Laurie Hellbusch has always harbored an affinity for food and drink, motivating the former attorney to purchase Spirit World in 2008 and then move the establishment to its current Aksarben location in 2014.
After her first “aha!” moment with Scotch Whisky (a sampling of Kilchoman Machir Bay), she began to take note of the growing desire for the spirit in the local market, sponsoring tastings and other events at the store, and most recently joining the founding board of the inaugural Omaha Whiskey Fest. Eager to put the Omaha area on the whiskey map, the founders set out to develop an event that would bring distillers and distributors together with the local whisky-loving community.
The festival was not just about whiskey, however. Hellbusch is passionate about giving back, helping those in need, and reducing food waste. A member of the Saving Grace Perishable Food Rescue board, she brainstormed creative ways to marry the two. In 2018, this manifested as a Brickway beer brewed from excess bread. In 2020, a portion of the proceeds from the Whiskey Fest event also went toward this noble cause.
The sheer volume of the event was massive, and Hellbusch explained the vendor selection process. “The board took a holistic approach to vendor selection, first determining must-haves based on area consumption patterns, and second by contacting wholesalers to gauge interest.” Ultimately, vendors were eager to join the party.
Whiskey Fest kicked off the night before with a speakeasy event for those involved as a way to say thanks and to give time to network and enjoy some of the offerings and cocktails crafted specifically for the weekend.
VIP ticket holders gained early access, which enabled them to navigate fewer people, affording opportunities to really engage with distillers and vendors. Other benefits for VIPs included a large, exclusive room with spots to sit and nosh or enjoy a signature cocktail served up by Spirit World.
Omaha Pipes and Drums provided the soundtrack for the day, eliciting a celebratory mood when the doors opened. The lines were long, but everyone was kind, generous, and happy. (One wide-eyed attendee mentioned it was more crowded than Chicago’s whiskey festival). Another attendee was overheard reminding himself, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
Servers, volunteer pourers, and staff were patient and helpful, weaving their way among revelers with trays held aloft, patiently waiting to clear areas and run to and fro with additional supplies.
Designated drivers could attend for just $15, sporting clever tags that instructed others not to “feed them whiskey.”
Local chefs crafted delectable, whiskey-inspired bites, served in the main ballroom along two central tables. Highlights included brisket soft tacos with kimchi slaw, pork rillettes with apple mostarda, and pancake with salmon roe.
Gastronom Cocktails set up in a booth next to Brickway, pouring concoctions using locally-distilled spirits. One in particular featured Brickway Cinnamon Whiskey, Bourbon and Ginger Beer, which tasted exactly as Gastronom co-owner Jay Hall described “like Fireball grew up.”
For attendees in the know, “special” bottles were pulled out from under counters – it was like old home week for local whiskey lovers. Special releases, such as Redbreast 21, were advertised at specific times, with interested parties lining up at vendor booths well in advance of service.
Whiskey and cigars have a natural affinity, and event planners combined the two in a creative and fun manner. Hand-rolled cigars were available just outside a door leading to an outdoor tent, which was decorated as a Tiki lounge, boasting rum shots, leis, and island-themed drinks.
A representative from Southern Glazer Wine and Spirits shared interesting stories about the founders of Bulleit, and then relayed his favorite way to enjoy whiskey in the summer: Bulleit bourbon, lemon, and tonic. This exchange was a perfect microcosm of the day—shared passion for whiskey-inspired stories, recipe ideas, and genuine conversation.
Next year’s Whiskey Fest is scheduled for February 13, 2021. Even if you’re not a fan of whiskey, it’s an incredible place to try several offerings to determine what you like, to engage with distillers to find flavor profiles that match your palate, and to compare offerings side-by-side. When your taste buds grow tired of whiskey, there are several other options: cocktails, barrel-aged beers, coffee, and of course, water. You don’t want to miss it.