Whiskies of the World 2008: An Interview with Riannon Walsh

The 9th Annual Whiskies of the World Expo takes place in San Francisco on March 28th and 29th. Recently, I spoke with Riannon Walsh, the engaging and energetic founder and organizer of this popular Bay Area event.

So this year marks the 9th annual Whiskies of the World expo. It must be very exciting to still be going strong after 9 years.
Yeah, it's amazing to me to realize it's been nine years because when I first started to do it I said I'm going to do this for like 5 to 7 years, that's it. I do it all myself and it's a big show and you know here we are going into the 9th year.

You put it on all by yourself?
I do, yeah. I'm a consultant primarily so I don't really have any need to have any staff. Like a lot of the shows are put on by magazines, who've got these armies behind them. I think that's part of the glow of this show, people feel, even though it's such a big show, for most of the attendees now it's personal. Sometimes during the show people will come up to me, and it blows my mind, because they just paid $100+ dollars for tickets and they'll say to me, "Thanks for inviting me to your party!"

Well, it does have the feeling of a party because you have food and bands...
We try to make it feel really different than other spirits shows, which can, you know, tend to dissolve into drunk-fests because there's not much else going on but drinking. And I personally think that's a damaging platform for the brands. This year we are really trying to raise the bar, and I'm really into cooking with whisky, pairing with whisky, I do menus for restaurants...


So this year we're bringing in about 12 artisanal food purveyors to the show all who know that their stuff is there to be paired with the various whiskies.

Are these local Bay Area artisans?
All but one are local, Northern Calfornian [artisans]. One of them comes in from Texas, called Caledonian Kitchens which is geared toward mail-order supply of whisky cakes and haggis, and stuff like that. The woman at the Cheese Shop of Healdsburg is coming down and I mean her stuff is drop dead amazing. And then Scharffen Berger Chocolate, they've come every year and they'll be back with their chocolates this year.

We're also having a chef come in, named Alan Stern, he's a San Franciscan, and he has a catering business, and he has a specific interest in cooking with spirits, so he's doing four different dishes each hour and each has cocktails that he's created to pair with each dish.

All the food booths give out samples so people can bring their whiskies over and pair them, mix and match and really learn how conducive a beverage whisky can be with food.

Oh that sounds delicious...
And this year we have more music too. We're doing the big night tasting on the boat again, and on the top deck at 8pm, the Bushmill's International Pipe and Drum Corp will be with us doing a full 40-minute concert out over the bay, where you can really let the sound out.

Nice. So basically on Friday you're doing the seminars and the Whisky University, which is also new, and then on Saturday there's tasting and the big event on the boat.
Yes, exactly. You know, we've got a lot of people who come to the show who are interested in the seminars, and a good supply of people who are really super into this and they want more of a learning experience so that's why I decided to do the Whisky University this year.

The other thing is that we are the only whisky show that doesn’t charge our speakers so we can pick and choose from the smallest to the biggest companies, hands-on artisanal spirits producers... you know at the other shows it's [very expensive] and we don't charge them because I don't want to be bound to only having speakers because they're rich.

So over the years this has allowed us to have speakers at our show that have never been able to speak anywhere else. It's really great. And it kicks me in the pocketbook, but it's really worth it.

This year we've got a couple of independent bottlers, one of them is doing our Whisky University, and that's John Glaser from Compass Box, and people just line up for him.

Oh yeah, I know his whisky. It's really good.
Yeah, I've been a part of his development of the company since like the day he started it, and been really involved. He's a very close friend and we do a lot of business together. I’m so proud of Compass Box, I think it's amazing stuff.

And we're launching a couple of artisanals this year at the show, which will be really exciting. Tuthilltown, a distillery in upstate New York, which is doing beautiful stuff.

Also, High West, which is something again that I've been very involved with and am very excited about. It's in Park City, Utah. Right smack in the middle of Mormon country they started a distillery (laughs) and they're proud of that. They have extraordinary rye whisky called Rendezvous.

Actually the distillery was started by a Californian called Dave Perkins who was with [a big silicon valley corporation]. Young guy...he's a chemist by training. He'd always wanted to do a distillery, and he came to me—he's just a guy who used to come to the expo and he decided he loved this whole thing to death one year and said "You know I really want to make whisky, I really want to open a distillery, and I've got the money, I can do it, what do you think, will you help me?" And I said to him, here's all the reasons why you shouldn't do it, and which I'm dead serious about because it's a killer business to start up. And I said if you still want to do this after you've considered this, come back to me in 6 months and damn if he didn't come back to me ready, totally prepared to go. He bought these great historic buildings right on the main street of Park City, and he launched everything this year at Sundance. And he's up and running. And it's really cool, cause if you're in the chair lift line and the line gets backed up into town, you're standing right in front of the windows and watching the distillery operate. And he's doing a little saloon too.

There's also Copper Fox Distillery and Eades Malts who are launching.

So, I'm curious why you chose San Francisco for this event and what inspired you to first organize it?
I was spending a lot of time in the silicon valley back in '95-'96 raising money for a distillery project I was doing in the west of Ireland. And I was doing a lot of little tastings to investor groups, anywhere from 8 to 50 people as I was trying to talk them into writing big checks. And people were saying, "We have so many wine things and there's nothing for whisky out here." And I was turning them onto how fascinating and complex whisky is, and they'd never talked to anyone who could teach them how to nose it and appreciate it, the way winemakers do. There was a whisky show that had just started in NY that year, and there were a couple in Europe that I'd been to, and I just thought it would be a great thing to do and I love San Francisco, and wanted to spend more time out there. And I was literally sitting on my porch, looking out over the pond, and I remember just saying, "You know, I'm just going to do a whisky show in San Francisco next spring. And that was it."

And that was it. That's where it started...

Whiskies of the World Expo
Friday March 28
Le Meridien Hotel


Saturday March 29
San Francisico Belle, Pier 3