There are many different whiskey and spirit related events available to the consumer as well as to those in the service industry who wish to learn more about the spirits they pour. Before we look at the future of these events, we need to look at their history and understand how they came into existence.
Thirty years ago there were no such events for consumers and very few for those in the industry. In the mid-1990s there was a growing interest in Bourbon and other whiskeys. The Bardstown Bourbon Festival had proven that consumers would travel quite a distance and pay money to not only learn more about Bourbon but also meet the people who made their favorite spirit.
I believe it was Malt Advocate that put together the first event that would allow consumers to meet the distillers and sample their whiskey without having to make the trek to Kentucky and the first “WhiskyFest” was born. Now there are many other events built on the same model. The magazine brought distilleries together in a city – New York or Chicago for example, rented event space where the distillers had booths to pour their products and hand out information and maybe even glassware if they chose to do so. The distilleries would bring in people like Booker Noe, Parker Beam, Jimmy Russell and Elmer T. Lee to work the booth and talk with consumers. They would pour their whiskeys and maybe introduce a new premium product to the consumers at the event. Because there were not really that many American distilleries at that time the organizers would include Scotch, Irish, Canadian and Japanese distilleries in the event so the consumer would have a plethora of choice in the four hour event. There is no doubt that these events helped create the Bourbon boom we have now.
These events were for profit events. The organizer would charge the distilleries a fee for a booth and the consumer a ticket price. There were also sponsorships sold. At the same time the organizers had many expenses. Besides the obvious expenses of the event space and food there were items such as proper licenses, insurance advertising and marketing and of course staff salaries to get everything organized and done. Money was made but I doubt that anyone was getting rich off the events. These events were expensive for the distilleries as well. They had not only the cost of the booth and its presentation, they had the cost of the whiskey poured; the cost of people working the booth; the cost of transportation getting everything there and the cost of anything given to the consumer such as glassware. The consumers would pay a ticket price and the price of the ticket was a balancing act of keeping the price low enough that a consumer would pay the price but also high enough to pay the bills and make some money.
In the early days of these whiskey events they were beneficial to both the distilleries and the consumers. They gave distilleries a chance to market directly to their biggest fans. They helped build the reputations of the distilleries’ common brands as well as their premium and super-premium brands. Sales increased with the exposure. There were other factors that helped create this explosion of sales but events were definitely a part of the explosion. Consumers had a chance to talk with industry people in a way that had never really happened before. The education level of the consumer rose. The organizers made a few dollars by helping make this connection between consumer and manufacturer. It was a winning situation all around.
Times have changed. The original distilleries are selling everything they have and are working hard to meet the demand. They don’t need the expense that comes with such events. Why should Four Roses pour a special release when they will sell every bottle already and still have consumers complaining because they did not get a bottle? Justify to stock holders that you gave away a case of your new expensive release that could have made more money for the stock holders and made that many more consumers happy. Now don’t get me wrong, the distilleries need to make a profit or else they go out of business and we lose another brand line and choice. This attitude is not corporate greed, but responsibility to stockholders. This means that the organizers have a harder sale to get them to buy space at the event. It has become less likely that the big name people are at the event. The Master Distillers and well know Brand Ambassadors may pass on the event to do something for special customers or in foreign markets. The consumer becomes less likely to attend if all they are getting are tastes of products they can purchase in the lobby bar and the person working the booth is someone who was hired two weeks ago to work the booth. Things look bleak for the future of these events.
There is hope that whiskey events will survive but there are going to have to be some changes in thought by all concerned. For the organizers they are going to have to stop looking at the big distilleries as a major source of income. They may have to start charging little or nothing to get booth space if they want these distilleries to send a Jimmy Russell or a Julian Van Winkle. They need to concentrate upon the distilleries that need to sell their brands but also to remember that these distilleries don’t have deep pockets either.
The distilleries like Peerless, Limestone Branch, Rabbit Hole and Starlight need that consumer exposure more than Jim Beam or Brown Forman. These are the distilleries the organizers need to help promote.
The big distilleries need to keep a hand in these events for public relation purposes and should still be willing to have a presence at the events. They need to remind consumers that they have plenty of great whiskeys that are still available and not that everything they pour is some hard to find special release. They need to get people like Fred Noe and Bernie Lubbers in front of consumers and let them know they care about their loyal customers and want to meet them.
Finally, the consumers who attend these events needs to quit thinking that only the hard to find and expensive whiskeys are what they want. Consumers should appreciate a pour of Evan Williams at the event because they got to share it with Charlie Downs. They should be happy that they got to meet Corky Taylor and his young distiller Caleb Kilburn when they just released their first two year old rye and cherish that memory in the years to come when Peerless has grown to be a popular brand. They should be happy to meet Steve Beam and discuss not only his fine whiskeys but his rich heritage at Limestone Branch. It is not all about getting to drink premium whiskey, it is also about learning about what is out there and how to appreciate them.
The future of whiskey events is bleak if the organizers and consumers expect things to continue to go on as they are. It is going to take some change in focus on the consumer and the distilleries, but it is possible to continue to have whiskey events promoting products and educating consumers.
Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl