Thursday, December 5, 2013

Guest Blog & Review of last Whisky Show of 2013 - NB Spirits Festival, Raise your glass

Phew!!!!  What a year. From British Columbia all the way to Nova Scotia, like the good Canadian Stompin Tom said: I've been everywhere man! I promised to review five Canadian whisky events this year and this is the last: The New Brunswick Spirits Festival. It is the longest running festival in Canada and in my opinion the best. BUT... since I'm from here and I've been to this show for years I thought it might be a really good idea to see it through the eyes of a "newbie". So not long after I wrote about the Forty Creek weekend I attended back in September some discussions were had and as a result my very good friend Rick Culver came all the way down from Toronto and is my guest reviewer. I can't thank him enough for doing this. We had a fabulous time together and I only wish I had time to share even 1/2 the stories he told that had me bent over in laughter. I hope Rick and others choose our wonderful festival in years to come. My love & respect. Thanks Rick!

Review of the N.B. Spirits festival

If you want to go straight to the review, scroll down but if you want to read why I'm doing this, hopefully get a chuckle and a debatable opinion then continue reading:  “Come to our whisky festival!” they said! “We've been to three of yours”, and so the challenge was issued. Now I already know that Canadian east coast hospitality is among the best. Want proof? Ask the world wide citizens about the days/weeks after 9/11 when local residents near six east coast airports looked after passengers of 131 grounded planes by taking homemade meals to the airport to feed these stranded travelers and then took them home so they could shower or sleep somewhere other than in the plane. I think all of the east coast is like that. Vacation there and odds are you will end up at some local Céilidh or kitchen party and treated like a long lost family member. Anyway, challenge accepted!

I met Johanne and Graham through social media and offered them transportation from Toronto Airport to their hotel for Spirit of TO and Forty Creek W/E. Written words on blogs, email and twitter don't have tone or expression but I think you can still tell things about people by the syntax and comments they make. We can all become quickly tired of the “sickly sweet” comments from bloggers who state the latest whisky they are sampling is the next great thing, or how some individuals only rant and rage against the machine. I thoroughly enjoyed their blog because of its style: Refreshingly honest with a tad bit of sassiness. (No. I'm not suggesting someone should be called whiskySassy, plus Graham wouldn't like to be called that anyway.) I enjoy blogs that offer more than “What I'm drinking praising this week” and prefer more of an analysis of what is going on within that whisky consumer interaction. I think their blog offered that. Holding them captive in my car gave me a chance to get to know them. Verdict: good #whiskyfabric folks.

Johanne thought she may be perceived as biased reviewing the NB Spirits Festival (comments from a previous event review). Me, I've been to a few whisky shows...  OK.OK. I go to them all!  

HI. MY NAME IS RICK. I'M A WHISKY SHOW ADDICT. (And the audience echoes back, Hi Rick).

In my work I organize and participate in lots of conferences and seminars so I've always been surprised that organizers don’t have a feedback form at the show. Maybe they don't need one as most sell out but wouldn't they want to know which presenters are worth having there, or which topics people really want to hear about?  Comment at the bottom if you think I am wrong.

Just so you know where I'm coming from my ideal whisky event starts at 9am. Seminars on: how whisky is made, production methods, cask management and grain selections. I would like to learn about the difference grain selection has on the outcome while sampling Bruichladdich’s barley selections or what Buffalo Traces' Warehouse X hopes to discover while sampling some of their finest. I'd love to hear about the Rothes Distillers Biomass Combined Heat and Power plant while sipping on a selection from the Edrington group. Give attendees the appropriate time to savor a high end whisky – just 5 minutes to nose & taste something like Glen Grant Diamond Jubilee 60 year old, really!?

Try having a show without offering copious amounts of whisky on the show floor, just in the seminar rooms plus a luncheon and/or dinner and run classes 9am to 9pm. I really think you may develop better brand devotees that way. New York WhiskyFest started classes at 9am & among the best speakers: Gerry Tosh from Highland Park. It influenced my decision on what to buy at Duty Free on my way home. Johanne wrote a blog not long ago stating how 5 attendees purchased Red Breast & Amrut after Davin’s Master Class at NB Spirits. Proof a good presenter influences. 

So my challenge to the festival organizers: Offer a higher class of educational events and you'll get a higher class of attendees. If not, then continue mass consumption and attendees who are hell bent on getting their ticket’s worth and puking on the show floor or in washrooms like at the recent Hopscotch and WhiskyFest events.

Here's the Review:

Recap: I've been to four previous festivals this year including WhiskyFest New York. I agree with most of Johanne's ratings on her previous festivals and would have only varied by half a mark on any of them. We didn't always attend similar classes so our experiences varied but I didn't think the overall analysis of any event was far from each other’s final summation. So let's begin. I used Johanne’s template: Cost, Venue, Classes, Main Event, and Overall Personal Experience.

