Manly whiskey festival reaches out to women

Women are more sophisticated about spirits these days. Neither vodka, nor rum, not tequila, nor gin cocktails look out of place in a lady's hand.

But whiskey, God bless it, is still for men -- for good or ill. It's one of the reasons that the Pittsburgh Whiskey Festival name is dead after just one year, and the title Pittsburgh Whiskey and Fine Spirits Festival has taken its place.

Even the advertising poster promoting the festival downplays the whiskey element, showing one whiskey tumbler beside four colorful, arguably "feminine" drinks, and one snifter. The letter "V" in the word "festival" has been turned into a martini glass, olive-and-pick included.

Just so there's no confusion, it's pretty much the same festival, with the same number of whiskies and spirits to sample, run by the same guy (Ed Harrell, who also oversees the Pittsburgh Wine Festival), being held at the same place (Heinz Field, on Nov. 14). But the planners hope the new name will attract a few hundred faces -- many of them female -- to this year's event.

"We're hoping women will become a bigger part of the audience this year," said Karen Bryant, one of several doing public relations for the festival. And women won't be herded off to the fruity vodka stations, either -- bartenders are working on "female friendly" whiskey cocktails for women who aren't ready to dive head-first into whiskeys, ryes, Scotches and bourbons.

Whiskey is "more intense on the palate, and unfortunately, a lot of bartenders don't know how to use those products properly," said Alana Bly, marketing director for the second-floor Firehouse Lounge in the Strip District, as well as Embury, the bar that just opened in the space beneath the Firehouse. (It's named, for you cocktail historians out there, after David Augustus Embury, author of "The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks" and one of the fathers of 20th century cocktail culture.) Both bars will be mixing drinks for the festival's cocktail contest.

"Things like vodkas, rums, etc., can be very easily disguised," she said. To ease women into whiskey, "probably the key [is] teaching women how to read a cocktail menu."

Also for the ladies, there's a "Whiskey and Watches" lounge, as well as a "Vodka Rocks" lounge which, as you might envision, features high-end vodkas alongside high-priced diamonds. Diageo, the enormous beer and spirits distributor (Guinness, Crown Royal, Jose Cuervo, Johnny Walker, Smirnoff and more) also will be sponsoring a cocktail lounge.

There still will be plenty of manly stuff to drink and eat, though, and Max Miller wouldn't have it any other way, if his bone-crushing handshake is any indication. (Gone, though, is the cigar lounge, because of the stadium's and the state's no-smoking rules.) Porsches will be on display (no driving, though) and there's a "19th Hole" clubhouse lounge, where guys will be able to test their putting skills after having sampled too much whiskey.

In other words, not much different than every other golf course I've been to.

Both sexes should find plenty to do and eat, Mr. Miller said.

"What we wanted to do this year was highlight that, because people were sort of surprised last year, I think, when they came. Some of their friends [had] said, 'I'm not going, because it's just whiskey.' "

Mr. Miller is on board with the festival for the second year in a row. He's one of the co-founders of Raise Your Spirits, a company that specializes in cross-promotion, pairing Diageo with, say, Orr's Jewelers. This year's event, he hopes, will emphasize the links between the spirits, the products and the "lifestyle" implicit to them. (Last year's emphasis was historical, focusing on Western Pennsylvania's role in whiskey-making and the Whiskey Rebellion.)

Tickets are $85 in advance and $95 at the door, and group packages and luxury suites are available. Call 412-281-2681 for more details, or visit

Proceeds benefit the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. The event is sponsored by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board.

Bill Toland can be reached at or 412-263-2625.


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