Belfast Whiskey Week is a relatively new adventure. While for many, Belfast isn’t something you might relate with whiskey, you would be sorely mistaken. I have spent many the night enjoying sociable evenings in some Belfast pubs which can only be described as magical. Bittles, The Duke of York, The Harp Bar……all serious whiskey pubs with massive collections on the shelves, with staff whom have the interest and knowledge to back it up. My last trip up was a few years ago, back in 2017. After a few measures in the Harp and in the Duke, myself and a good friend were brought across to the Friend at Hand whiskey shop late at night. With a drink in hand, it was opened up for a look around both the shop and the private collection upstairs. We were blown away by the welcome we received and how we were treated on our short visit as we overnighted before a trip to Scotland. Couple that welcome and those pubs with the amazing distilleries popping up north of the border and throw the very progressive and popular Belfast Whiskey Club, it leaves you with an area that is fast becoming a whiskey centre of excellence.
Last month Belfast Whiskey Week launched its massive array of whiskey tastings as part of their festival. Poor understanding of the week has lead to several questions and concerns being raised about the whiskey festival so last week I sat down with the festival founder, Paul Kane to discuss it!
Belfast Whiskey Week began in May 2019 with a throw away comment from Paul to members of the Belfast Whiskey Club whereby he said he was going to create a whiskey festival….in the space of 2 months! Some said he was mad. In his own words “(He) was”. With an initial plan of 7 tastings, that quickly grew to 18 tastings in 10 days across 10 venues. While several brands did their own work creating tastings from their portfolios, Paul hammered on to create a bespoke pre 1970’s delivered by the one and only Leo Phelan (one of Irelands foremost experts on Irish Whiskey history and he’ll hate me for saying that (buts it’s true). The festival attracted not only local whiskey enthusiasts but also participants from Dublin and as far away as America. To say that the festival was a success for Belfast is an understatement. It did, however, leave Paul with a financial loss that he himself bore.
For 2020, Paul wanted to make the Belfast Whiskey Week bigger and better. He wanted to cement it as a legitimate festival that was here to stay. In his own words, he wanted to “give the festival longevity, transparency and integrity”. So off he popped and formed a company! But running a whiskey festival is all but impossible for one man, so four more were recruited. Handpicked, they were Jonny, the resident designer to take the whiskey festivals image to the next level. He then looked towards industry and roped in Jamie Cotter, well known whiskey writer now working fulltime in the industry. Next up was Nigel Taylor, another well known social media whiskey enthusiast who has one of the finest home whiskey bars there is on the island!! And finally, he dragged the barrel and up popped Phil Crawford. I jest. Phil, the man behind Causeway Coast Reviews, is a man who holds no punches when it comes to whiskey reviews. Love his reviews or hate them, he is honest and true to himself in his writings. A winning combination of a team if I do say so myself. Genuinely interested in not only drinking and enjoying whiskey, but also the continuing revival of the Irish Whiskey category.
With Covid-19 restrictions this year, the lads made the brave move to continue with the Belfast Whiskey Week but to change it to an online festival. While one would instantly think this would make things easier…..you’d be sadly mistaken. Costs have shot up through the roof with the introduction of 1,000 bespoke tasting boxes, 1,300 glasses, 7,500 miniature bottles, labels, packaging, postage, labour etc etc etc……!! A physical festival would indeed be easier and more efficient to run.
So, let’s look at the cost of tastings. Some are priced around the £50 mark. Others are £200+. While it’s all well and good to say that for the general tastings, the liquid is free…. the boxes, bottles etc are not. For each tasting, Paul tells me that it costs a minimum of £30 per person. So there is a small profit on those tastings. Or is there?? The pre-1970s tasting has a bottle of Powers in it worth 5 grand. That’s one bottle alone from an incredible line up that also includes a Knappogue 1950!! I can’t even remember the last time I heard of one being opened. That tasting is created by the Belfast Whiskey Week with bottles they have sourced and paid for themselves. For a tasting of that calibre, £600 per person wouldn’t be out of the way. So what profit is made in the cheaper tastings, it is lost, if not devoured, by these bigger more exclusive tastings. There is only one place that the profits seem to be going into and that is the big black hole of buying more whiskey!! I’m sure some of us can relate to that!!
This year’s festival has had a tremendous response from whiskey companies and Paul tells me that bar one blip from one distillery, everything has gone to plan. So far, they have 30+ brands and distilleries directly involved with another 15 or so indirectly involved. And that’s just the whiskey. This is a festival and for a festival you must have gigs and entertainment. And gigs and entertainment they have. Paul says it’s not a simple task to bring the festival atmosphere into people’s homes, but they are pulling out all the stops to try and make that happen. With a separate entertainment timetable, it will bring bands, singers, TV personalities and comedians onto live feeds for you to enjoy at home. And all this takes considerable planning and infrastructure to ensure that live streaming can take place for both the whiskey tastings and the entertainment part. Paul urges people to embrace the festival atmosphere; “It can play out on phones, laptops, PCs and through the TV. It should be on in the background when not taking part in a particular tasting. Let the festival atmosphere fill your house”.
A lot of the whiskey events are now booked out but a few remain and surprisingly, more and more have been added as time goes on. Each tasting event will include between 6 and 9 50ml samples depending on the specific tasting. Not only does it represent good value for the most part, the generous pours afford you the opportunity to try them along with the tasting and to revisit them again later if you so wish. There is even a new whiskey being released at the festival! Running from 12pm to 10pm each day, some events will be public while others will be privately run just for those who have signed up and run via a Zoom type chatroom.
Before wrapping up I asked Paul what sets Belfast Whiskey Week apart. I’m not going to paraphrase, his response was; “BWW (Belfast Whiskey Week) is actually a festival; it is not a one-off tasting, it is not a live stream from one or two presenters, it is not just a zoom room. It is an opportunity to bring hundreds of whiskies to hundreds of festival goers while exposing them to music, comedy, personalities, debate and food. That’s a festival! It is choice! It is a plethora of taste. It is a culmination of participation at varying levels. Again, it is not a tune-in for one person talking about whiskey. It is most definitely about bringing whiskey lovers together to explore all styles of whiskey from around the world”. Of course, I had to wonder if it will continue online or return to a physical festival next year once Covid has hopefully eased off and Paul says he hopes it will. They, the company, want people to visit Belfast. To soak up the atmosphere of their city, the bars, the restaurants, the sights and sounds. He rightly points out that the Belfast Whiskey Week is the largest whiskey festival in Ireland…..and it is by a long shot.
The ethos of the lads behind the week is to create a festival that they themselves would attend. A value for money festival that supports local talent, bars, venues and hotels. That support distilleries. To put Belfast back on the World Whiskey Map. And you know what? They are doing just that.
Belfast Whiskey Week kicks off on the 25th of July 2020 and more details of how to take part can be found here. If you haven’t already look or booked, I recommend you take a gander ASAP because I guarantee you that if you don’t, you’ll regret it when the festival kicks off.
** This is the authors own work. No incentive was received for the writing of this piece and the author has paid for his own virtual attendance for tasting boxes at the festival. **