Tell me about the beginning - why did you start it?
The festival is part of The Birmingham Whisky Club – a city centre events and membership business. It was the natural evolution of the business to have a festival.
When we did our first event – five years ago this year, we had no idea how popular it would become. There was no festival at that point and people started asking me to host one. I was getting to know brands a bit better and talked to a few to get an idea of if it would be popular and it seemed to be a good idea. The tasting events were doing well and we were seeing brands come to the city who hadn’t before. A number of them had a view of the place and that was also something I was trying to change.
I really wanted people to start thinking of Birmingham as a culturally-rich city as oppose to a place where nothing happens and people who live here don’t care about what they drink.
At the time a lot of brands would circumvent Birmingham and go directly to Manchester for all their activity. Luckily the scene is very different from when I first started.
What was the aha moment where you knew it was a winner and something you wanted to and could do all the time?
I think when people started to refer to me as ‘the whisky lady’, rather than Amy, was when I realised it had made an impact!
Random people would (and still do) come up to me in bars who have attended the festival to tell me about a whisky they are drinking, or a bottle they have bought. Or, if I can give them an on-the-spot recommendation!
Also, when people started travelling to the festival from out of the city, I knew it was a bit of a game-changer.
Have there been any challenges along the way?
It will always remain challenging! I wouldn’t not want it to be. My main challenge is not being a retailer. I have to do a lot of convincing with some brands to attend. We were supported by The Whisky Exchange this year and that was very good and made it easier to have a dialogue with new brands.
Also, as I mentioned, the perception of the city has been challenging. Birmingham has changed beyond recognition and it’s a really exciting place right now. There are new bars with great whisky ranges, experts in the area doing great things. I really had to push (some) brands to come up and take it seriously.
Others were on it from the start and that was great. They knew it was a changing place and were really keen to get in front of new drinkers though me. Lastly, I wasn’t going to mention it but I will! People can still be a little curious that I am a young-ish woman working in the whisky world. I quite like that I am breaking down barriers though and challenging ideas of who drinks whisky. It happens a lot less now which means times are changing but it did use to be a fairly regular thing.
My sparkling wit and charisma must have won them over as well!
What have been your biggest wins?
I rarely get a chance to take stock while I am running the event but this year I did. I caught myself having a little moment when I was outside at one point. The sun was out, people were sat by the canal chatting, laughing and drinking whisky, listening to music and tucking into some food.
The cigar masterclass was happening over the over side and amazing plumes of smoke were rising up. Just watching everyone enjoying their day did make me have a little ‘oh gosh, I did this’ moment!
Are there any future plans for the festival?
It needs to expand and I am looking into that as tickets are selling out months before the event. The venue is great, with its outside space it has allowed me to be creative with it. I love that we can have street food, music, cigars – all set to a backdrop of grafitti and industrial canals. I would like to bring even more brands to the city. Talk to them about expanding the ranges they showcase – we drinkers in Brum are a discerning bunch, and allow even more people to attend.
I would like to host more experts during the day and try and think of some more creative elements to surprise and delight people that aren’t happening at other festivals. It’s a great format already, so I don’t want to change it too much. It’s a ‘cool’ whisky festival and the key piece of feedback is that people always say it’s very friendly. I don’t want that to change.
You’ll have a great day out and meet some amazing people, all while trying some really interesting drams.
I would like it not to be seen as a regional event but as a ‘must attend’ for brands and consumers alike.