Whiskey festivals are amazing. A whole room full of every kind of whiskey under the sun along with whiskey lovers to talk about it, mixologists mixing cocktails with it, and food made with it. I am sure you don’t need any more convincing that this is a great idea. Before November 23, 2013, I’d never been to a whiskey festival, and I was dancing with anticipation of the event. And as it turned out, I ended up making every embarrassing rookie mistake that could be made. But I am here to tell you about them so you don’t have to make those same mistakes.
I had been looking forward to Whiskey in the Winter 2013 ever since I realized that it fell on my birthday weekend. What better way to celebrate the gift of life than with over 200 whiskeys, cocktails, food, and seminars? I’d been to beer festivals before but never a whiskey festival. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I knew it was going to be good. And it was really, really good. But it could have been epic if I had just avoided a few of these simple mistakes.
1) Hey, you are on vacation. Why not hit the bars hard the night before the festival? And while you are at it, spend the day running around the city and hit a brewery or two.
The day before Whiskey in the Winter was my birthday. I was in a new city with three of the most fun people I know. I had to celebrate. So after the nice lady at the club level of the Hilton got me started with a complementary tumbler full of Jack Daniels, we hit a few bars pretty hard. Then we woke up the next morning early for bloody marys and a trip to the City Museum. Then a stop at Alpha Brewing Company followed by alcoholic milkshakes at Bailey’s Range. Then a nice manhattan with Pops before hitting Blood and Sand for cocktails there before the festival. The moral of this story is that St. Louis is an amazingly fun city, but next year I will get a good night’s sleep the night before and save my heavy drinking for the festival.
2) Don’t have a plan. Just randomly sample which ever booth has the shortest line.
Once I got to Whiskey in the Winter, I thought the phrase “kid in a candy shop” was really the only way to describe my feelings and my behavior. We couldn’t even make it into the main room of the festival without picking up some of the full-sized cocktails that were being offered by the different bartenders set up outside. Once I made it to the number of booths, most of which had four or five whiskeys available for sampling, just blew my mind away. Any thought I’d had of saving myself for only the really good stuff went out of my mind and was replaced by a more primal urge to try all of these “free” things that were being given to me. I did get to try some 18-year-old scotch and barrel-strength bourbon from Four Roses, two treats I can’t afford to drink very often. But next year, I will plan out which whiskeys I want to try, maybe even write myself up a checklist, and work my way slowly through the exciting things before I start to hit 2nd and 3rd tier bottles.
3) Sure, the food looks good, but who has time to sit down and eat a full meal? Just grab a few desserts on your way back to more bourbon.
The food really did look great, and what I tried of it was delicious. Frankly, considering everything that was included, a ticket for $90 was a steal. But I was too excited to eat! And I’d already had a burger for lunch and appetizers at Blood and Sand, so that was plenty of food in my stomach for a night of whiskey drinking, right? Wrong. This is not a night to skimp on the food. A layer of something heavier between my stomach and several glasses of whiskey would have made the night much better for me.
4) Dump buckets are for wimps. If you don’t drink the total sample you are given, you are disrespecting the whiskey.
As I mentioned before, high-quality whiskey is a treat for me. Many nights you can find me drinking Kentucky Tavern at my local dive bar or prudently nursing a single glass of Booker's from the bottle I got for my birthday to try to make it last. This has left me with a combination of hardened taste buds and hatred of wasting good whiskey. So I ended up shooting back many a glass to empty it when I would have been much better served in the long run by sipping to taste and only finishing things that I enjoyed. That John B. Stetson Bourbon, for example, was one I should have dumped after a few sips.
5) Don’t worry about spending time talking to people; get out there and drink those whiskeys.
The culmination of mistakes 1-4 was the biggest mistake of all. I spent a few great hours tasting fantastic whiskey, chatting with reps, and sampling cocktails before the whole weekend hit me, and I had to make a shamefaced retreat to my hotel room. I barely made it to the end of the event, and because of that, I didn’t get a chance to get to know some of the people I had come to St. Louis to meet. I very much enjoyed talking with Pops over the manhattans, and I did get to have a friendly chat with Dan Gardner from Four Roses. But sadly, I missed out on the post-festival drink I had promised Pops earlier in the evening. I barely got to do more than say hello to Andrea Holak, and I regret not doing more to meet fellow bourbon lovers and whiskey reps while there.
So there you have five significant mistakes I made, so you don’t have to. Now that I have gained some insight into a better way to approach a whiskey festival, I will just have to plot out my next one to see what new mistakes I can make.