Whisky festivals are without a doubt one of my favourite places in the world. Like a wedding with an exceptionally well stocked open bar, everyone is going to have a
great time. I’ve been to a fair few, learned some lessons (mostly the hard way) and have some advice: prepare, take notes, know your limits, experiment and have an
1) Fail to prepare, prepare to fail
Anticipation is always a large part of any great experience. Depending on the festival in question you could have an idea of the distilleries/bottlers attending
(likely), the dream drams on offer (hopefully), and maybe even a full list of everything on show (only happened once to me, but gave me some of the best days of geeky
whisky planning of my life!). Personally I like to research to the nth degree on everything I can find out. I would suggest you at least have an idea of some stalls
that you really want to visit, and maybe a few that you will avoid. If you want to get geeky, write them down (see item 3: take note) so you don’t get carried away and
forget. One of joys of the internet is you can research what everyone’s core offerings are, what their latest releases are and anything new and limited they might
I try to plan my first 10 drams to the letter, then hit them (especially the dream drams) with military like precission. This is when my palate is at its best, my
faculties are mostly intact, and I’ve got the most energy and interest. Once I’ve hit those first few I know I can sit back and relax, the formalities are done, and
its time to have fun. My second ten-fifteen tend to be a bit more experimental, distilleries I’ve not tried before, stuff that people are talking about/recommending,
old favourites to check the current release, looking for a surprise. Finally my final five tend to be anything goes. Bourbon, blends i’ve had before, flavoured things,
rum, gin, anything I’m not going to have to think about or analyse too much, just for the joy of it.
2) Know your limits
You’re going to exceed your Government mandated daily drinking allowance in about five minutes (advice heavily influenced by a temperance society, more here). Whisky festivals are tasting
events, and everyone should know their limits, why let good times good bad, all that good stuff. But let’s be honest. You’re going to get pissed. It is a miracle, and
a fantastic tribute to the people that attend (and organise and support) that I think I’ve only ever seen one person ever take it too far at a festival, and they were
being quietly supported by the correct medical staff (and I’ve no doubt they would have woken up embarrased but fine the next day). On a Saturday night in any town
you’ll see far worse scenes. But no-one wants to be “that guy” (or girl). I’ve been that guy. Multiple times. I still cringe. Learn from my failings.
Personally I’ve narrowed myself down to a specific dram limit. It’s a slightly moving target, but its one I’ve garnered from bitter experience and one that has served
me well. Be honest with yourself and work out how much you can try before you get into trouble, then stick to it. Drunk you is very easily persuaded otherwise, but if
you know your limit and how much you’ve had you can at least try and stay on the light side (see 3: take note). I’m not saying stay sober, just don’t make yourself ill
or be a burden on your mates or the event, never break the cardinal rule: don’t be a dick.
3) Take note
One of the big things I’ve learned and heartily recommend is to keep a note on what you’ve tried. Whisky festivals aren’t the place for in depth tasting notes, no-one
wants to read that you thought a Glenfarclas was dark and sherried or that an ardbeg was peaty and complex. No-one cares. I’m looking at you “fifty reviews from one
festival” guy on reddit. However, keeping track of how many drams you’ve had, and maybe, if you’re feeling crazy, a very quick rating (and a rating only, tasting notes
are banned) can be helpful the next day when you try and piece it all together. Tasting notes aren’t going to be great, you’re always going to be rushed, there’s no
space to write them, and you’re just going to get in the way. If you’re /really/ bothered record yourself notes on your phone. At least listening back you can
appreciate you were talking bollocks. The only exception to the no tasting notes rule is at a masterclass, where you have the crucial benefits of time, space and a
table. Hopefully the organisers have placed the masterclass at a sensible fairly early time where you can appreciate their subtleties, not right at the end where
you’re trying to stay awake and are past caring what’s in the glass.
4) Go wild
One of the traps I’ve falled into in the past was to be too prescriptive. I had a fixed idea of what I wanted to try, I tried it, I enjoyed it, but got no further.
Surprises (of the good and bad kind) are all part of the adventure. Sometimes I’ve tasted through the range of a distilery I really wasn’t bothered about. Often I
was quite right, and they all sucked. But every now and again you’ll take a punt on something and it’ll be amazing. Festivals are the perfect time to try new things
without having to invest in a bottle, or even a sample. Ask other people what’s good, ask reps what they’d try apart from their own stuff, spin round and try the first
thing you see, never miss the chance to escape your comfort zone.
5) Plan your escape
Whisky festivals tend to start early, some well into the morning. You taste more and more, enjoy more and more, get more and more… “chatty” and then boom. The bell
rings, service is refused, and you have to leave. Believe me, I’ve tried begging, they won’t let you stay. When you leave the dizzy atmosphere of the festival you’re
subjected to one of the weirdest and most disconcerting experiences of life. Daylight. Normality. Old people doing their shopping. It’s like the horrifying experience
of getting the first bus/train back home at 6 am with people going to work when you haven’t been to bed. Only you’re not tired. And you’re probably still peaking not
on a crashing comedown. You’ve likely lost at least one of the people you were with and made at least two new best friends for life. So, sort it out in advance, have
a plan. Ours general involves a staggering distance pub with a beer garden for smoking cigars. Yours might involve food, someone’s house, a local park with a bottle
of cider to pass round. Whatever. Just know where you’re going after, you don’t want face the chaos of trying to find everyone and formulate a plan on the hazy streets
of a daylight town, trust me.