The premise for this piece was originally to adopt a different angle from purely this was a whisky festival blah blah blah. Inspired by feedback from the 2018 Glasgow Rare and Old Show where I lived a frugal existence for the afternoon, it felt right to aim for something other than just another review. So here goes then…
Where else to start than at the beginning? Much like the distilleries themselves, whisky festivals are so numerous and frequent they are in danger of devouring themselves. To launch a new festival on the calendar seems like folly and madness for Justine and Karen who put together this Fife extravaganza. There’s a growing need for space but also to offer attendees something different. Levels of knowledge and expertise amongst regular enthusiasts are growing but conversely the number of new recruits to the realm of Scotch is continuing to rise – both have a entirely different thirst for knowledge and experience. There’s a huge social aspect to these festivals where you can finally meet online friends or just catch up whilst passing through.
Fife itself has given much to the whisky industry historically and will grow in prominence as the distilleries in and around the county begin to bottle their first whiskies. The future is exciting and no more so than being able to try the new make from Lindores Abbey at their stand or a sneak peak of what Inchdarnie has planned for us all. I did enjoy the Inchdarnie rye new make and I’m glad to say Lindores holds promise although they are still tinkering with the characteristics before settling on their distillery character. Both styles are dangerously drinkable already so with the prospect of good wood imparting its influence, the future looks promising.
Firstly some disclosure. As a friend of the organisers I found myself on volunteer duty for the show which meant a colourful apron and a radio – I have new found respect for presenters who are engaged in conversation whilst another is unfolding in their ear piece. A hardy group of friends were rounded up to offer the backbone of assistance to the event itself. Whether it was unloading cars and vans, to preparing the welcome items or scanning of tickets everyone remained friendly and enthusiastic. This was despite the poor weather that circled around the Fife town of Cupar on Saturday with a blustery cold wind and driving rain. Fortunately the event itself was held over 2 floors in a historical venue that offered car parking nearby or a short walk from a nearby train station.
A moment to focus on the volunteers who gave up their time to venture across to Cupar and ensure things range as smoothly as possible. It was refreshing to work alongside a crowd of enthusiasts and friends who were all committed to a successful event. We all grew attached to our aprons and the attendees were also well behaved, so it created a memorable positive vibe. There was a real tangible sense of camaraderie amongst the ranks despite the tasks at hand, everyone rolled up their sleeves and got stuck in. Working the front door myself and Andy along with our fellow volunteers worked hard to ensure quick access before the team in the next room handed out the necessary glassware, vouchers and brochure.
As with any first stab at developing and implementing an event there are lessons to be learned. Speaking to the organisers post-show it’s clear there are things they’ll be doing differently in 2019, but also looking to enhance and build upon a very solid foundation. My own initial thoughts would be establishing a more tangible distinction between the standard ticket and the VIP option. There’s potential to offer a more enhanced experience for those that want it. Whether it’s a VIP room where attendees can relax or somehow go that little deeper into whisky. More seating generally would be beneficial as this remains a criticism of the aforementioned Glasgow Rare & Old Show. Small areas where attendees could sit and converse whilst exploring a dram, or just offer a respite for weary legs.
Food options would be a positive inclusion and allow many of the nearby local businesses in Cupar – who may have experienced an upsurge in business during the day – to get involved and even possibly tap into the growing whisky and food pairing dynamic with bespoke creations. The Imperial bar across the road seemed to be doing a roaring trade throughout the day, which we noticed whilst scanning the tickets at the main door. The pop-up bottle shop was a great inclusion from the local retailing gem of Luvians. It seemed a successful venture from the queue at the end of each session. Vendors were warmly surprised when they ventured across at the end of the day to enquire how the sales were. A bigger stall would be beneficial or divide and conquer. The upstairs offering bottles specific to that floor and conversely downstairs doing the same. This would make things easier and offer more payment options. Then the possibility of a festival bottling or other related merchandise.
The important aspect is not to remain in neutral like the Glasgow Rare & Old Show last month, whisky shows are a competitive realm. Working the door, I was pleased to see an assortment of ages and genders arriving at the show. This vantage point also allowed us to gauge reactions as attendees headed home towards the end of each session. Generally the theme was a positive one and a thoroughly enjoyable day out in Fife.
It’s easy to focus on areas of improvement. Let’s make no mistake this wasn’t a start small and build approach. The inaugural Fife Whisky Festival was a sizeable affair. A quick viewing of the Malt Facebook live stream conveys the scale as we walk around both floors. Both sessions were sold out with only the second half offering a handful of cash only tickets at the door. That’s nearly 600 individuals attending, which means a logistical challenge of ensuring quick entry complete with the tasting glass, voucher and brochure. A remarkable start and the array of stalls was impressive as were their variety and journeys from across Scotland. Sadly being on duty this prevented me from exploring each and every single one. Yet when I did, the spread over both floors and numbers for each session allowed me to chat with the representatives at each stall. This feeling was replicated by those behind the whisky, who enjoyed the interaction with attendees and not being swamped. Oversubscription is a problem at some events I’ve attended where the enjoyment of the ticket holder has been sacrificed for financial gain. Not so here.
Live music from the Coaltown Daisies for an hour during both sessions went down well and given their links with the area and whisky; a wise choice. These girls along with cyclist Marc Beaumont and many local stalls added a sense of community that was enhanced by the volunteers. And I haven’t even mentioned the opportunity that this whisky gathering offered many of us to finally meet in person. Stimulating conversations with Roy aka Aqvavitae and Whisky Apocalypse himself that sadly were all too brief given my event responsibilities. Big plaudits to the Glasgow Whisky Club for hiring a bus and coming through to Fife to lend their support to this debut festival. Personally, the day just flew by for Andy and I, despite a difficult journey home later that evening, the overriding sense was one of accomplishment, satisfaction and just how rewarding whisky can be.
Overall, when so much could have gone wrong on the day, very little felt misjudged or missing. The 2019 edition could bring more of the same, but knowing Karen and Justine they will seek to build upon this strong foundation. I’m sure it’s a marvellous feeling to have finally delivered after all the planning and stressful times. Fife finally has a whisky festival of its own and you should stick it in your calendar for next year.