COST: (travel, accommodations, events, classes)

Travel:  I took a return flight ($300 apx) to get from Toronto to Fredericton, whereas others from Ontario drove. There were a few from Quebec and I heard there was some from the Prairies. People seemed to think that this event was worth traveling to. I don't think they were wrong.

Accommodations: The event is held at the Delta Fredericton. A 3.5 star hotel that runs appx. $160 but has a festival deal of $129. There are always advantages to staying at the same hotel as the venue but this sold out quickly. I stayed at the Best Western which runs about $100 to $130. A taxi to the event cost $6.

Events: Wow! It offered a multitude of special events. The festival started off Wednesday evening with a spectacular dinner with food/whisky pairings put together by the incomparable Martine Nouet. Martine is a world renowned food and whisky expert and former editor of Whisky Magazine-France. At $125 it easily sold out. Thursday had a multiple number of master classes to attend ($15). Classes ran from 5pm – 6pm, 6:30 – 8pm, and 8:30 – 10pm. Mixed in among them was Martine Nouet’s other special class ($30): An Art and Whisky pairing with four local artists creating on canvas a visualization of the selected whiskies before your very eyes. The art was auctioned off at the end of the session. This easily could have been a main event and hopefully will be next year. Friday started with lunch ($50) at 11:45 and again presented with Martine hosting a spectacular selection of foods and complimenting whiskies. This woman deserves all the praise she receives. After lunch there were additional master classes ($15) and the Ultimate Master Class ($50). Thirteen (13) high end drams that were all amazing.

Now, before the main showroom opened at 6:45 there was through, the creative marketing genius behind this show, an onsite mini liquor store set up by ANBL (Provincial Liquor Establishment). The line-up was probably twice as long to get into the store as it was to get into the main showroom. Smart people. They were certainly assisted by the 80 page (yes 80!) pocket guide listing a floor plan with guide and a listing of all whiskies as well as booths, plus prices of all the whiskies including a 1948 Linkwood that would be available at the onsite store.

Main event ticket was $75 and offered a $10 coupon for the onsite store, a free taxi chit if you were not staying at the Delta and other discount coupons. This is a tremendous undertaking which served the
participants well. A number of limited whiskies sold out quickly and I was told that by 9:30 the store had sales of $167,000 dollars. IMPRESSIVE. 

Total Cost: $220 for tickets and I stayed with Johanne & Graham so no cost for hotel. 

This easily scores an A++

VENUE: The venue had ample sized meeting rooms and technology for power point displays. I wasn't staying at the hotel but my commute from the nearby hotel was a minor inconvenience. I did wonder about using downtown hotels and the new convention center to make it walking distance from downtown pubs like the Lunar Rogue. This event spans three days. Wednesday to Friday. If the event doesn't start till noon or after would people go to the Sports Hall of Fame, Science East or some other close attraction? Could that Art and Whisky pairing be held in the local art gallery? If the event were to grow pass the 750 attendees could it do so by having more classes? I think these individuals are so organized that they could pull off a fully packed three day festival. I would hope so. What about a half day devoted to rum? Sales of Gin are on the rise. Maybe a Mixologist class or two?  It’s endless.  In 1981 a friend of mine suggested that like-minded individuals get together to celebrate their common interest. Now everyone worldwide has heard of Friday the 13th in Port Dover.

Location: Although the event was not walking distance to downtown, taxi rides were quick to arrive and take you downtown or to your hotel.

Food: The dinner and lunch food pairings were simply amazing. While lined up in the hallway awaiting entranced to the Main room there were tables of food from local venders. What a great idea! Once in the main room there was plenty of additional good food. These people wanted to make sure you weren't drinking on an empty stomach. Again great planning.

Geographic Location:On a larger scale Fredericton is just one or two hours from Moncton or Saint John, the other two large cities in New Brunswick, four hours from Halifax, or eight hours from Montreal QC. I think it's worth the drive. I flew there from Toronto and got a ride to downtown. I don't think the Fredericton Bus service goes to the airport, but it's only a 15 minute taxi ride to downtown and costs just over $20. Suggestion:  I hope organizers would consider offer early registration for out of province visitors in future years. This event has the capability of being a tourist attraction.

I would have rated it higher if the location was centralized and there were more classes during this three day festival.

Total Score: B


Most of the Master Classes were only $15, except for Martine’s Art & Whisky which was $30. All were great value for money! I attended the Isle of Arran presented by Senior Brand Manager Louisa Young. Lots of knowledge there.  I moved on to the Laphroaig tasting presented by Master Ambassador Simon Brooking from Scotland, and the Gordon & MacPhail / Benromach tasting by Export Executive Nicole Hizzet from Scotland. Even with her youth, Nicole showed her training & knowledge was up to the task as she dealt with the multitude of questions thrown at her.  I have to say all were great and I would not hesitate to sit in on an educational session with any of them again. One note:  The session with Simon gave evidence why he has been awarded Keeper of the Quaich and Icons of Whisky – Ambassador of the Year for 2011, 2012 & 2013. One woman there commented that she found her new love but didn't say if it was the Laphroaig or Simon Brooking.

