Whiskeytown USA


Beer festivals in Portland are a dime a dozen. I volunteered at one during my first summer in Portland and learned just how seriously Portlanders take their IPAs. I had just turned 21 the previous week, so I had no clue that you’re supposed to pour beer in a specific way to avoid the dreaded foam. I wonder how many poor festival goers I unknowlingly served half-foam drinks. With age comes knowledge!

A few weeks ago, I began seeing flyers for Whiskey Fest NW around town. My roommate casually mentioned it to me soon after. Whiskey is part of our regional heritage, so it was practically mandatory that we attend. I looked up tickets and the “early bird special” price was $28! That only included entry and 3 tokens. Each token could get you 1 sample. I figured it was about a shot (wrong!) but that still wasn’t enough!

Being the dedicated cheapskate that I am, I discovered that volunteers who sign up for the unfortunate Friday night shift are given free admittance and 3 tokens to the entire day on Saturday! I signed up and sent Maddie the link so she could sign up, too.

As the day approached, I brought it up to Maddie and asked if she had gotten her ticket yet. Unfortunately, she found out that she had to work Friday and all day Saturday so she couldn’t go. Bummer! None of my other friends could afford the now-$30 admission ticket and all of the volunteer spots were taken. I had a serious mental dilemma over whether or not to bail on my commitment. I didn’t want to spend all evening volunteering alone and then all day Saturday at a festival alone! But I had made a promise and my moral code does not allow for broken promises. My coworker David is a coach for the Special Olympics and said they count on volunteers to pull off the events and it is so frustrating when people fail to show up. I’ve been in the same boat – it is disappointing to throw a party and then everyone who RSVP’d suddenly don’t come. I decided to make the best of the situation and go anyway – maybe I would meet a new friend!

I had signed up for the 6pm-9pm shift as an entry volunteer (the only position left!) As it was a Friday night, I made plans with my friends afterward and we planned to meet at a bar nearby. I was the mutual link between my friends Joe and Deanna, who had never met before. I was ready for a fun night of whiskey!

I showed up to the venue and it looked more like a Toby Keith concert. Everyone was old, the walkways were dusty with gravel the size of baseballs, and everything was rustic themed. Definitely not the urban-chic vibe the website promoted! I found the organizer and she gave me the volunteer t-shirt – a fire hydrant red tee that reads “Whisky? Whiskey? To “E” or Not to “E”?” Definitely not the coolest slogan.

She led the volunteers around the grounds and showed us the venue. She then informed us that “We have way too many volunteers. Here are some maps. Just walk around and hand them out.” Since there were so many of us, the guests became increasingly frustrated each time we asked “Would you like a map?” I love people watching, so I decided I would just make laps and burn some calories. That idea was foiled as soon as I remembered that the ground was covered in giant gravel death traps. I was wearing flats, so I wasn’t as miserable as the 80% of women in heels, but I still felt the pain. After my feet were numb from 5 minutes of walking on pseudo-glass-shards, I decided to stand in place. This made me feel like the worst volunteer, but they didn’t even need me!

After an hour and a half, I was approached by the organizer and told that they NEED pourers now that the festival has picked up. I was plopped behind a small plywood bar and the gentleman I was relieving gave me the rundown on the whiskeys I would be serving. “They’re all single barrel whiskeys. The Evan Williams is the least expensive and, frankly, tastes like it. If you want a $15 bottle, this is your pick. The next one is 100 proof, so it has a spicy kick at the end. The last two are very creamy and smooth.” Most of the booths were separated by brand, but mine was a hodgepodge of boring whiskeys. For the next hour and a half, I repeated the same spiel to everyone who approached. Most seemed to like the first “creamy and smooth” one.


The real surprise of Whiskeyfest was the sample size. Each sample is 1 token and the $30 admission gives you 3. That’s basically $10 per sample. So how big are they? A thimble. Literally – the size of a thimble. It was INSANE how tiny these “cups” were. I can’t seem to find a photo online, but I was shocked. I wouldn’t even feel a buzz after three of those raindrops!  The festival’s “catch” was to get you to buy a tasting glass which included 5 additional tokens for an ADDITIONAL $25! If you had a special tasting glass, each 1 token sample was equivalent to a 5 second pour from one of those slow-pour aerators. Still – about 1 ounce at best.

I am adamantly against big business and this festival was clearly a rip-off, so I retaliated by giving the biggest pours imaginable. Closer to 12-seconds or about 3 oz. I also didn’t hound people for tokens. If they offered, I took it, but if they didn’t? No biggie. Most people would engage me in some sort of conversation, so I let it slide. Worst volunteer ever.

Maybe it was karma, but the festival soon retaliated. 9pm quickly approached and the festival showed no signs of shutting down. At 9:05 I asked a nearby volunteer how we were supposed to leave. He shrugged and continued pouring. It isn’t like this was an intensive job. I had to pour a sample once every 3 minutes. I mostly stood around and watched people. At 9:30, my friends were texting me and the festival was still raging on. Absolutely no sign of relief! If I hadn’t had plans, I certainly would have stayed, but since I had no intention of returning for my “free admittance” aka 3 thimbles of whiskey, I decided to bail. I asked a nearby volunteer if they minded watching my booth and I bolted. I frantically texted my friends to apologize and virtually tried to introduce them since they were at the same bar but had no clue who the other was.

Once I got to the bar, I aired my guilt about leaving the festival and they said it wasn’t selfish at all – I had fulfilled my duty dry the times I signed up for and it was the festival’s fault they didn’t have anyone to take over my job. I still feel a twinge of guilt every time I think about it. At least I got a tacky t-shirt?

Fun fact: I did learn about an interesting whiskey that I am dying to try. The barrel is tied to the back of a boat and pulled through the oceans around the world. It has a mildly salty flavor. Crazy!


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