This is a guest blog post by Justine Hazlehurst for Inside the Cask on her 8 steps to plan your own whisky festival based on her experience of organising the Fife Whisky Festival with her co-founder Karen Somerville.

Karen and Justine

“This year, Karen and I (founders and co-directors of the Fife Whisky Festival) consider ourselves exceptionally blessed as our wee whisky festival in the Kingdom of Fife took place just a matter of weeks before lockdown. Karen reckons that it was thanks to the angels. But then again, she would say that 😉

We know that other organisers weren’t so fortunate due to the current Covid-19 situation. This meant that a number of other whisky festivals either had to cancel or make the decision to take the virtual path and move their events online.  We reckon that must have been an entirely new concept to all those other organisers who simply worked it out as they went along. And what a fantastic job they all did and are continuing to do.

At this stage, however, neither Karen nor I are planning a virtual event. So this is just a wee insight into how to plan a whisky festival in real life – in 8 easy steps*!

Step 1: licensing

Before you can do anything, you need to ensure that the necessary licences are in place. Licensing is a dark art and it’s worth looking to those in the know first for advice – I’d like to give a big shout out to Caroline Loudon from TLT Solicitors whose help has been invaluable. One thing to bear in mind is that each licensing authority can have different bye-laws enabling them to do things slightly differently. So always check first.

Step 2: exhibitors

Let’s face it, it would be a pretty shabby whisky festival without them. When the first Fife Whisky Festival took place, many of the Fife distilleries were still in their early stages. So it was our decision to create a festival which celebrates smaller distilleries and independent bottlers rather than the big names with huge marketing budgets – we thought that would keep the playing field as even as possible for all those exhibiting. Over the last few years, as these Fife distilleries have grown, so has our festival and a few larger companies have joined us to showcase their whisky wares.

Step 3: ticket sales

Again, it wouldn’t be much of a whisky festival without folk coming together to enjoy the whisky. And this is where you need to know your customers. Something you may have noticed is that both Karen and I are quite short. Having been to many whisky festivals, we find it quite tricky sometimes to get to the stands often with our fellow, much taller, whisky enthusiasts towering above us. At best, exhibitors can just see our wee outstretched arms requesting a dram to be poured in to each of our glasses. So we decided to design a whisky festival for short people! In essence, that means selling significantly fewer tickets than the venue has capacity to hold in order to create a friendly, small crowd atmosphere. So we aim to sell our festival to those who want to chat to exhibitors about all aspects of their products.

We hope that exhibitors don’t feel under pressure to simply pour without having the opportunity to do what they do best: educate and entertain. And we don’t discriminate – tall people are welcome too.

Step 4: have an on site shop

We were so happy when the team at Luvians agreed to be our onsite retailer. Based just along the road from our venue (the Corn Exchange in Cupar), Luvians is a whisky institution. The team’s whisky knowledge is second to none and we couldn’t have asked for a better bunch given the fantastic reputation Vince, Emili, Stuart, Archie and the rest of the team have with exhibitors and festival goers alike.

Step 5: food

The first year of any new business is a steep learning curve and the one thing we didn’t offer during our first event was food for our festival goers. Our way of thinking was that, due to the timings of the sessions, folk would inevitably frequent the many establishments based on Cupar’s high street. Again, we wanted a win-win situation and every high street today could certainly benefit with an increase in passing trade. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a winning decision. Therefore, for subsequent festivals, we added a pop-up on the stage run by Dunfermline’s own Taste Café.

Food for exhibitors is also important; something quick, easy and tasty to recharge between sessions. As well as the excellent buffet the Taste Café team supply, we are blessed – yes, blessed – to be situated just around the corner from Fisher and Donaldson, creators of the World Famous Fudge Doughnut. In fact, these doughnuts alone have convinced many of our exhibitors to join us.

Step 6: security

Because, you know, there’s always one. We use a fantastic team based in Speyside called Saltaire Security; great banter but firm yet fair. They are hugely experienced in their field and can offer advice beyond security measures. In all honesty, we haven’t had any real issues at any of our events. This is possibly due to the festival’s size: small is manageable.

Step 7: volunteers

Again, we’re lucky to have so many offers from folk to volunteer. Perhaps the opportunity to taste whisky as you work is a big draw? Who knows? But from setting up to packing away, from checking tickets to emptying spittoons and a multitude of other tasks, we wouldn’t be able to put on such a great event if we didn’t have our wonderful volunteers.

Step 8: grow your festival

In the first year, we put on a one day event with two sessions taking place. In the second year, we added an Opening Dinner at the amazing Lindores Abbey Distillery. This year, we added a third event; screening The Amber Light at the wonderful Kingsbarns Distillery. Our plan has always been to grow into a festival where people would mark this on their whisky calendars as a destination event – somewhere for a long whisky weekend. How this will pan out in 2021 is anyone’s guess.

Opening Dinner at the Lindores Abbey Distillery.
Ian Rankin

Karen and I are still both optimistic that we can put on a version of our whisky festival in 2021. It may well be that it’s much smaller than we had hoped. As long as government guidelines allow, and nobody’s health and safety is compromised, we will certainly try our very best to make Fife Whisky Festival 2021 happen.

The provisional date for tickets going on sale is 1st November 2020 – keep your eyes peeled on our social media channels for updates!”

*There are significantly more and most of them aren’t actually that easy 😉

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