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Whiskey festival seeks to attract younger audience

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Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2009
 

The Pittsburgh Whiskey and Fine Spirits Festival is an event with a mission.

"We want to make learning about whiskey a good time," says Max Miller, managing director of Raise Your Spirits, the organization that puts together the sampling/tasting event. "We want to make this the best happy hour, but also a place where you can find out about good spirits."

The festival will take place Friday at Heinz Field on the North Shore, offering tastings of more than 100 brands of whiskeys from all over the world. It also will include vodkas, rums, tequilas and gins in an effort to reach a broader audience.

Another aspect of this year's mission is reaching a younger audience that sometimes doesn't feel a part of the whiskey experience, says Dale Markham, general manager of the Pittsburgh Whiskey and Wine Festivals, the sponsoring organization.

"This is a group that is screaming to participate," he says, "and we are trying to let them see they can."

Festival planners are reaching out to younger adults by adding focus to the nonwhiskey brands, and having a mixologist who every hour will give a demonstration on making mixed drinks.

Markham has steered his advertising to radio spots that might be heard by a younger audience and a poster design with images that are focused in the same direction.

Miller says there is an image of whiskey drinkers "in a wood-walled library, with a fire going, smoking cigars." The image overshadows the casual, relaxed idea of a drink of scotch or bourbon.

The festival helped Boyd & Blair Potato Vodka introduce its brand when it emerged in 2008, says Prentiss Orr, a partner with Barry Young in the Shaler-based distillery.

Orr says the attitude of the festival matches theirs: They are trying to present their vodka as a drink to be sipped, not "mixed with an assortment of fruit drinks."

That practice mirrors the manner of drinking whiskey "neat," that is, not mixed with anything.

The festival, Orr says, helped to establish them as a legitimate vodka, and one that a whiskey drinker "could go to if he needs a break."

Miller says they want to lift the level of participants' spirit-sense. The festival does that by filling the West Club Lounge of Heinz Field with representatives of distillers who offer samplings of their products. It is a room that is built for casual drifting and relaxed tasting.

At a number of spots in the lounge are tables of food, helping tasters put something in their stomachs so the alcohol doesn't go to their heads.

"This is a refined event," Markham says, "not a place where people are scrambling around, throwing down shots."

Miller says the festival this year will feature music from a DJ, but Miller is quick to point out the sounds will be "what you might hear in a New York club," not thumping, dance-oriented material.

Festival planners know a tasting event can lead to lessened quickness, so they offer limousine service for those who need it, as well as half-price designated-driver tickets for nonsampling participants.

Additional Information:

Pittsburgh Whiskey and Fine Spirits Festival

When: 6:30-9:30 p,m. Friday

Admission: $95 at the door, $85 through Thursday

Where: West Club Lounge, Heinz Field, North Shore

Details: 412-281-2681

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