For Iain Hooey – one of the founders of the Victoria Whisky Festival – the business of putting on a big whisky show could not have gone better over the past seven years.
The festival held at the Hotel Grand Pacific in British Columbia, Canada is about to celebrate its eighth anniversary but it began as a bit of a pipe dream.
According to Iain, he and fellow founder Lawrence Graham – who runs the Whisky Intelligence site and is a Malt Maniac - decided to head to next-door province, Alberta, for a whisky tasting at the Willow Park liquor store in Calgary.
“After a plethora of drams Lawrence asked, ‘Can we put one of these on in Victoria?’” explained Iain, a retired police officer, in a recent phone interview. “So, in that haze, we said that we could put one on but would do it differently.”
After 14 months of planning and with all their ducks coming comfortably together in a row, Iain and Lawrence were able to proceed with the festival, selling 475 tickets that first year – a huge increase on the anticipated 75 tickets they had a goal of shifting.
So what has made the festival stand out since 2006?
According to Iain, it comes down to four key things they decided to put in place from the start.
The first is that, with Canada’s very strict laws on alcohol consumption, the team chose to offer every guest a ride home after the festival. They managed to pull this off by getting a car hire firm and volunteer drivers on board to ensure the safety of attendees – even those living 30 or 40km away from the venue.
The second decision that helped them stand out was when they decided they would make no profit on the event at all, instead, giving all proceeds to charity. When they were first planning the festival, Iain said they realised they could end up paying for much of the festival out of their own pockets. As it turned out, they still made enough for a charity donation. Last year, $27,000 (or, approximately £17,000) went to two nominated charities. To help run the festival, the charities provide volunteers to take tickets and ensure the smooth running of the show.
The third choice was to not charge drinks companies for tables, a decision which meant many major whisky brands – from BenRiach to Talisker and the Scotch Malt Whisky Society – decided to get involved from year one. Iain said he only asked them for four things: to show up, to have enough stock to cover the festival, to do an engaging masterclass and to stay at the hotel.
And the final option? They were going to stay involved through every process, including selling tickets by hand rather than through an online ticket distributor like Ticketmaster, with some being allocated to local whisky tasting groups.
“We knew whisky clubs would be supportive of the event and that following it, they would buy whisky. We also knew that their buzz would create more buzz and we could move forward with them working with us,” he added.
What happened from there was a continual rise in interest from the local community, visitors from the US and overseas, media attention and support from global whisky brands.
It couldn’t have hurt that Jim Murray – who was a speaker from the first year onwards – also called it “the best organised whisky show in the world.”
“That was an accolade we weren’t looking for and weren’t expecting so we had smiles on for quite a while. We’re proud to say: ‘Look we’re not really big but we’re going to put on a good show,’” Iain added.
This year, there will be the third annual Canadian Whisky Awards – hosted by Davin de Kergommeaux – along with an evening dinner hosted by Cutty Sark and The Glenrothes, along with tastings from Glenmorangie, Springbank, Laphroaig, among many others. The consumer tasting – on Saturday, 19 January – runs in the evening.
The secret to the success, he said, has been bound up in the fact there is little desire to increase the number of attendees and make it an impersonal event. For the 2013 show – which runs from the 17-21 January – around 1,400 tickets have been sold for the consumer tasting on the Saturday night and all 34 masterclasses. This number of tickets is just right, he said, adding it is doable now because of the extensive help from others on the committee – such as Dr Jonathan Adams, who pulls off all the masterclasses in an orderly fashion within a six hour time window.
But it also means that getting hands on tickets can be tricky – when they go on sale in November, people start lining up at the ticket sales point (local specialty drinks shop, The Strath) at 4am and all tickets are sold within two and a half hours of the shop opening. A growing number of those people buying tickets – or receiving them – are women, added Iain, who said there were only around 6-10 female attendees in the first year, with that number growing to around 20% today.
For Iain, the festival has gone from strength to strength and is something he likely couldn’t have imagined getting involved in twenty years ago. Back then, he was only keen to collect rather than drink it because he had a feeling it would rise in value one day. This has meant his collection now includes rare gems from a 1962 Macallan to a 1964 Tomatin and a 1963 Longmorn. It took him ten years to really get a taste for whisky.
But after the fateful road trip with Lawrence, there is no looking back. The Victoria Whisky Festival is most certainly a proud bastion for whisky in Canada and I wish all of those going the best of enjoyment!
Photography courtesy of Jen Steele Photography. For more information on the Victoria Whisky Festival, visit: www.victoriawhiskyfestival.com