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Enthusiasts sip, spit and savor at inaugural Whiskey Fest

Yes, Buffalo is a beer town.

But you wouldn’t have known it by the crowd at the Buffalo Whiskey Fest Sunday afternoon.

Some 1,200 people bought tickets for the inaugural event, where they milled their way through the ballrooms in the Hotel @ The Lafayette, elbow-to-elbow, sampling 83 different brands of whiskey.

“I’m surprised that there are this many whiskey lovers in Western New York, being such a craft brew area,” said Brian O’Donnell, a whiskey connoisseur from North Tonawanda.

O’Donnell, 33, developed his taste for whiskey at Dwyer’s Irish Pub in North Tonawanda with friends Matt Crouch and Ryan Brown, who joined him for the fest on Sunday.

“It’s a great time to try to figure out your palate. Do you like bourbon? Do you like rye?,” said Crouch, 32, from Cheektowaga.

“Me?,” he said, “I like scotch.”

The interest in whiskey has been quietly growing alongside the craft beer boom, leading Tommyrotter Distillery in Buffalo and, a local entertainment website, to sponsor the fest. It was sort of a trial run for another to be held in the fall, when the event will be an annual occurrence, said Bobby Finan, a partner at Tommyrotter.

Tickets sold out in just seven days.

“We live upstairs, so we were like, What the heck?,” said Tom Schultz, 25, who was there with Emily Schiller. “It’s more of a turnout than I thought it would be.”

Distillers and brands wanted to take part, because it builds that face-to-face relationship with 1,200 whiskey drinkers, Finan said. Consumers, meanwhile, could sample a wide variety of whiskeys for $35.

Aficionados stopped from table to table, where bartenders poured a little in each glass – enough to get on your tongue, Finan said.

“Less than a quarter of an ounce,” Finan said. “A shot is 1.5 ounces.”

Patrons sipped and swished and savored. Others dumped the rest of their pour in spit buckets on the table and moved on to the next whiskey.

“Depends what you like,” said Jennifer Jackson of North Buffalo. “Some I drank the whole amount they gave me. Some I took a sip and dumped the rest.”

Jackson liked the Japanese whiskey.

“It’s a really good way to broaden your horizons on whiskey,” said Jackson, 41. “I’ve tried a lot I’ve not ever heard about.”

“I don’t think I found anything I haven’t liked yet,” said Mary Lehner, 27, of Buffalo.

Deborah Wardlaw of Buffalo was enjoying the experience with her grandson, Savion Mingo, 24, who invited her to attend.

“I’m just a taster,” said Wardlaw, 60. “It’s a nice setting, nice atmosphere and I’m with good company.”

Signs around the hotel reminded patrons to drink responsibly and, if need be, to call Uber or a taxi for a ride.

“Most people who are here are not trying to get blacked out,” Crouch said. “They’re trying to appreciate the whiskey.”

As for Crouch, the scotch man, he raved about the $170 bottle of single-malt Glendronach.

“That scotch I told you about,” Crouch said, “go get an ounce – and lightly sip it.”

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