With whisky festival season kicking off in earnest, how can you make the most of the festival experience?

Unfiltered asked some of our most experienced festival-goers for their advice on not only surviving, but thriving at your chosen event. Here’s what they had to say…

Hans Offringa, SMWS ambassador, the Netherlands
Prepare! Whether it’s a one session festival of three to four hours or a five to eight-day experience, there are so many whiskies and activities to choose from, you may drown in the possibilities and end up not having done what you originally wanted to.
Book in advance for gigs you really don’t want to miss, and take the time to fully enjoy a particular event, instead of rushing from one to another.

SMWS ambassador Hans Offringa at the recent Spirit of Speyside festival.

Kelly Carpenter, SMWS Canada co-founder
The one thing that’s really important to me is “festival etiquette”. Having been on both sides of the table over the years as an attendee and an ambassador, I’m sensitive to people forced to queue up for a long time to try a dram.

Festival etiquette is not being that person who stands at the front of the table for an extended period monopolising the ambassador and blocking the people behind from getting a dram. Be mindful of how busy the table may be and choose the right moment to have a word or two. Ambassadors will do their best to engage an enthusiast, but it’s important to be courteous to all the other people there trying to have the same experience.

Visitors to this year's Victoria Whisky Festival in Canada in January.

John McCheyne, SMWS master brand ambassador
Look at what’s on offer in advance, and pick the four you really want to sample. Get there early and see if you can get a half decent pour of each of those four. Take yourself somewhere away from the madding crowd, sample them properly and appreciate them. Take your notes, then you’ll have a good appreciation of the whiskies you targeted.

You can join the throng and catch up with your mates afterwards, trying 20 thimblefuls of anything that’s going, and talking nonsense. But don’t kid yourself you’re going to have those 20 thimblefuls and talk intelligently about number 14 in the pub later that evening.

SMWS master brand ambassador John McCheyne in action at an SMWS event.
SMWS master brand ambassador John McCheyne in action at an SMWS event.
SMWS ambassador Matt Bailey.
SMWS ambassador Matt Bailey.

Matt Bailey, SMWS Australia ambassador
Whisky festivals, especially for first-timers, can be daunting. Often there are dozens of exhibitor tables scattered around a large hall, all keen to tell you their stories, but your palate can only take so much in one day. Start by plotting a course and getting to know the room. You probably have maybe 10-12 drams in you before you’ll either embarrass yourself or someone else, so take it easy.

Start light, end heavy. Don’t rush to the Heavily Peated selections straight off the bat, regardless of how much of a peat-head you are. You wouldn’t start a wine tasting with a bombastic Barolo, you’d start with a pinot gris. Lastly, talk to the hosts – they’ll have some fascinating insights into the drams on offer, the stories behind the distilleries, and the whole experience. Take your time, plot your course, don’t make a fool of yourself, talk with hosts, and have fun!

Thomas Korsgaard, SMWS Denmark ambassador
Sort out accommodation as early as possible – in the case of events like Feis Ile, that could mean at least a year in advance. If you like to be based close to where the fun stuff is happening, you have to be quick. I always try to get accommodation in houses, where you can sit with your friends in the evening and share a dram and our stories. The people attending festivals are like a whisky family, from across borders, and you can make friendships that can last a lifetime. As a friend of mine says: “It’s the people who make the festival.”

SMWS ambassador to Denmark, Thomas Korsgaard.
SMWS ambassador to Denmark, Thomas Korsgaard.

For more information about all the Society’s Islay events and our Region Rumble between Islay and Speyside, visit www.smws.com/events/islay-speyside