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.
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.
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Of course, the festival's turnout indicates a strong base of people in Houston who are passionate about whiskey, so I would be remiss to spend all this time talking about the festival and not discussing the whiskeys themselves. While I certainly did not get to sample every whiskey poured, three Texas distillers were in attendance, and I wanted to be sure to compare their offerings. Whitmeyer's, Yellow Rose, and Balcones (the first two are actually based in Houston) all had multiple spirits available, and I got to try most of them (I tended to skip flavored or non-whiskey offerings). Strangely, Garrison Brothers, perhaps Texas's most highly regarded whiskey distillery, was not present at the festival; hopefully this changes next year.
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Whitmeyer's Single Barrel Cask Strength was my favorite of their offerings, rich in complexity but lacking the burn of a typical whiskey at cask strength. Also intriguing was their Texas Moonshine, an 80-proof whiskey unaged and distilled primarily from corn and sugar. The Moonshine naturally lacked the complexity of an aged whiskey, but the strongly sweet nose was a unique experience, and it went down smoothly.
Yellow Rose had four offerings; the Outlaw Bourbon was my favorite, a 100 percent corn whiskey aged in small barrels. The warm flavors of vanilla and caramel will be familiar to most boutique bourbon aficionados, and they come with a smoothness and ease of drinkability not typically found in bourbons of such flavor. I found Yellow Rose's Straight Rye Whiskey to be one of the better ryes I've had of late, as well, and I'm a sucker for anything wine barrel-finished, as their Double Barrel Bourbon is.
For my money, though, the two most intriguing whiskeys of the night came from Balcones, based in Waco. The Brimstone is a whiskey that's been pit-smoked with Texas oak, and it shows: The nose and flavor are dominated by that smoky, almost greasy barbecue-pit flavor. It was tasty, and a unique experience, but I don't think I could drink it regularly. Not so for the Baby Blue whiskey, a whiskey made entirely from roasted blue corn meal. This whiskey was complex and unique in its flavor palate, not only evoking flavors I'd never tasted before in a whiskey, but also something different each time I sipped it. (One sip's finish evoked flavors of mint; another's, black coffee.) It was my top discovery of the evening, and I made plans to pick up a bottle as soon as possible after tasting it. Balcones also has a single malt whiskey that is highly rated; I enjoyed it, although my first love is still bourbon, rather than its barleyed cousin. (That may begin to change, however, as the Macallan seminar I attended at the festival opened my eyes anew to the virtues of Scotch.)
A few other types of beverages were present at the festival; while I didn't sample any non-whiskey spirits, the beer offerings on the third floor were high-quality (including the Saint Arnold Bishops Barrel). I sampled some of Goose Island's specialty beers, enjoying the Gillian in particular, with its tart berry finish