This past Saturday, March 21 marked the second annual Houston Whiskey Festival, and boy was it a doozy. A few days later, attendees were still discussing the event, but that isn’t necessarily a good thing. Having gone to this year’s festival for two reasons—to see what the excitement was all about, as well as in celebration of my whiskey-aficionado sister’s birthday—it was a disappointment on both ends. For the sake of being constructive, though, let's discuss the good first.
One of the problems the Whiskey Festival encountered last year was a lack of water. This year, that wasn't a problem as water bottles and water fountains were found in abundance, offering all guests ample chance to stay hydrated during their jaunts around the tasting booths. The booths themselves provided a pretty nice selection too, ranging from Scottish and Irish distilleries to local joints like Yellow Rose and Ranger Creek from Austin.
The inclusion of seminars offered in side rooms was a good choice, as it gave some of the whiskey novices like myself the chance to learn the basics of distilling and what defines a whiskey. I would only suggest that the Festival consider offering more of these seminars in half-hour batches, and perhaps have some upper level classes to give seasoned whiskey drinkers a more interesting subject matter to chew on.
Unfortunately, there was a lot wrong with this year’s festival. While they did fix last year’s issue of water supply, that was the seemingly only issue the organizers addressed. All of the other issues repeated themselves like the bad chorus of an annoying pop song from the '90s.
The free samples of food ran out within the first hour, leaving everyone with the choice of paying $5 for a lackluster cupcake that didn’t even coordinate with the whiskeys, or drinking more had liquor on an empty stomach. Even the VIP cigar lounge had run out of food, and I can honestly call this a careless choice by the Whiskey Festival organizers, because there were quite a few intoxicated people Saturday night who were looking for something to eat, but found nothing in their time of need.
The space was far too small, leaving a cramped and confusing maze of lines at each tasting table. It took me 20 minutes just to get to the Bulleit station, and only half an hour into the event, the Macallan table had a line leading out the door for it. This lack of space was made even worse by the fact that the number of vendors at this year’s event was significantly lower than last year. With only 26 distilleries at this year’s festival, it pales in comparison to the 60-plus seen in 2014. The gaps were, sadly, filled in by a tiny (though much hyped) beer garden and a few vodka stations—not exactly what one goes to a whiskey festival for.
In addition to small space, the music was way too loud, which dampened the experience. Losing my ability to hear meant talking to the distillers or hearing about the styles of each whiskey was out of the question. I had to squeeze my way into the Ranger Creek seminar to get any learning time, but even then the cloud of too-loud country music could be heard and washed over the seminar room in an ever-present rumble.
But by far the worst part of the evening was the valet service hired to help with the evening’s traffic. Since the rain on Saturday was causing a problem, the Whiskey Festival made a last minute decision to enforce mandatory valet parking, in an effort to keep anyone from getting soaked while trekking across the parking lot. The only issue here was that the valet company, who turned picking up your car into a free-for-all. When the evening ended at 10 p.m., after a sparse three hours of festival time, the vast majority of attendees all left at once. Unable to handle this kind of load, the valets dumped all the car keys they had on an unattended table and allowed guests to walk up and search through the pile to find their own.
The only problem with this was that anyone could have grabbed anyone else’s keys. Car thefts, accidental mix-ups, and property damage were all high risks, and there wasn’t a security officer nearby to help monitor this chaos. Only the short handful of valet parkers and the valet business manager were present. I watched as one woman managed to find the right keys to her car and held them up, waving on the rest of her party to gather at her so they could get to their truck and get home. But once she held up her keys and called out, one of the valets then snatched her keys right out of her hand, trying to somehow salvage a tip out of her by going to find her car right then. This poor woman had to chase after him, yelling at him to give her car and house keys back.
Another incident erupted when one gentleman, understandably irate with the unsafe operations, demanded his money back from the manager—this man was charged $10 for parking upon arrival, though the valet was supposed to be complimentary. During the exchange, the manager began to loudly yell curse words and drop F-bombs in the middle of the parking lot where everyone else could hear him.
It is a downright shame the festival was ended on such a distasteful note. The valet debacle certainly soured an otherwise so-so evening; in the future, when someone says "whiskey festival," my first thoughts are going to revolve around horrific valet disputes.
I wish there were more positive things to say about the festival, because on paper it's a very good idea. But when you get down to it, the Whiskey Festival was a bigger mess this year than it ever was last year, during its inaugural event. The only difference this year is that the organizers can't chalk their mistakes up to inexperience. The exact same mistakes were made this weekend that happened last March, and there is no excuse for the deplorable service provided by the valets, or the complete absence of food for festival attendees.
I wish I could say that that the Whiskey Festival just needed more time to stretch their legs, but if I’m being honest, then I have to say that those organizing it were just being recklessly negligent. While this event might have a good concept going, I’m not planning to attend next year unless some serious changes in organization and management are made—if the Whiskey Festival even manages to plan a third event.