Best Summer Festivals for Drinkers

Drink Lists Music Festivals
Best Summer Festivals for Drinkers

In a time when we’ve seemingly reached peak festival capacity around the world, it seems like every city has at least one music festival in the summer months. The lineups start to look the same, the same corporate sponsors fund the same attractions and the experience can become less unique, less magical. As we did this spring, we wanted to take a look at festivals that put extra thought and time into their adult beverage programs and find unique ways to accentuate their festival and its setting. From a Hunter S. Thompson and Beetlejuice-inspired bourbon lodge in Kentucky, to an idyllic slice of Pacific Northwestern heaven, these festivals went above and beyond and stand out from the from the pack.

Louisville, KY
July 14th-16th

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Photo credit: Jill Sanders

Now in its 15th year, the Forecastle music festival has taken its place alongside Muhammad Ali, horse racing, My Morning Jacket, Hunter S. Thompson and bourbon as the region’s proudest exports. Like the other festivals on this list, a big part of what makes Forecastle stand out is its dedication to celebrating the festival’s locale.  Given that 95% of the world’s bourbon is produced in Kentucky, and that Forecastle takes place on or around Hunter S. Thompson’s birthday (Thompson would have been 80 this year), the festival wanted to do something extraordinary to honor them both, and from that idea sprang the Bourbon Lodge and Gonzo Bar.

A pairing that surely would have made Raoul Duke’s heart sing with glee, this year marks the fifth edition of both the Gonzo Bar and the Bourbon Lodge, which is presented in cahoots with the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and has grown to over 15,000 feet in size. The lodge has become a main attraction of the festival and features many of the finest bourbons on Earth, and its popularity lead the festival to go pretty Gonzo with its construction this year. “You know that brothel-type thing that Beetlejuice is hanging off of in the movie? We essentially built that,” Forecastle founder JK McKnight tells me of the Bourbon Lodge while laughing, “It’s pretty amazing.”

“It’s truly a slice of the Bourbon Trail, we not only have the distilleries from the trail, but you also get to go and meet the master distillers and talk about the products—which include a lot of special single barrel options.” McKnight continued. “We have the ‘Fireside Chat’ on a small stage in the Lodge where an expert discusses their craft and that’s something that grows every year along with our attendees’ knowledge. It’s wild how far we’ve come in five years—we started in a 30×30 tent!”

Now the Lodge features a rarities bar which showcases product you can’t find anywhere else in the world, bourbon flights of the highest order, each year a featured local chef creates a bourbon-centric menu for the event. This being Kentucky in July, the lodge has AC, there is a “fixins bar” where you can make, say a Mint Julep out of your bourbon pour, while you enjoy Gonzo-style original pieces created by a local artist for the festival. Should you become inspired by your surroundings, there is a typewriter where people can sit and share their bourbon-infused thoughts while checking out rare pieces of Hunter S. Thompson ephemera. It’s a lot, and like the man said: it’s pretty amazing. Oh, and they also have music at this thing I’m told.   

Outside of Muhammad Ali’s ghost riding a racehorse owned by Jim James in the Kentucky Derby, it’s hard to think of something more wonderfully Louisville-esque than Forecastle. (Ali’s Ghost is a great name for a Kentuckian racehorse by the way. If a reader uses it I expect a percentage of the winnings.)

Pitchfork Music Festival/Octfest
July 14-16 and September 9

The Pitchfork Music Festival’s Chicago interaction has shown a real dedication to craft beer over its twelve years. Each year the festival partners with Chicago’s own Goose Island to sell not only the brewery’s own tasty libations, but also a special brew created just for the festival in conjunction with an artist playing the fest that year. Run the Jewels’ Belgian Wheat Ale, Sharon Van Etten’s SVE Kolsch, Chance the Rapper’s No Collar Helles-style lager and Twin Peaks’ Natural Villain lager have all resulted from the partnership.