I already commented on Lunch: Simply delicious. My advice, if Martine Nouet is hosting: GO!

Next up: The Ultimate Master Class. Twelve of the most amazing whiskies, total worth $9900 if you were to buy them. Everyone got a tasting card to be crossed off after you tried that sample. 

A last minute surprise was Marc Laverdière Brand Ambassador for Macallan, Highland Park and Famous Grouse Brands added Macallan M to the tasting. It is the only Canadian Festival to have this $5000 whisky poured for 2013. 

Con:  Not a sit down event and much like a main event where you go from table to table. It worked out to be about 10 minutes per dram. I don't think any of them received the respect they were due and unfortunately some people seem to treat them like shooters. Now there were a few drams that I was not familiar with so I ask questions. I want that knowledge. Unfortunately for me Marc was the only Brand Ambassador in the room. Members of the local whisky club volunteers do the pouring & they had only found out what they were pouring about 15 minutes before the doors opened. I was advised later that normally they are briefed about a week in advance but not this year and as a result, I thought I met my first male Booth Bunny. Yes. He was a handsome gentleman. I publicly apologized to him later that evening when I found out they didn’t know what they were pouring till they walked in the room. Looking back I guess I am surprised that the Brand Ambassadors didn't request a 5-10 minute presentation per whisky. Their loss.

Types:  There were several types of Classes as previously mentioned. It is totally refreshing to see thinking outside the normal parameters with the Art and Whisky pairing. Kudos to the people who planned that! 

Time: It was great to have big spaces between classes to meet up with your colleagues and compare notes. Only at the Ultimate Master Class did I feel rushed. For me personally, there seemed to be too big of a gap between the Thursday evening and Friday lunch as well as the Friday Lunch and the evening sessions so I’d suggest adding a few more master classes or repeat some of them that are high demand.

And now for the downside: At the Thursday tastings there was no water glasses or spittoons/pails set up. There were two or three water bottles per table of 6-8 and if you wanted to rinse your mouth between tasting you had to empty one glass to do it. I considered this a major flaw. More water, a water glass and something to empty your whiskies in really are a basic item and an absolute must at any tastings.  This also happened at the Ultimate Master Class; mind you the spittoons would not have been needed. 

Damn. How do you balance what may have been one of the best classes offered at any festival when one of the most basic items like water was overlooked. 

Total Score: B


Availability of Whiskies: Over 250 whiskies! A festival cocktail table with mixologists serving up a variety of drinks to suit your taste buds. I don't think anybody was disappointed here. What was disappointing again was the lack of water and spittoons at the tables. They were there, but in the middle and strategically placed at the four corners, hard to find and not on the floor map. I didn’t see anyone leave a table between tastings to use them. Johanne saw at least 10 people shaking the remains of their glass on the carpeted floor and I heard vendors complain and go get their own spittoon. When you hear the vendors complain you know it's a problem.

Venue: A bit crowded at times but only in front of the booth everyone else wanted to sample from. Ha Ha.

Services: It was evident that a lot of planning went into this event. They've been doing it 18 years. The Festival Guide should be duplicated everywhere (I was told it is also used at the Halifax show). Having the onsite store is an amazing bonus. If I was a distributor I would demand that. There are so many background plans that go on I have no idea about. But I do know that the Diabetic Association runs the coat check and Frank Scott brings in students that are studying tourism/hospitality to pour water, serve food and wait on attendees.  They do this for free and in return Frank goes to their college and provides them with an introductory class about whiskies, also for free. Did I mention the Festival also provides free taxi service to anyone not staying at the Delta? Safety is always a concern.

Knowledge of exhibitors: No problem here. The top product reps were in full force. If I had a question someone couldn't answer they called over someone who could. Great job by all the brand representatives.  NO BOOTH BUNNIES… well except for one table which brand we won’t mention…

Total Score: B

OVERALL PERSONAL EXPERIENCES: Great people, good venue, fantastic whisky. How can you not enjoy that!   

Score: A+

So, if you tally up all the scores the total overall score for this festival is, drum roll please!

That is the best score I would give any of the festivals I've been to this year.  Now I did hear one of the organizers say that “We may not be the biggest but we aim to be the best”. You certainly don't have to be the biggest to be the best. My current plans are to go to the Ultimate Whisky Festival in Las Vegas. 

It is said that what happens in Vegas should stay in Vegas. But I gotta tell you that what happens in New Brunswick is so great the world should know about it!

Rick Culver (@rmculver)

No comments:

Post a Comment