Recap: Houston Whiskey Festival 2014

Categories: Booze

Marc Rosenthal
The first Houston Whiskey Festival gave hundreds of people a chance to taste dozens of whiskeys from around the world.

The first Houston Whiskey Festival is in the books, having taken place downtown at the Julia Ideson Building on McKinney this past Saturday. An unexpectedly rainy day proved to be a harbinger (and a partial cause) of some complications inside. While we loved the setting and were able to sample enough food and whiskey to our satisfaction, we spoke with and heard from a number of attendees whose complaints and attitude regarding the event ranged from "annoyed" to "irate." Let's talk about the good, the bad and what can be done in the future to make the festival better.

When I spoke to the festival's organizer, Tim Briscoe, he said that he wanted the event to be "elegant," among other things, and choosing the Julia Ideson Building certainly fit that bill. The 1920s Spanish Revival-style building, complete with low-hanging lights and shelves full of books, set the ambience nicely. The entertainment complemented the setting well; a burlesque show from Dem Damn Dames and several live bands made for a lively atmosphere, fun-spirited with just the right touch of class.

Once the VIP hour ended, the crowds were so large that navigating the festival became tricky. In that sense, though, the festival was a good idea, having clearly found an audience. On the one hand, I don't know if Briscoe expected to sell as many tickets as he did, more than 1,600. On the other, he said that the festival had been originally planned to include a larger outdoor area with some tasting stations, but that the inclement weather had forced some last-minute rearranging. According to Briscoe, the outdoor lounge would have held at least 400 people, so that would have helped alleviate the crowding.

Nath Pizzolatto
The Tasting Room on the second floor, packed with whiskey lovers.

Unfortunately, the crowd size led to a number of other problems. While my companion and I were able to sample plenty of whiskeys, we also had the luxury of attending the VIP hour. We heard from several people who were not allowed in until 7 p.m., and they were greatly disappointed. They claimed that some of the lines were so long as to be prohibitive, and that some tables ran out of whiskey as early as 8 p.m. They had similar problems with the food; a small buffet was set out featuring hors d'oeuvres from three local restaurants; again, though, tasty as these were, they ran out much too soon.

Even those who did purchase the VIP tickets had mixed reactions. I spoke with some festival attendees who felt as if the VIP package was underwhelming given the cost. They'd been hoping for more of the one-on-one time with distillery representatives that was promised, but the popularity of the VIP package made that difficult. In addition, the festival website promised that some tables would pour "something extra special" during the VIP hour, but as far as I know this did not happen.

More distressing was that water was not provided; some of the vendors had bottled water they made available to patrons of their booths, but it seems there was no plan for festival attendees to have access to water, which is an absolute necessity at an event like this, where everyone is sampling high-proof liquors -- not only as a chaser and palate-cleanser between drinks, but to mitigate the possibility of people getting too drunk too fast.

I also spoke with people who had difficulty navigating the festival and felt that the staff was woefully prepared. One woman told us she was rushed through line, that festival workers didn't seem to check her ticket, and that she didn't receive some of the gifts promised by the website, including a festival guide. (As far as I could tell, there were no guides.) In addition, when she asked an employee where the nearest tasting table was, she received a reply of "Um, I don't know. Upstairs, maybe?"

Any festival has to make sure its help -- volunteer, employee or otherwise -- is able to assist patrons. I can verify that there was no guide to the various tasting stations or to navigating the building at all, really; when we arrived, we weren't sure that the festival had officially begun, because most people seemed to be standing around waiting for someone to announce it was beginning.

While the rainy weather outside was unforeseeable, details such as a lack of water were not. It was especially disappointing for one woman we spoke to, who brought in a dozen people from out of town to attend the festival for her husband's birthday party. The fact that people were willing to come to Houston for this event further suggests that the planners severely underestimated the popularity of their idea and the crowd sizes they would be dealing with.

After the festival, Briscoe assured me that he and the other organizers were aware of the problems I described, and would be implementing some changes for next year's event, including a drink-ticket system and expanded partnerships with local restaurants. He also said he hopes to have twice as many distilleries represented at the 2015 festival as were at this year's, which I think would be a great step forward.

This story continues on the next page.

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timblack2 topcommenter

It would seem that you can know exactly how many tickets you sell...there is no "we sold more than expected." You set the limits on Groupon or eventbrite, tell your food and booze people to bring enough for X and then sell X number of tickets... if you sell them all, that's it. This sounds like that first craft beer fest where they sold 10,000 tickets out of greed and only had enough food and drink for 5000.

And if you plan for an outside area to be able to hold 25% of the crowd, you better damn well have a contingency plan if it rains. How the hell is "rainy weather unforeseeable" in this town?

Wade Woodard
Wade Woodard

They ran a half price Groupon.  Whenever a 1st time festival does that, it's easy to predict overcrowding.

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