This year the tastemakers at Pitchfork decided to take their love of suds a step further and partnered with October, a beer mag created by Pitchfork’s creative studio Slow Focus, for a one day beer and music festival on Sept 9th in Brooklyn called Octfest. The festival, which will take place in the Brooklyn Hangar, will feature sets from the likes of Guided By Voices, Charles Bradley, Okkervil River and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart and brews from 40 different breweries from around the world. Local favorites like Singlecut and Peekskill will stand alongside international stars like Cloudwater, Radeberger Gruppe, and Weihenstephan, and in great news for economically deficient art school Brooklynites everywhere, unlimited samples come with the price of admission. The event will be split into both day and evening sessions taking place at 1-5pm and 7-11pm, and each session will feature different bands and breweries and sounds amazingly fun.

Cap Hill Block Party
Seattle, WA
July 21st-23rd

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In theory, traveling for shows or music festivals is often a great way to get out and see new parts of the country. However, you often end up only seeing the gas stations around the event and/or the inside of a nearby brunch spot where you nurse your hangover before heading back. The fact that Seattle’s Capitol Hill Block Party takes place smack dab in the middle of the city in the bustling Capital Hill neighborhood means you can get down to the well-curated lineup, which this year features the likes of Danny Brown, Wolf Parade and my beloved and future ex-wife Angel Olsen, while still exploring the dozens of food and drink options Cap Hill has to offer. Being that the Capitol Hill Block Party takes place in the craft beer-mad Pacific Northwest, this means the options for imbibing top notch brews are myriad.

The artsy neighborhood is teeming with fantastic bars and restaurants (see map below), and the ease with which you can explore them and the neighborhood as a whole while at the festival is pretty remarkable, something festival owner and producer Jason Lajeunesse echoed when we spoke. “You don’t have to worry about getting camping gear together or making a trek, and you can come and go with ease to any of the amazing surrounding bars and restaurants, and from many of them you can still catch the music. It’s one thing to have a pop up tent in a field or something, but no matter how good a festival’s food and drink programs may be, they’ll almost never be able to top a full-service establishment, and that’s a big advantage we have. Seattle’s amazing food and drink scene is right there for you.”

The vibrant and multifaceted Capitol Hill neighborhood gained prominence as a place where artists and the LGBT communities get comfortable hanging long before gentrification came and brought with it the luxury condominiums that line some of Cap Hill today. Maintaining that neighborhood vibe and reflecting Seattle’s Pacific Northwest values are important to the festival, who teams with partners like Irish whiskey behemoth Jameson on not only special cocktails, but helping the festival achieve its artistic vision. The CHBP is that rare confluence of big music festival and local charm coexisting so perfectly they accentuate each other beautifully. You’d be hard pressed to find a big city festival that pairs as wonderfully with its surrounding city and its ethos than the Capitol Hill Block Party.

Portland, OR
August 3rd-6th

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Photo credit: Bruce Ely

When I moved to Portland after spending my whole life on the East Coast, I did so largely because Stumptown excels at many things very near and dear to me: an appreciation for the environment and concern for your neighbor; exceptional art, music and literature scenes; a bevy of world-renowned food and drink options. Pickathon stands as a crystallized embodiment of these strengths and values and is unlike any other festival or event I’ve been to, and I’ve been to a lot.

As soon as you get to Pendarvis Farm and the surrounding woods where Pickathon takes place, it’s clear you’re at a happening that is not tethered to your typical festival reality. The aroma of food from many of Portland’s finest establishments mingles in the with that of high-grade weed smoke and wafts over you intoxicatingly. You take stock of how clean the grounds are because Pickathon was the first American festival to completely do away with disposable plates, cutlery and cups (you can rent or buy reusable ones). Each of the festival’s stages has something special about it, and the Woods Stage in particular is something to behold, as it’s constructed entirely out of wood from the forest in which it resides. When I tell festival beverage curator Sean Hoard I’d hang out at the festival even if there was no music, he starts laughing and says he totally gets it, “We’re set up to succeed because it’s really hard to have a bad time when you’re at the Woods Stage or that crazy main stage… or any of them really.”

