Whisk(e)y festivals have popped up in nearly every corner of the globe. At these expansive tastings—some uber-casual, some stuffy and formal—guests can sample dozens or hundreds of brown spirit expressions from the standards to the insanely rare. Like Comic-Cons, they are crowded with die-hard nerds and curious noobs each vying for access to tables, panels, distillers and brand ambassadors. And also like Comic-Cons, there are a whole set of traditions, rituals, hacks and potential faux pas. But unlike the cosplay world, these whiskey mega-tastings are fueled by bourbon, scotch, rye and world whiskeys, which can lead to uncomfortable consequences if you’re not careful.
We spoke with organizers of two whiskey festivals—the ultra-posh seventh annual Universal Whisky Experience held at the Wynn Las Vegas and the newer Sun Whiskey Union held at Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun resort and casino. Combined with their experience and our own—attending national touring festivals like WhiskyFestand Whisky Live—we present you with the hints, tips and ammunition needed to maximize enjoyment of your next (or first) whiskey festival and avoid embarrassing mistakes.
1. Hang on to Your Glass
Most festivals give you (or lend you) what’s called a Glencairn glass—a small hurricane-glass-shaped tumbler specifically designed for nosing and sipping whiskey. Each sample is a small pour—enough to nose, sip, swirl and (if you’re smart), spit. Use the water pitchers at each table to open up the aromatics of higher-proof samples and occasionally rinse out your glass so everything doesn’t taste like peat smoke or sherry fruit.
Glencairn glasses at Whisky Live (image: Jason Dixson)
2. Arrive on Time
Two (or three) hours goes fast, especially if you’re taking your time and pacing yourself (see below). Sure, the entry line will often be insane, but trust us: With all the offerings inside, you’re going to want to maximize your time.
3. Dress to Impress
“Almost by definition, every whiskey festival is luxury in itself,” says Mahesh Patel, the founder of the Universal Whisky Experience. “You’ve got to approach them with a bit of class.” Patel knows from whence he speaks. He also heads up Bespoke Spirits, an importer of high-end products like Prometheus 26-year-old single malt, and is prominent enough in the industry to score a tile on the floor of Manhattan’s new Fine & Rare bar, an impressive brown spirits mecca.
“Please be well-dressed, at least smart casual,” says Patel. “You don’t have to wear a tuxedo, but dress according to the occasion. To do otherwise is disrespectful to the other guests, to the brands.” While bourbon festivals, especially those held outdoors, are sometimes more casual, it still doesn’t hurt to ditch the Hawaiian shirt and cargo shorts for a polo and resort pants.
4. Your Admission Ticket Is for the Event, Not the Whiskey
“I know there are sometimes people who feel, ‘I’ve paid $100 or $300 or more for this event, so I’m going to drink as much whiskey as I can,” says Patel. Instead, consider that you’re paying for the opportunity to sample all of these great products in one convenient spot and meet whiskey makers who have traveled halfway around the world to meet you.
Well-dressed at Whisky Live (image: Jason Dixson)
This should be a no-brainer, but people still manage to forget they’re sipping dozens (or more) of samples of straight booze. Even if you’re spitting—you should really consider spitting most of the samples or at least only taking one sip—that’s a lot of alcohol. Festivals worth their salt will have water stations placed prominently throughout the room.
6. Pace Yourself
“You don’t have to drink it all,” says Krista May, the special events manager for Mohegan Sun’s Whiskey Union now in its second year. The one-day event is expected to entertain and educate 2,500 guests. “It’s not about how much can you drink; it’s about how much can I enjoy and try something new.” Patel agrees: “It’s about tasting, not consumption. There’s a reason there are spit buckets. The best way to do it is try what you can, then pick a few and enjoy them.”
There’s also a purely selfish reason to moderate your drinking. By law, festivals must ensure that attendees don’t get too drunk. If they even sense you’ve gone too far over the edge, they may insist you leave, and that pricey ticket flies out the window.
Pro tip: Do not “pre-function” with drinks before the event. Trust us on this one.
7. Check Out the Entertainment
It’s no accident that whiskey festivals offer a variety of distractions, from food tables to live music. If you drink whiskey nonstop for several hours, it’s not going to end well. Instead, take a wee break and see what else is happening in the room. “We’re bringing in live entertainment, pool tables and a show car from the New Hampshire Motor Speedway to pose with,” says May. Yeah, you want to get to all the great whiskey, but you also want to enjoy the evening. After all, your ticket also paid for a great show.
