Whisky enthusiasts in Australia (and the rest of the world!) will no doubt be aware of the rise of various whisk(e)y fairs, expos, and shows being put on in various capital cities around the country. From the original MWSoA Convention Expo in Canberra in 2003 (and its subsequent incarnations in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide in 2005, 2007, and 2013 respectively) to the emergence of Whisky Live in 2009 in Sydney and it subsequently becoming a capital city road show in more recent years; there are more shows around than ever before. Sydney this year actually has three big shows – The Whisky Show, Whisky Live, and The Whisky Fair, in that order, respectively.
To those not familiar with the set up, such fairs & expos offer punters a tremendous opportunity to taste and experience a huge range of different whiskies. Typically held in halls or function centre venues, local exhibitors and distributors all set up their own tables/stands and showcase their portfolio and range of whiskies for all and sundry to taste. Imagine walking into a huge room and being confronted with anywhere between 50 and 200 different whiskies to taste at your own pace and discretion! The phrase “kid in a lolly shop” is an apt comparison!
For the brands and distributors, such expos offer a fantastic forum to get their whiskies “out there” and on the radar of whisky drinkers who might otherwise only be familiar with what’s stocked at their local bottle-o. The supermarket liquor stores aren’t about to crack open a $150 bottle of whisky in their store so that you can “try before you buy”, but whisky expos offer the perfect opportunity for you to taste and try a plethora of different whiskies for a modest entrance fee, so you can then decide where best to direct your hard-earned at the bottleshop.
On the local scene, the whisky expos have also been a fantastic vehicle for the Australian whisky distillers to get their whiskies, name and faces out amongst the punters. Despite the plethora of expos and the huge demands on time and stock, the Australian distillers have been quick to embrace the expos and commit to showcasing their wares. Perhaps the most pleasing aspect of this development, at least for this observer, has been the surprise, warmth and enthusiasm with which Aussie whisky drinkers are embracing their locally-made malts. And why wouldn’t they? You only need to taste a dram or two to discover what the rest of the world has been saying for some time: Australia is making some very good single malt whiskies. The best in the world, actually, if you saw the recent major Whisky Magazine awards!
And whilst these expos are wonderful events for the industry and genuinely a thrill and a privilege to be involved with, it’s not all fun and games – and certainly not always when you’re on the other side of the table. My role in the whisky industry enables me to sit and play on either side of the fence, and I’m happy to be a regular punter on one day and a consultant/educator/writer the next. Whether freelance or wearing my Scotch Malt Whisky Society hat, I’ve had plenty of experience of standing behind the exhibitor’s table and pouring drams, as well as being in front of the table with glass outstretched. And this gives one perspective that I doubt too many others will have considered – what is the experience like for those actually serving the drams?
For the punter, it’s all a great deal: Plenty to taste and drink; a bite of food; the luxury to proceed at your own pace and try whatever you like; and the opportunity to speak casually with the various brand ambassadors or even distillery owners. For the folks behind the table, yes it’s mostly fun, and yes, it’s a worthwhile and rewarding undertaking. But let me give some further insight….
For the exhibitor, the two biggest challenges are time and stock: Committing to an event means sacrificing your time and your precious whisky. For brands that bring in vast quantities of ubiquitous core-range stock, the latter probably isn’t much of a concern. But for specialist bottlers and importers (such as the Scotch Malt Whisky Society) that might only bring 24 bottles of a rare, specific, single-cask bottling into the country, it’s a bittersweet feeling when you have to “lose” three or four of those precious 24 just to pour out on the day! For some of the shows that have three sessions over two days (typically a Friday & Saturday), it’s also a physically demanding affair: It means standing on your feet non-stop for 3 x 4-hour sessions; leaning forward and straining to hear the questions and enquiries over the din of the room, and repeating yourself several hundred times as the same questions get asked again and again. It might not sound like much, but if you have ambitions to be a whisky brand ambassador, first give this exercise a go at home sometime: After a long and hard week at work, when all you want to do is relax and unwind on the weekend, get up on Saturday, spend an hour setting up your display, and then stand behind a table, leaning forward slightly from 12noon until 4pm. Give yourself a break for an hour, then do it again from 5pm until 9pm. For the full eight hours, regurgitate out loud in an uncomfortably raised voice the same 45 second sales pitch about your brand every four minutes. Trust me, you’ll sleep well on the Sunday, and your voice might return by Tuesday!
