This past April, over 2,000 whiskey geeks gathered at the Mohegan Sun Resort and Casino in Connecticut to taste their way through a slew of brown spirits at the Sun Whiskey Union festival. The atmosphere was convivial and soaked with booze, as both seasoned experts and novices grabbed their glasses and chatted with representatives from big brands like Buffalo Trace and Wild Turkey, as well as smaller regional distilleries from the Northeast like Vermont’s Mad River Distillers. There was a table with free hand-rolled cigars, some food to help soak up all of that whiskey, and live bands playing throughout the night. Men and women, old and young, boisterous and studious – everyone at the festival seemed primed to get their money’s worth (tickets were $85, with special packages available for those who wanted to stay at the Mohegan Sun for the weekend).
Before the masses gathered in the convention hall, there were a few seminars from select brands, attended by members of the media and festival attendees who were willing to shell out some extra cash for a more intimate tasting experience. These seminars varied in terms of content and value, but the whiskey flowed freely at them all. Michter’s veered close to obfuscation at its presentation – although we did get to sample the outstanding 10 Year Old Bourbon, the rep didn’t mention sourcing until someone (me) specifically asked about it halfway through. Come on, Michter’s, your whiskey is great and you should be proud of the stock you have on hand, but this only adds fuel to the critics’ fire. On the other hand, the amazingly detailed and transparent seminar with Barrell Bourbon came with a dizzying array of samples and information about exactly where every drop of whiskey comes from (with a few exceptions due to NDAs).
Over all, the Sun Whiskey Union Festival was well planned, and the variety of whiskey available to sample, from scotch to bourbon to Irish to Japanese to rye, was admirable. There was nothing pretentious about the proceedings. In fact, the majority of folks attending seemed to be truly curious newcomers, at least to some of the smaller distilleries whose tables were only slightly less packed than Jim Beam’s or Jameson’s. And that seems to be the key to a good whiskey festival experience. These should not be rarified affairs accessible only to stodgy old men who scoff at people who put an ice cube in their bourbon. A whiskey festival should be an open, genial environment that neophytes feel comfortable attending and asking questions – that, after all, is part of the point of these gatherings.
Throughout the summer and into the fall, there are some whiskey and booze festivals of note coming up. Here are eight of the best to consider.
Kentucky Bourbon Affair
At this multiday festival, distilleries put on their own events, inviting attendees to come to them to participate in special eating and tasting opportunities. The Kentucky Bourbon Affair features private barrel selections of Knob Creek, Elijah Craig and more, a seminar on bourbon science, a “bourbonque” with Jim Beam master distiller Fred Noe, and a murder mystery at the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience in downtown Louisville. Tickets to events start at $100.
WhiskyX Brooklyn with Dan Auerbach
Black Keys member Dan Auerbach will perform at this festival that takes place at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal, where over 60 different whiskey brands will be represented, from bourbon to scotch to Canadian. There will also be free haircuts from Blind Barber, a barrel making class, and samples of whiskey-infused chocolates from Louisville’s Art Eatables. Tickets start at $50.
Tales of the Cocktail
New Orleans, LA
Tales of the Cocktail, 15 years old this year, is a legendary booze festival that takes place every summer in the Big Easy. At this mammoth-sized celebration of all things booze-related, the international spirits industry gathers to drink and chat their way through seminars, tastings, cocktail exhibitions, Spirited Dinners, and bartender and industry professional talks. Event prices vary.
San Diego Spirits Festival
San Diego, CA
This late summer cocktail and spirits festival is in its ninth year. Industry folks and fans of good food and drinks gather here to sample a variety of spirits, cocktails, and to check out the International Spirits Competition, a blind taste test comprised of both large and small distillers. There is also an after-party and fashion show that takes place after the winners have been determined. Tickets start at $65.
Little Woody Craft Brews and Whiskey Festival
At this little Pacific Northwest festival, attendees will find a range of barrel-aged drinks, from craft beer to cider to local whiskey, including offerings from Oregon Spirit Distillers, Crater Lake Spirits, and Stein Distillery. This event might be small, but it offers attendees a chance to really sample the flavors of the Northwest, an area that has seen a rise in the number of distilleries in recent years. Tickets start at $15.
Kentucky Bourbon Festival
This festival is one of the big ones, having started way back in 1992 as a small affair and grown in size every year; in 2016, over 50,000 people attended. Special events include a Master Distiller’s Auction, the Bottled in Bond-Fire where you can sip and eat by a bonfire, and the Kentucky Bourbon All-Star Sampler where you can try spirits from some of the newer craft distillers. All the big boys of Kentucky bourbon are here. Events are not yet on sale, check back soon for ticket prices.
Bourbon & Beyond
Bourbon & Beyond will feature over 50 of Kentucky’s bourbons, curated by writer Fred Minnick and chefs Edward Lee and Chris Cosentino, at special bars like the Big Bourbon Bar (cocktails) and the Hunter’s Club (rare and limited edition bourbon). The festival, put on by music promoter Danny Wimmer, will also feature a musical lineup of some big names including Eddie Vedder, Band of Horses, Steve Miller Band, and Stevie Nicks. Local chefs and restaurants will provide food, and Tom Colicchio will put in an appearance at the B&B Supper Club. Tickets start at $139.50.
Nashville Whiskey Festival
Details are a little scarce at this early stage, but the sixth annual Nashville Whiskey Festival should prove to be a good one. Over 40 distilleries will be represented here – scotch, bourbon, and of course Tennessee whiskey – along with seminars and talks from folks in the spirits industry (details are yet to be determined). The best part is the festival takes place in the heart of Nashville, so a good time at a honkytonk is never very far away. Tickets start at $100.