Brave new world
The pandemic has seen whisky lovers around the world embrace creative new ways to use technology to connect with each other and share their passion through virtual events and festivals
WORDS: MADELEINE SCHMOLL
Virtual technology has been in play within whisky since long before the pandemic began. On one side, whisky brands have been piloting the experiential with cutting-edge tech, while on the other, micro communities are thriving using technology in more conventional formats.
In a landscape where technological advances are as ephemeral as virtual experiences, what bold new frontiers are left to explore and what lasting changes can there be?
From full-scale virtual reality experiences with headsets to packaging with augmented reality (AR) capabilities, whisky brands began to explore the immersive side of the virtual from around 2016. For many brands, this shift towards experience translated as a return to their origin story.
In 2017, Edrington promoted The Macallan 12-year-old Sherry Cask and 12-year-old Double Cask with a US-wide tour in an art gallery setting. The Macallan Gallery 12 used AR headsets to take visitors through interactive pieces which told the story of the whisky-making process from start to finish.
As tech developed, so too did the opportunities for bringing the experience directly to the consumer at home, with AR-enabled packaging. In 2019, Whyte & MacKay developed an augmented reality app that explored Sir Ernest Shackleton’s British Antarctic Expedition of 1907 all the way through to the development of the modern Shackleton blended whisky by master blender Richard Paterson.
This initial shift in taking AR from the event space into the home created new possibilities for the industry. The focus on telling a story was led hugely by educational elements, a component that whisky fans have always been hungry for. In addition to fostering familiarity with the brand, this also created opportunities to bring in new consumers. While these experiences offered impressively rich narratives, they have also been ephemeral, especially as technology ages and new possibilities present themselves.
Virtual comes home
There’s a further consideration that comes in the form of another digital space: the online community. In our February issue, Alex Cohen discussed how YouTube has carved out a new whisky community over the years.
With vloggers such as Horst Lüning and Ralfy (Ralf Mitchell) creating reviews and other content as early as 2007 and 2009, these YouTubers have brought authenticity and a human element “democratising and demystifying the sometimes-intimidating world of whisky by making knowledge accessible and entertaining” in Alex’s words.
With a little bit of help from technology, this authenticity and curiosity is something that has allowed the community to thrive. From pre-recorded polished video reviews came livestreams, and from that came the lifeblood of these communities: friendships forged in the digital and cemented in the physical, as Roy Duff of Aqvavitae says: “The collaborative nature of the channels, championed by the Scotch Test Dummies, brought friendships.
“The collaborative nature of the channels, championed by the Scotch Test Dummies, brought friendships. Then the community, mostly through the livestreams, blew that wide open ”
Chain of events
“Then the community, mostly through the livestreams, blew that wide open. The feeling of a real-world meet-up event tells us all that it’s this very thing that makes it special. Whisky stood forefront and made itself the central focus, then as we all congregated at its side, it stepped into the background to allow us to enjoy our shared experience.” While there have been brief overlaps with virtual tastings and live video collaborations, for the large part brands and whisky communities have remained separate.
In a space already inhabited by brands, podcasters, vloggers and micro-whisky communities across social media, the question for content makers before the pandemic was “what is there to be done differently?”. With lockdown and the cancellation of tasting after tasting and festival after festival, there wasn’t just a desire for experiences and social spaces to move online, it was suddenly a necessity.
The desire to come together over whisky was something that already happened offline at festivals. Whisky festivals are a place to try new whiskies, meet up with fellow whisky lovers and meet makers and brand ambassadors. But does technology allow that to exist if you can’t meet in person?
For Becky Paskin, founder of Our Whisky and creator of the Our Whisky Virtual Whisky Festival, it was about tapping into these offline elements. The virtual festival featured five mystery whiskies with a hand-written hint as to what they might be. Each week, whisky fans met online with a range of industry personalities to take them through their drams – each one a surprise.
“We wanted to recreate that anticipation when you walk into a festival masterclass and sit down at a table,” says Becky.
“You’ve got your whiskies poured but you don’t know what they are. Number six might be a brilliant surprise, like a cask sample, and that really excites people. I wanted to recreate that feeling.”
As tech developed, so too did the opportunities for bringing the experience directly to the consumer at home
New elements form
There were other elements too that brought that festival feeling home.
“People would set up the tasting on one screen and a Zoom call with friends on another so they could have the conversation about the whiskies while following along. Technology was allowing people to create the sense of community and sharing you get at a festival.”
This essential human desire to connect has created new opportunities for brands and whisky communities to come together. With the help of software such as Streamyard and Zoom, it’s less about cutting edge technology and more about our newly redefined ways of using it to connect to one another.
The Society has also embraced the opportunity to connect virtually with our members all over the world, with tastings, live music and virtual pub sessions to celebrate the whisky festival season and First Fridays. These streams have brought us together and created a space to enjoy and explore whisky with members and our teams from Australia and Japan to the US and beyond.
The future – virtual but personal
That accessibility has allowed new whisky drinkers to explore the world of whisky through both brands and smaller digital communities. But there are challenges ahead in retaining the personal elements that have made it so successful, warns Roy Duff.
“The more people you have in a community, the more robust it is,” he says. “But these virtual spaces have new challenges in how you manage them to give everyone a voice. How can you acknowledge and welcome people on your livestreams if your streams become so busy that it’s hard to keep up with the chat? That will be the challenge. There are already solutions to that if you look at videoconferencing software with huge rooms of people and they have breakout rooms – perhaps something more granular could evolve on YouTube.”
Ultimately the future isn’t just about technology or experience, it’s about technology and experiences that allow us to connect with one another with the same chemistry as we would in person. As we go forward into this new space with new possibilities, it’s this personal element we need to keep front of mind.