Of course, it’s a happy and rewarding experience when you connect with a genuinely interested or passionate punter who wants to know all about the whisky you’re pouring or the brand you’re representing. When you’re showcasing a brand or a distillery that few people have heard of, it’s an honour to educate and impart knowledge and awareness to folks who truly want to learn, taste, and expand their whisky knowledge. For the most part, the majority of attendees at these events buy into the exchange and it’s a great two-way experience. However, in an environment where high-strength alcohol is freely flowing, the ugly side can also rear its head. It’s usually at around the 90-minute mark of a four-hour session that you start to see it emerge. First-timers who either aren’t used to the format, the pace, or the high ABV can quickly be overwhelmed and have to make hasty exits – and not always unescorted! Despite good intentions and awareness, RSA is hard to police at these events and the reality is that punters continue to dram long after they should have stopped or been stopped. Some events have a notional voucher system which is intended to limit the number of drams each participant can try and hence control the extent of inebriation. However, collecting the vouchers is neither encouraged nor enforced, which certainly detracted from one event that got particularly awkward during a Saturday session. At recent shows, I’ve seen people completely lose balance and collapse on the floor (one person actually taking out a stand and a banner in the process); people vomit and make a mess of themselves and the toilet floors; and – for the first time this year – I encountered a particularly aggressive punter who made things pretty uncomfortable for those around him. By the four hour mark of these sessions, it’s not always rosy.
Theft from one’s stock or display stand is also an issue – this year, all of the various elements and components of the Society’s Ultimate Whisky Tasting kit were knocked off from the stand over the course of a session at one of the expos. Specially badged tasting glasses also disappeared, as well as display items and literature from our stand that clearly weren’t under a “Please help yourself” sign.
As a sober participant in a room that is becoming increasingly tipsy, it’s also amusing to observe the various messages, trends, behaviour and rumours and that make their way around the room. Stories and snippets quickly circulate around the crowd, e.g. “The guys at the stand over there are pouring really big drams compared to the rest” or “Give that stand over there a miss; the bloke serving doesn’t actually know anything about his whisky, he’s just been employed to pour” are two oft-heard classics. My favourite is “The XYZ stand has something special under the counter – make sure you say that Marty sent you and they’ll get it out for you.” Manning the Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s stand, I’ve found myself in the position of showcasing the oldest and/or most expensive whisky in the room at some of these events. Many would flock to the stand citing “I hear you guys have got the good stuff”, or “My mates told me you have a kick-arse Caol Ila”. Yes, it’s good for the ego. And, in all truth, I don’t mind pouring out a dram of an $800 rare single cask bottling at the start of the session when interest and appreciation is high. However, by the end of the session, when folks with glazed eyes and slurred words rudely thrust their empty glass at you from two rows back in the crowd, you know they have neither the sense nor the faculties to remotely understand or appreciate the rare and special nectar you’re in charge of dispensing. “Are you aware this distillery closed in 1986, and there are only 18 bottles of this whisky in the entire country?” I’d explain. “That’s nice mate, just *#@%ing pour it” was a common reply by the end of the sessions. It truly breaks your heart.
The increase in such expos and their close proximity to one another means there’s a degree of event cannibalisation and over-familiarity creeping in. As mentioned above, Sydney drinkers are blessed this year to have three such expos all taking place within a few months of one another. The individual (and very separate) organisers of these three expos are all fishing in the same pond and whilst there is no fear of under-subscription from the punters (each session is always a sell-out) I wonder for how much longer the major (and minor!) drinks companies can continue to support these events every time?
Whisky is a social drink, and it’s no different for the exhibitors. We tend to all know one another, either from previous chapters in our CV’s, or simply through being neighbours at previous expos. When a session comes to an end and the last punter is ushered out the door, it’s great to unwind with one another; share stories, swap drams, perhaps head out for dinner together; and to re-charge the batteries – all in time for the next session! Would I swap these experiences or decline the chance to be involved? Not in a heartbeat.
So, in the event of some of the preceding paragraphs sounding like a bleating whinge (which they certainly aren’t intended to be!) you may well ask why do we knowingly sign up for these gigs time and time again and put ourselves through it? The answer is short and simple: Because all of us have an undying love for whisky and a deeply ingrained desire to share its joy with other people. For every ill-behaved punter who might make the moment a chore, there are a hundred wonderful punters whose eyes light up when they taste that special dram that makes their day – and subsequently yours.