San Francisco’s Craft Spirits Carnival, one of the oldest major-market spirits festivals in the country, started in 2010 by Cornelius Geary, who also founded and runs the twice-yearly SF Vintners Market. This year’s event was held on June 16 and 17 at Fort Mason. Some 3,500 to 5,000 attendees (1,500 from the trade or media) wandered their way through the Festival Pavilion sampling spirits from Arkansas Black Straight Applejack to Zacapa Rum, noshing on knishes and sausages, and watching the carnivalesque entertainers on the central stage.
New this year was a set of daily spirits seminars sponsored by the American Distilling Institute complete with sample tastings provided by Carnival exhibitors. Carnival goers could attend a short panel discussion on What is California Whiskey?, as well as presentations on gin (Gin Styles: Not Your Grandmother’s Gin), rum (Rum Styles 101), and brandy (What is American Brandy?). The addition of an educational component was inspired by previous attendee feedback and the notion that a more informed consumer is more likely to try and buy a new product or label.
One of the benefits of having such an event at Fort Mason is the fact that it is located on federal—not state—land, which simplifies all number of regulations related to alcohol consumption and sales, allows for an event store that sells both spirits and bar tools. It also gives individual exhibitors an option to capture direct-to-consumer sales right at their own display tables (buyers can leave their purchases at a bottle-check station to pick up on their way out).
It’s this DTC contact that keeps so many exhibitors coming back year after year. Direct sales can certainly add to the bottom line of any small company and defray exhibitor costs. But Tanya Seibold of Sonoma County Distilling thinks one of the greatest benefits to exhibiting is being able to “close the loop,” to connect a consumer who samples and loves the product with a local retailer and, hopefully turn that buyer into a repeat customer.
Companies with new products, or brand new companies, can introduce themselves to a very focused audience, whether it be the craft spirits enthusiast or a key bar manager. Stephen Sakulsky and Wesley Miles launched their Los Angeles-based company, Amaro Angeleno, just five months ago, and saw in the Craft Spirits Carnival an ideal opportunity to expand their reach into the Northern California market.
Plans are already being made for the 2018 Carnival. Geary hinted at an exciting expansion of the event, but wasn’t ready to disclose specifics. Whatever he has in the works, it will certainly be designed to enhance the Carnival’s motto, “Come thirsty; Leave happy.”