A very virtual whisky world
Like so many other sectors, the Scotch whisky world has undergone a huge transformation following the restrictions and lockdowns imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Felipe Schrieberg takes a look at what we’ve learned in the process – and what to expect in the year ahead
VIRTUAL WHISKY POUR PHOTO: JULIEN BILGER
ADJUSTING TO THE NEW NORMAL
This time last year, while China was already grappling with the realities of Covid-19, here in the UK we were still planning our whisky activities for 2020, looking forward to visiting distilleries, checking out new bars and attending festivals. And then in March, the reality hit us.
Almost a year on, we’re living under similar restrictions that brought such unthinkable changes to our lives back then. And until the administration of vaccines becomes widespread, the whisky industry and wider community will continue to live online, in a bid to try and replace to some degree the intimacy and interactions from face-to-face events.
But what have we learned? It’s probably that although the thrill of a distillery tour or an excellent tasting can’t necessarily be replicated via a computer screen and internet connection, some spectacular efforts have been made to keep people connected with whisky.
WELCOME TO THE VIRTUAL PUB
The SMWS has made its own online efforts to stay connected with members both near and far, with a busy programme of virtual tastings, sessions with industry insiders and a home dining experience which has now been rolled out across the whole of the UK. Our international branches have all risen to the challenge of staying engaged with their local members.
The Society also introduced a virtual ‘pub night’, hosted by Unfiltered editor Richard Goslan, inviting members to join an interactive monthly live broadcast that features chats with whisky industry figures, pub quizzes and live music.
“We started off simply trying to bring something of the festival experience that we were missing out on during May to life,” says Richard. “But it quickly became apparent that there was an audience out there – and all over the world – who found a good connection and a bit of fun in the virtual pub. We even had someone join in from a submarine somewhere in the Baltic! So the pub session has now become a standard part of our calendar on the first Friday of every month, a place for members to come together and share some drams, music and a bit of chat.”
TAKE A TOUR, WHEREVER YOU ARE
Beyond the SMWS, much of the wider industry has also upped its online game. Plenty of distilleries are offering live virtual tours. Some, such as the Glasgow Distillery and Glengoyne, are even sending whisky sample packs for customers to enjoy during the experience.
They’re not the only ones. Whisky clubs, shops, bottlers and brands are also sending sample packs featuring phenomenal whiskies to eager customers as part of interactive online tastings, hosted across the full array of video-conferencing programmes that so many have become familiar with over the last year.
ABOVE: Glengoyne distillery is one of many that are offering virtual tours
Dhavall Gandhi at The Lakes distillery prepares some samples
THE ONLINE FESTIVAL
A mass cancellation of in-person festivals has also seen the debut of online festivals. Like their live counterparts, each is different and features a unique approach taken to how guests interact with industry figures and the whisky they enjoy.
For example, the English Whisky Society Virtual Festival marked a unique milestone when it took place over two days in October; it is the first ever festival dedicated solely to the growing category of English whisky, while also serving as the official launch of the society itself (disclaimer: I hosted one of the festival’s tasting panels). Festival founder Richard Foster recognises that online festivals can also present a new opportunity for small distilleries to get in front of consumers: “Everyone wants to get back to sharing drams in person,” he says. “But a lot of distilleries, especially younger less well-known ones as in England, realise the potential reach of online events and their capacity to provide a truly intimate experience with the makers of the product that you often don’t get at larger trade fairs and festivals.”
In comparison to this relatively small event, whisky retailers The Whisky Exchange put together what is likely the largest and most ambitious virtual whisky event so far. It lasted eight days with a packed schedule, featuring not only loads of workshops, talks and tastings, but guests could also ‘wander’ between virtual ‘booths’ that could be visited at their leisure where brand reps held court and took questions.
For Whisky Exchange head buyer and festival co-organiser Dawn Davies, who also hosted many festival tastings, the priority for the event was to execute a large-scale virtual vision while retaining a human touch throughout. “The key to retail lies in the ability to engage and give the consumer and experience, online that is doubly hard as you don’t have a person in front of you,” says Dawn. “What the virtual events have taught us is that we can give a new type of entertainment online and that showing the expertise and personality of an online business is key to its success.”
Dawn Davies, co-organiser of the Whisky Exchange’s online festival
A VIABLE VIRTUAL FUTURE
Now that this online format has embedded itself into whisky culture and is accepted and accessible to customers, brands are likely to keep hosting and creating virtual events post-pandemic. The key is to emphasise what makes the whisky community such a great space in general; interaction with great people. All these events have shown that it is viable to do so online.
Richard Foster certainly plans to keep incorporating an online element into his festival when he plans to host his first in-person one later this year, while recognising that there may be a slight burnout after so many virtual events: “Once we’re out of lockdown and life returns to ‘normality’ I think virtual events will become another tool in the regular arsenal for distilleries and event organisers. I think they’re here to stay, but we all probably want a break from Zoom tastings once we’re allowed back out!”