Just over a year ago, I spoke to one of the founders of the Victoria Whisky Festival (see this piece here), Iain Hooey, about the event and how he and the team had managed to make it one of the biggest whisky festivals in North America.
Little did I know that one year later, I would be at the festival myself, experiencing it all first hand and even hosting events for the amazing crowd that attends the festival.
Over the next week, I’ll be bringing you a series of posts based on my visit. I’m declaring it Canadian Week on the blog, so stay tuned for interviews, reviews and commentary.
In the interim, a bit of background.
The 2014 Victoria Whisky Festival marked the ninth anniversary of the show. Founded by Lawrence Graham and Iain, the festival really caught my attention because of the fact it is a not-for profit event. According to Iain, after this year’s festival, nearly $200,000 (£108,000) will have been raised for charity – a vast achievement.
Taking place over four days each January at the Hotel Grand Pacific in downtown Victoria, the festival has succeeded in getting big industry names and brands along since the get-go. This, paired with the fact that Victoria and the surrounding area in Canada has a large whisky-appreciating public, has meant that enthusiasm is as high as ever for each festival.
“[It’s amazing] that people are still so enthusiastic about coming to the event and they are now lining up at 1:30am to get tickets,” Iain told me, in commenting about what makes him excited about the festival.
This year’s festival included a whopping 37 masterclasses on the Saturday alone (the festival ran from Thursday-Sunday) and in total, more than 1,650 tickets were sold. The Saturday was finished off with a three hour consumer tasting at which around 475 people attended.
The most surprising part? The entire festival – being not-for-profit – is run by volunteers, something that Iain is most proud of.
“We are now recognized by the international presenters, master distillers and agents who come in from overseas and the U.S. as a world class event and we have managed to do it with an all volunteer team and stay non-profit,” he told me.
Lawrence agreed, saying that part of the reason they’ve managed to attract such a wide variety of presenters and brands to Victoria – which only has a population of around 350,000 in the city and surrounding area – is because of the focus on the little details that the volunteers take care of.
“We put a lot of effort into making sure the presenters have a venue that is suitable for delivering their message (no loud music, cooking smells etc). Also we try and do all the heavy lifting so all they have to do is focus on their whiskies and their presentation. The volunteers do it because they have fun doing it and they really are our secret weapon,” he explained.
I saw that first hand. Everyone was friendly to the max, full of energy even after long days and completely on top of things. Masterclasses went smoothly, started on time and were run by hugely enthusiastic people. It was the energy of the whole event that really took me by surprise – you could feel it palpably in the air, as if even the lights were being powered by the sheer energy of everyone involved. I was lucky enough to host one of the opening events of the festival for 90 incredible women, and I’ve never had so much fun talking about whisky.
Next year, of course, is the big 10th anniversary. While both Iain and Lawrence – and their incredible team of fellow volunteers – are likely most focused on recovering after a successful event, I couldn’t help but ask if any plans had been put into place for 2015.
“I think there will be a need for some collective wisdom in deciding what we think we can accomplish. It would be a brilliant if we could gather all of the Master Distillers, Managing Directors, International Brand Ambassadors and Sale Directors who have been in the past to come for the 10th year,” commented Iain.
We’ll have to wait until the autumn to find out just what the team have up their sleeves but I’ve no doubt it will lead to another sold-out event.
Next week, I’ll be reviewing the masterclasses I was able to attend, publishing an interview with Davin de Kergommeaux – Canadian whisky specialist – and reviewing his book, Canadian Whisky.
And I must say one last huge thank you to everyone who attended my Women, Whisky & Chocolate masterclass on the Thursday night. You lovely ladies know who you are and you certainly helped get the festival off to a fabulous start!
For more information on the Victoria Whisky Festival, head to: www.victoriawhiskyfestival.com
Thanks to Jen Steele Photography for the final image in this post. For more details on her work, visit: www.jensteele.com