacPhail at WoW 2014), really good craft products (Corsair, Lost Spirits, or High West for example), or special editions that sell out quickly. There’s sometimes even a Pappy Van Winkle table, at least there was at WhiskyFest in 2011. Of course, it will be difficult to enjoy those gems due to the beating your sense of taste and smell have taken from previous pours, and the large crowds (‘lines’ would be too generous) that develop around those tables.
Also, the “best stuff” is usually reserved for very pricey VIP sessions on the tasting floor, or for equally pricey seminars.
3. To have a good time with friends who also enjoy whisky.
Shows are a great way for a small whisky appreciation group to get out and do a group activity. Some shows offer group discounts as well, and you can probably drum up a designated driver or two, or split accommodations in a hotel. Remember, though, that the expo hall will be noisy, everyone will have their own priority list of tables to visit, and few tables can handle more than four to six people at once. The chance of your whole group getting to stand around and chat with Julian Van Winkle over some Pappy is… well, zero.
4. To meet whisky celebrities.
Some shows bill high-visibility luminaries like master distillers, CEOs, authors or journalists, and prominent representatives like Dr. Bill Lumsden from Glenmorangie, John Glaser from Compass Box, and Richard Patterson from Whyte and MacKay. These people are usually attending the show to give seminars, but often hover around their company’s tables for part of the show. I’ve met John Hansell of Whisky Advocate, Steve Beal of Diageo, David Perkins of High West, Steve McCarthy of Clear Creek Distillery, John Glaser of Compass Box, and (OK I just stood near him) Julian Van Winkle III of Pappy fame. If geeking out for 3 seconds while shaking the hand of one of the heroes of whiskydom is your bag, then book your ticket now… but make sure to check the advertised attendee list and don’t get your hopes up. These events can be crowded.
5. To attend seminars.
Most whisky shows offer topical seminars about appreciating whisky. They usually cover aspects of tasting/nosing, blending, distillation, maturation, and other salient aspects of the industry. They also usually include samples to nose and taste while listening. Sometimes these offer vertical tastings that would be difficult (or impossible) to organize on your own, or include difficult-to-get products like new make (white dog), heads or tails from a distillation run, whisky from closed distilleries, privately-bottled whisky, or partially-aged spirit or blending components that aren’t bottled by themselves. The price is usually in excess of the value of the samples, however, and they’re almost always scheduled in such as way that you’d miss part of your time on the tasting floor… especially if you want to attend more than one seminar. Keep a close eye on the scheduled times (and available tickets) when choosing a seminar.
A few other things to note. Some tables often offer free merchandise (no, never actual whisky) like hats, whisky glasses, flasks, and the like. This isn’t nearly as common, though, as it is at other shows (like tech conventions). You’ll usually get a program and a tasting glass when you check in for the event, and sometimes a bag to carry any loot you might acquire, but you might also consider bringing your own bag in case they don’t offer one. There will be ample bottled water, and enough neutral-tasting snacks or finger-food to curb any appetite you might drum up while tasting. There will be buckets at each table for disposing of your extra whisky, since most tables will pour you more than you need to taste. You can either sip a little, swallow, and pour the rest in the bucket, or sip, taste, spit it back in your glass, and then pour that in the bucket. Never spit directly into the bucket, please!
You will NEED to spit! If you take a single swallow from every bottle that you can possibly taste in 2 hours, you will die of alcohol poisoning. Seriously though, just swallow the exceptional stuff and spit/pour out the rest. This is not a place at which to get roaring drunk.
You will find it difficult to get timely pours at every table, since the event will be full enough (especially in the first hour) to keep you waiting in small lines at the popular tables. Don’t push, but feel free to tap on the shoulders of people who already have a pour and ask if you can slip in. You may need to catch the attention of the representatives pouring the whisky, especially if someone else is bending their ear. Don’t be rude, however.
Speaking of which, don’t ask difficult questions unless you know you’re speaking to someone who has the answers. The people pouring are usually reps from the local distributor or importer, or simply people hired by those companies. They can answer simple questions, but don’t ask them what the mashbill is, or the angle of the lyne arm, unless you know you’re talking to someone who actually works at a distillery. That said, some reps are more knowledgeable than others.
I suggest keeping a bottle of water in your pocket, and rinsing out your glass (and your mouth) between every pour. This can get annoying, but it’s worth it to avoid everything tasting like peat after you visit the Ardbeg table. It’s also worth scheduling your stops to put peated malts at the end, but that works better in theory than practice. Don’t try to write down notes, but it might be worth carrying a pocket recorder (or using an app on your cellphone) to record your notes. You simply won’t remember anything about what you tasted later if you don’t record notes.
Lastly, arrive at the venue early (15 to 30 minutes at least) to check-in. You don’t want to lose tasting time standing in line at 5 minutes past the hour to register late. Don’t bring anything you aren’t willing to carry around, in case there’s no coat check.
I hope I’ve answered some latent questions about whisky shows, and I hope I’ve given enough information to help you make your own decision. If you simply want to try a wide range of whiskies in order to expand your horizons and identify a few products that are worth a closer look, a whisky show is perfect for you. Just don’t expect to leisurely sample high-end products and chat with whisky celebrities. Ask questions in the comments below. Cheers!