When I tell Hoard I find the festival and all the work that goes into it inspiring as a writer, he excitedly echoes the sentiment, saying, “What’s fun about working with Pickathon is the people putting on the festival truly care about the experience—not trying to squeeze every single dollar they can out of the attendees. It’s fun as a vendor or a guy like me putting together the drinks because they always want to get better. It’s fun and it presents a challenge because even if it went well, they want it to be better the next year.”

And although that’s a tall order, the festival seems to fill it and get a little better each year. The beverage list this year is as delicious and as hyper-local as ever and includes names that reads like an all-star list of Oregon-based based booze providers. Hoard and folks like associate festival producer Shawna Burke spend all year weighing their options and put as much thought into what you’ll be eating and drinking as they do in what you’ll be hearing.

Maybe the best example of the care and thought that goes into the production is Pickathon’s curation series. Six local chefs are handpicked by noted chef Jason French and then paired with six bands whose music Pickathon’s music bookers think will suit each chef’s cooking style. Then French picks a local food provider for ingredients he thinks will suit the vibe of both the band and then chef. Each chef then conceptualizes the menu based on discussions between themselves, the band and the food provider, and then French and Hoard put their heads together to curate drink menus for each pairing of musicians and food. How much does Pickathon charge for this massive undertaking in which pleasure for your every sense is considered and carefully curated? $60!

“It’s rare that you get to be in that kind of inspiring setting with creative people of all types exchanging ideas, and it’s even rarer that you’re in a situation where each touchpoint is so carefully thought out. The drink in your hand is, the food on your plate and the music in your ear are chosen very deliberately. To me it’s quintessentially Portland. I mean, to have a truly VIP experience at other festivals you have to pay so much to be there—thousands!—and we’re offering a much more unique experience for next to nothing, and then the bands hang out! I don’t know how they do it as inexpensive as they do, because it’s… ” fucking amazing? “Yes! [laughter] It really is.”

Outside Lands
San Francisco, CA
August 11th-13th

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Photo by Jeff Kravitz

Now in its tenth year, San Francisco’s Outside Lands stands as the leading and first example of a music festival reaching for world class heights with its food and beverage program. From the delectable seafood the region is known for, to random culinary magic like Guatemalan street food, Outside Lands food program is truly something to behold, and is so impressive it almost reaches the sky-high heights of Wine Lands, the festival’s opulent wine program. Almost. With thousands of wineries within 50 miles of the festival and Golden Gate Park’s wine cellar-like climate, festival beverage curator Peter Eastlake realized he could do something special with Outside Lands a decade ago when the festival began; a time when the idea of top notch wine at a music festival was unheard of.

Wine Lands, which this year features an amazing 40 wineries showcasing 120 wines, has become so renowned that the festival could start including the attraction as one of the headliners on its posters. “When we started this ten years ago, there was nothing like this—you could maybe get something crappy and overpriced, but nothing like what we wanted to do. It took a lot of convincing and work to get some of the better wineries to participate when we started, but now I have to turn away wineries every year,” Eastlake told me when we spoke on the phone about Wine Lands’ origins. “Part of our motivation is the desire to expose people to these amazing wines in new and different ways,” he continued, “20 years ago the wine scene was a lot of stuffed shirt types in tweed jackets, no diversity, no women, no minorities and very elitist. We wanted to make it more accessible in general, and the festival was a great way to do that.”

What started as an experiment in which Eastlake could only convince vineyards run by Deadheads and other live music lovers to participate in has evolved into a truly world renown facet of the uniquely ritzy festival, something he’s rightfully proud of. “I’m not sure there’s a more electric wine bar in the world,” Eastlake happily exclaimed, “Those three days, it’s so fun man, it’s honestly like an Oktoberfest without the beer and brats.” And to that I say good! I can get a beer and a meat tube anywhere, I’ll take a buttery Chardonnay and some oysters on the half shell with my Lorde set, thank you very much.

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