WhiskyFest Jumps the Shark – San Francisco

“Whiskyfest, San Francisco… we were lovers once.”  She made my heart palpitate.  The skies opened and the sun yada yada yada.  I remember years ago, dashing toward the best tables while trying to preserve a shred of dignity.  It was a Halloween for whisky geeks and there were so many more king-sized butterfingers than crappy little hard candies.  Tickets were $110, but $150 would get you in an hour early with the chance to try rare stuff.  Ridiculous stuff.  All of the best brands were there and they weren’t messing around.  There was no point bothering with a bottle that wasn’t worth at least $100 because every Glen Schmuck 10 meant one less delicious and dark Glen Grant 30-something you’d get to try.  Pencil, paper, picture, nose, taste, and pour another.  It was a furious pace to try everything worth trying.  This was how my Christmas wish list was made.  Taste it.  Grade it.  Consider the price.  For the curious tipplers a few extra bucks could get you a generous pour of $5000 bottles.  Four hours was never enough time.  WhiskyFest SanFran had the newest releases.  It had the oldest bottles.  It had what I wanted.   Angels dropped through the ceiling dripping golden whisky from jeweled bottles, matured for 400 years in wood from Noah’s Ark.  It was magnificent.

In 2012 something different happened.

It sucked. Granted, WhiskyFest  was well managed, but it was packed and the selection was lame.  Pouring tables were swarmed by desperate bodies, struggling like piglets for a teet.   And what was our reward Okay, not crap, but for the most part the same stuff that that’s been around since whisky festivals was spawned.  Apparently a misprinted rule read “no dram over 21 admitted”, and it was taken seriously.  I did the “non-VIP” ticket this year and found that every table had an “old” 20-ish year bottle corpse as if to say “hey dumbass the average stuff is gone, so have a try at that scotch you almost ordered from the Olive Garden bar.”

The glorious rows of independent scotches lined up in days past like glorious soldiers were now gone, replaced by vodka, rum and craft distilleries not old enough for preschool.  We bought a $155 seat to a ballgame then found the all-stars had been replaced with tee-ballers and ballerinas?  Duncan Taylor, Springbank, AD Rattray, Glenfarclas… stayed home.  And what of those brave brands that did show to square off for the battle of the bottles?  They left the heavy artillery home and brought butter knives.

Why did this happen?

Fortunately, I know many people in the whisky industry or at least in it recently enough to give me some ideas.  Oddly the only overriding theme I could get was that everyone is afraid of saying anything negative about WhiskyFest or even the whisky industry in general.  The feds had an easier time finding squealers for Gotti than I had in getting anonymous comments about WhiskyFest and the industry in general.  John Hansell and Whisky Advocate are a real force in the whisky market now and some companies indicated that they want to stay in good graces, even if it means showing up with squat and wasting a weekend.

WhiskyFest, and to be fair, big whisky events in general, just don’t sell whisky.  Most of the industry considers it a drunk-fest, and maybe they’re right.  But if folks are being offered the same whisky they drink when they go out to get drunk, then what can you expect?  Here’s what I think happened, and I’m going out on a limb, so if you smell bs, that’s fair.  Just put on your boots and watch your step.

• In the beginning WhiskyFest was the playground of the whisky snobs and snobby whiskies.  Great drams were poured.  Everyone was happy.  And it was good.
•     Local whisky geeks told their friends, who, being sophistimacated Friscans, delighted at finding an even haughtier way to get schnockered.  Word spread.  The show got popular.  The space stayed the same.  More people wanted in.  More people were let in.  The organizers noticed.
•     Whisky fans got worried.  The best bottles emptied earlier and earlier, often into the glasses of fools looking for a whisky “legs”, spitting as if it were wine, or just pounding shots like a frat hazing.  Tables got packed.  The best you could do was point at what you wanted, extend your arm, and hope you got lucky.  The pours weren’t being appreciated.  The brands took notice.
•     Word spread.  Guys in SF loved drinking fancy schmancy whisky; even it was mostly training wheels single malt.  They’d pay more if they had to.  They had to.  The brands began to cater to a different audience.  Independent whisky sellers with one-off casks bottlings didn’t see a sale so didn’t bother.  Big distilleries figured a drunky would learn just as much brand recognition from an 18 year as a 30 year.  The good whiskies disappeared.  Whisky connoisseurs took notice.  They stopped attending.  And it was bad.
Thus happened the death spiral, and where it ends no one knows.  But this is certain: the event is now a disappointment… from our perspective.  And by “our”, I mean those of us who spend our hard earned money finding new favorite whiskies.  Let’s consider:

•     Whisky Advocate:  Every year they raise the rates on booths and attendees:   WINNER
•     Big Brands:  Brand recognition for mixer scotch is through the roof.  Master classes are full because WhiskyFest was oversold and there are no good bottles on the main floor:  WINNER
•     Sophistimacated Friscans:  $185 is still cheaper than a night of shots at a city bar:  WINNER

•     Small Brands:  You were attractive when the guys were drinking, but any memory of you will be politely offered a free taxi ride in the morning.  At least you may get that 1.5 page article in Whisky Advocate:  DRAW
•     Whisky Aficionados:  You dropped three figures to try the bottles you normally re-gift for Christmas.  Your whisky cabinet has better stuff and didn’t cost $36 to park near:  LOSER

The night wasn’t a complete loss for me.  I attended with a friend I don’t get to see much of these days.   He sent me a message before I found us two scalped WhiskyFest tickets. “We could also buy a $400 bottle of Scotch and drink it at home.”  I should have listened to you, Matt.  Let’s do that next year.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *