Whisky festivals are becoming an increasingly popular phenomenon throughout the developed world. Even on the Danish peninsula of Jutland. And deservedly so, as they offer good fun for lovers of the holy water. What greater way to spend a day with your mates, than to stroll from brandstand to brandstand and taste as many whiskies as you can possibly feel like, while finding your way through large sports halls or conference centers with thousands of old drunken men.
But danger lurks ahead: Whisky festivals are highly disorganized events, with many brands and retailers each offering a variety of quality and whisky types. And as the day progresses, the collective intoxication reaches critical levels, which strains the festival infrastructure and decreases the patience and sociability of the crowd. If you merely choose to walk around drinking whatever you stumble upon, you will end up with a very unsatisfying result: Mouth numbed by the spirit of cask strength whiskies, tasting buds scorched by peat and terminal amounts of alcohol in a starving stomach.
For the last couple of years, we’ve been attending both of the two big annual Jutlandian whisky festivals:
- Mac Y’s Rum & Whisky Festival in Autumn way out west near the military airport in Karup. It offers a bafflingly long list of free whiskies and has an annual appearance of self-proclaimed whisky deity Jim Murray selling and signing the annual gospel of whisky tasting objectivity. This is very much a festival for experienced drinkers.
- Whiskymessen in Springtime down in the triangular area of Kolding, Vejle and Fredericia. It’s comparatively well organized, has lots of master classes with sturdy brands and the atmosphere is pretty easy going, as 1/3 of the crowd are more or less rookies.
We’ve been attending these festivals with great thirst for the large selection of whiskies, but increasingly also for the journey itself – from the moment we enter the festival bus till the last drop has been licked from the worn down Glencairn glass. Because of this, the purpose of whisky festivals has shifted for us somewhat over the 3 years. From being a way to taste some specific pre-selected drams into a sort of sporting exercise, where the goal is to taste as much great whisky as possible – within the limits of tasting abilities, dignity and self-preservation.
We get more out of the festival opening hours by making our way through some +30 whiskies rather than trying to savour each dram as a holy experience or – even worse – as a scientific sample in a tasting journal. It is hard work but in the end, we obviously end up in a state of whisky-induced nirvana.
To some, this makes us whisky pigs. But we beg to differ. Tasting notes are a poor and most uninteresting description of a specific tasting experience. A whisky is always a new experience in a different time and setting, and generally speaking tasting journals are for people with no soul. Besides, the bustling setting of a whisky festival does not exactly invite to singling one tasting experience out as something profoundly different from the others.
However, this is probably also the great thing about whisky festivals: You are not bound to some certain order of whiskies and they are not presented to you in the traditionally passive setting of a whiskytasting. Instead it’s up to you to construe your line ups and to design your own tastings amongst the hundreds of different whiskies.
This is quite a challenge and requires a fine-tuned ability to maneuver in an environment of joy, alchohol, bizarre incidents and whole lot of disorganization. Over the years, we have improved our festival experience by adapting a few simple techniques:
- The Thinking Bourbon is the first drink of the day. It’s the most interesting or expensive bourbon of the festival ordered straight on arrival, and something to enjoy while getting situated at the festival and planing the first line-up of the day.
- Line-ups & meals are the main components of the day. A good line-up consists of 7-10 whiskies of increasing spirit and peating levels. The line-ups are divided by a meal and a cup of coffee to neutralize the palate more effectively. It’s important to scout food stands and the general situation about food on the festival. At the 2011 Mac Y festival there was a 1½ hour queue in the small overrun cafeteria. We could only passe the waiting time drinking more whiskies…
- Doing a raid is a good alternative to a festival master class. Choosing the stand of an interesting distillery or bottler and picking out 5-7 of their whiskies under the guidance of a brand representative gets some fast rough insight into their selection. This often beats the time and energy spent with a festival master class, where an official brand representative tries to impress a room of predominantly old tired festival drunks, which potentially results in a slow pace and the lowest common denominator setting the standard for the humor and anecdotes.
If you want to attend a Jutlandian whisky festival, we recommend them both. Whiskymessen for the potentially good master classes and fine infrastructure, Mac Y’s Rum & Whisky Festival for the long list of free whiskies and the atmosphere created by a crowd of a thousand experienced drinkers standing upright till the joyous end.
d & m