LOS ANGELES – All of the Southland’s eyes were focused on the whisky world as The Whisky Extravaganza came to town for its annual visit in 2016’s November. The Millennium Biltmore Hotel in Downtown LA was the cushy site for a second year in a row so that the hoi and the polloi of the local whisky community could gather and sample drams from distilleries near and far; mostly far since this is California, not Edinburgh. Extravaganza is still king of the hill in Los Angeles for these big events in large part because of who is putting it all together.
Lauren Shayne Mayer, part of the Shayne Clan, has made The Extravaganza, with her co-conspirator sister, Gabby, a world renown event with its many venues across the country. No details are forgotten. It’s an evening that runs like a well-oiled machine which is perfect since the attendees are pretty well-oiled by night’s end. Ms. Mayer and her staff attend to all of the little things as well as the big ones. The food is top notch and the whiskies are too. Historically speaking, it’s an event that has tended to feel like a sophisticated evening, and the attire of the buying public matches that feel. Suits and ties might be the norm for a big, formal, muckity-muck corporate event, but whisky folks can show up in jeans, cargo shorts and tube tops. Extravaganza is not that kind of show.
It’s an evening where one sees contemporaries a bit out of context, i.e., all dressed up. And the LA whisky community cleans up rather nicely. Beards are trimmed and waxed, shoes are polished, and dresses are an appropriate length (and worn!). This all goes back to Ms. Mayer & Co. doing something different on the whisky calendar, i.e. CLASSING IT UP! And that classing up changes the vibe of the evening in so many ways. One, forks are used. Two, “thank you” is often heard at the various booths after a pour. And three, no fires. A winning combination all because a Windsor knot was tied and a jacket without a zipper was worn. The little things can make an event, and here Ms. Mayer has pushed the community to treat the evening and the whisky with the respect that they deserve. Respect the whisky and it will respect you.
The whisky ranged from comfortable favorites to new expressions; age statements and NAS-ers; relaunched brands to new labels. All of the bases were covered by the various distilleries in attendance.
The ambassadors ranged as well, which is always a bit of inside baseball to the geeky attendees “in the know”…
“He’s a rookie.”
“She used to be with Brand X.”
“That’s quite a fake brogue but who cares, he’s hot!”
We spoke to Ms. Mayer on a variety of topics about Extravaganza and where the Shayne family is going now. Last year they sold the Whisky Extravaganza to London-based IWSC Group. Now the family will concentrate its efforts on Spirit Imports that brings in premium spirits to the United States.
The West Coast Office: The few Extravaganzas that I’ve attended in Los Angeles always felt like it was “your baby”, Lauren, a very special event. I said to my wife that it must be like the three bar mitzvahs that we’ve had for our kids (which she did 99% of the work on). Think I said the same to you that night. Your fingerprints are all over every aspect of the event. What made Extravaganza special to you over the years?
Lauren Mayer: It’s the attendees, the beautiful whiskies, good food and most of all the camaraderie that to me, makes this event so special! It is not very often that you get 400+ like-minded, whisky drinking consumers/enthusiasts together in one room celebrating the water of life! The Whisky Extravaganza offers that and I sure do think that is ‘special’!
The WCO: It seems like less and less brands are wanting to spend the dollars to exhibit at shows anymore. WhiskyLive in Los Angeles last year could have been held in a good size walk-in closet. And the public may be suffering from whisky show fatigue. What’s the freaking deal with shows?!
LM: First, these type of whisky shows are popping up everywhere – how is a brand supposed to choose which show will offer the best ROI?! I think the future holds them, but marketing companies are becoming more strategic when planning for participation in them.
I think (and I don’t know this for a fact) but the budgets that the brands are given for these consumer trade shows, have gone from a national budget to an individual market budget, so it is quite costly for a local brand team, in the scheme of things, to participate in each and every show. With that said, each one of these types of events/exhibits offers their own ‘bang for the buck” so both the brands and the consumers buying tickets are really becoming picky to which show they attend. The Whisky Extravaganza has had many long standing relationships with both the brands and the consumers, so I feel this event is the BEST!
We have always been a traditionally heavy Scotch Whisky focused event and it was only two years ago that we opened it up to the whole whiskey category. That has definitely expanded our brand participation and consumer attendance.
The WCO: I know this is the end of the line with Extravaganza for you and your family on the organization and ownership side. I’m sure you’ve “seen it all” over the years. Tell me the craziest thing you’ve ever seen or experienced at one. I’m guessing Marshall Naiman (LA Scotch Club member) is involved in a Los Angeles show story. Just guessing. But no names, please! Incriminating pictures are encouraged though.
LM: There are so many gross disgusting things I have seen along the years, but not sure we want that promoted!
I have surely seen it all, but the craziest/funniest thing I have seen was at the launch of “The Whisky Panel”, a symposium made of brand ambassadors, that attendees had the opportunity to sit through 1 hour before the main event. Alan Shayne [Lauren’s father] was the host and would ask questions that the attendees wrote down on a note card. Some of these questions were directly to Alan for answer and every time he would try to pass [the question] onto the brand ambassador to answer per their brand.
Well, one question came in and Alan, for the life of him, couldn’t answer it and turned to one of [the ambassadors] for some friendly help! The brand ambassadors thought it would be funny to embarrass [him], and so they would say the craziest answers…. Alan had no clue they were messing with him and it really became a “Stump the Drunk” type of conversation! SO FUNNY!
The WCO: I’m giving you a Whisky Show Magic Wand® (via Amazon) and a semi-unlimited budget: Create a new, exciting whisky show. Go nuts. No petting zoo or airbrush tattoos though. What are all the elements in your new show?
LM: AGHH – Such a fun question and I seriously don’t have an answer! Live entertainment in my opinion is always a plus. Sets the mood, right? Great whisky, good food, GREAT FUN!!!
The WCO: It’s the end of the night of the last show in the series. Vendors are paid. Marshall has finally left with his pockets stuffed with God knows what. Shoes are kicked off. What’s your last whisky to celebrate?
LM: During the show, I walked over to Glenmorangie table for some 18 YO Extremely Rare and filled my snifter up. I then hid that glass under the registration table until the end of the night, walked it right up to my room and as soon as I sat down, added a few drops of water and enjoyed! Delicious every time I sip it!
The WCO: Tell me a little about the future of Spirit Imports. Seems like exciting times ahead.
LM: Too many fun things! And we are really excited about them! More single casks, more blends, rare rums, award winning products, creative marketing, effective advertising – we hope to offer it all!
We don’t know what the future holds for Whisky Extravaganza without Lauren and Gabriele Shayne running the shows, but the past has been spectacular. They made the events personal statements about their love of whisky, and made the guests feel special instead of like simple ticket buyers. And they figured out long ago that once in a great while, it just feels nice to dress up, look like a grown-up and taste some nice whisky with friends.