Buffet options at Whisky Live (image: Jason Dixson)
8. Do Your Research
Because the number of brands, labels and expressions present at most whiskey festivals can be overwhelming, it can benefit you to do some advance reading. Most festival websites will list the upcoming brands. You can see if your favorites are there, for sure, but also look for what’s new and unusual (especially if you’ve been to the festival before). Check out specific brands’ social media pages to see if they’re highlighting any new or unusual expressions. All of this will allow you to target and maximize the evening’s offerings.
As an added bonus, you’ll often also find out what’s new for the festival itself. Whiskey Union is offering optional seminars this year and a craft cocktail bar (for those who want a little break from the straight stuff). Universal Whisky offers various tiers of access, from a Companion ticket for people who might not want whiskey but would love wandering the floor with their dates while sipping a little wine to an extravagant High Roller Experience, which includes exclusive super pours of rare expressions, one-on-one meetings with brand ambassadors, a full paired dinner and more. Both events offer cigars and other amenities to guests.
9. Don’t Be That Guy/Gal
Speak to anyone who has poured whiskey at one of these events, and they’ll tell you the most frustrating attendee is the one who pushes through the crowd, shoves his/her glass into the server’s face and demands, “Give me the most expensive/oldest one you have.”
Seminar at Whisky Live (image: Jason Dixson)
Not only do price and age not equate to quality, but the actions show disrespect to fellow festivalgoers, to the servers and to the brand itself. Be patient, wait your turn and ask a few questions about the range of offerings, and you will indeed get to try that ultra-rare expression.
“Everyone’s there for the same thing,” says May. “You want to be nice to your neighbors. Once you have a taste, step back and enjoy it.”
10. Ask Questions
Most festivals make a point of having someone intrinsically involved with the brand on hand, rather than just another pretty face pouring out whiskey. If one of the distillers, owners or blenders isn’t available, a brand ambassador often is. They’re there to educate as much as to offer their juice. Ask about the distillery’s heritage, the makeup of the spirit you’re sampling, what makes the brand unique.
Pro tip: Get to know the brand ambassadors well, be kind and interested, and be courteous to your neighbors. Sometimes that level of familiarity will score you a “secret” pour of a below-the-counter extra-old or rare expression. Don’t ask for it, but if you play your cards right, they just might offer it.
11. Get to Know Your Neighbors
The people pouring the drinks aren’t the only source of information and education. Many of your fellow drinkers bring years of knowledge about the distilleries, whiskey-making process and specific brands and expressions. Especially at a high-end event like the Universal Whisky Experience, your drinking buddies could also turn out to be beneficial friends or business associates. “There’s a wealth of knowledge and great friendship potential,” says Patel. “Compare notes, sit down and enjoy yourself.”
Whisky Live (image: Jason Dixson)
12. Be an Equal-Opportunity Sampler
You already know what your favorite single malt or bourbon tastes like. Consider scoping out new and unusual brands or those tables that aren’t getting a ton of attention. Several years ago at a New York WhiskeyFest, I stumbled across Kavalan, a Taiwanese brand that wasn’t even in the country yet. I fell in love with its light, elegantly made products, and now it’s among the world’s top award winners and aficionado darlings.
13. Drink Locally
Likewise, this is an era during which every state in the country now has a distillery and many are making notable whiskey. At some festivals, they’re tucked away in a dark corner; at others, they’re prominently displayed. All are worth a shot. “Local producers are kind of where we start,” says May of the Mohegan Sun Whiskey Union festival, where producers from Connecticut, New York and Vermont are on display. “Jim Beam is a great partner, but it’s something people are kind of already expecting to be there. So we also hope to push for the local guys. We want to give them a chance to be exposed.” The festival also highlights regional foods, and a portion of the proceeds go to benefit United Way of Southeastern Connecticut.
14. Keep Your Eyes Open
Can’t make it to New York City or Vegas? Festivals are opening all the time around the country. New this year is the New Orleans Bourbon Festival, kicking off with more than 80 bourbons, ryes and whiskeys. The Sarasota-based Whiskey Obsession is in its fourth year and claims to be the largest world whiskey festival in the U.S. And even though Louisville, Ky., is the heart of bourbon country, there’s always room for another event. This fall, the new Bourbon & Beyond will combine the best elements of whiskey and music fests, with the message “Louisville is to bourbon what Napa Valley is to wine.”