Entering the virtual world of whiskey
I remember it well. It was March 4, 2020, and I was sitting in a bar in downtown Seattle. It was the beginning of Seattle Cocktail Week, and I had just given a presentation on the leadership of the Uncle Nearest brand for Women’s History Month.
As I was sipping a cocktail, while listening to another presentation, my phone dinged, which always gets my attention. Turns out it was a text message from another brand ambassador in town telling me that the entire rest of the week had been cancelled. The Seattle Cocktail Week is a big deal, how could it be cancelled?
I was not that surprised, but I also think that’s the exact moment when it hit me over the head that the virus, that had already emptied the streets of Seattle of its cars and tourists, was real. Moments later the official word came down from the event organizers, and consequently, I heard from even more ambassadors that their brands had also asked them to either not show up, or leave and proceed back home as quickly as possible.
In what seemed like a snap of the fingers, I became part of a team called by my brand to form break-out committees to help address what being in quarantine would actually mean for the work we were doing. We formed a team that was tasked with creating and hosting social media events and activities for our brand at a time when in-person, on-site visitations were curtailed. Our goal was always to stay connected to our consumers, while supporting our brand and highlighting it within the community.
As the months rolled on, there came the additional question of what a product launch would look like with so many bars and restaurants closed? Without the thousands of bartenders advocating for our products, without us being able to educate consumers at liquor stores or tasting events, what would this all mean?
Hearing directly from the industry’s brand ambassadors about their experience helped give voice to how this new virtual reality was manifesting itself.
As Eric ‘ET’ Tecosky, US brand ambassador for Jack Daniels, said in a recent discussion about going virtual in 2020, “I spend a good amount of time on the road, so I would say I went ‘full virtual.’ Of course, you can’t completely change the way you do things without a few speed bumps. Not everything translates to a computer screen and not every idea was a winner. However, when we get back to some sense of normalcy, I would like to figure out the in-person version of ‘sorry, my wifi is acting up and I won’t be able to log into that meeting’.”
Lynn House, national brand educator for Heaven Hill, described her experiences in this way, “Everything changed overnight. Traditionally I travel 38 weeks out of the year for my job. Suddenly my wings were clipped. We were all in a holding pattern at first. The first two weeks I wrote recaps and caught up on reports. Giving the same presentations on a flat-screen was not translating. So, I reached out to our education director and he sent me several instruction videos on how to give virtual presentations. My first few seminars were a little clumsy. I started participating in the IG Live Culinary Series hosted by Audarshia Townsend, Chicago-based food & drink writer. There I do a weekly cocktail segment. I have gone completely virtual. All meetings, happy hours, cocktail classes, USBG meetings, distributor training, and team meetups happen online.”
When I spoke to Paul Hletko, founder and distiller for FEW Spirits, about virtual life he said, “Personally, I’ve spent much of the past 10 years on the road and away from home, and this has been the longest stretch of time at home in a decade. Because of my road status, much of the operations have been built up to allow me to be there, whether or not I actually am. I’ve gone pretty virtual and almost all of my ‘meeting people’ is Zoom or other virtual tech.”
And what about all of these virtual events? Do they work and have brands really stayed connected to consumers in the virtual space?
Philip Rawleigh, VP of business development for 291 Colorado Whiskey, also spoke about how the company’s CFO, Murray Arenson, created a six-week online conference to assist retailers operating in our new normal. “Emily Rhoades, director of market development, and I, created a video email campaign to stay connected to our sales accounts where I shared my ‘29 1 more thing’ regarding e-commerce, sales trends, new products, and much more.”
Speaking with folks like Philip, of 291, and Paul, of FEW Spirits, made me wonder how different the experience might be to pivot to virtual events if you were with a smaller brand as opposed to the larger brands. Do bigger budgets matter, or was it really more about creativity and ingenuity?
Emily Rhoades, of 291, explains, “As a small brand, it was actually much easier to pivot our focus to our new virtual world. We got the news of closures on a Monday evening, sat down as a leadership team to create a plan of action on Tuesday and hosted our first virtual ‘check in’ on Wednesday. We didn’t worry about it being perfect, it was us – rugged, refined, rebellious. At a time of so much uncertainty, 291 was determined to share a positive message and connect with our community.
“To make our place in the whiskey world, we’ve had to get creative, our hardworking team never stops. In the early days of Covid, distilleries of all sizes, from all over the world, were joining in on our virtual happy hour, ‘live’ music and weekly distillery tours. We’ve bootstrapped this company from the beginning and our strong brand activity during Covid was no different. We led from the front and just ran with it. Over time, we saw the big brands producing their own virtual tours and events, with a much larger budget. The virtual efforts from spirits companies of all sizes continue to uplift and engage spirits consumers and that is a big win for us all!”
I asked Jennifer Wren, single malt specialist for Jura and Dalmore, about her experience being grounded in 2020. “As anyone who travels for a living will tell you, there are numerous glamorous perks to life on the road. But the flip side is jet-lag, noisy hotels, and, in my case, (due to food allergies) struggling to avoid a diet that was often rich and that, occasionally, made me sick.
“These days I am sleeping an uninterrupted eight hours, exercising, gardening, and spending incredible time with my husband in our new home. There is more balance in my life than I have had in five years.
“Here in California, both The Dalmore and Jura have been thriving during the pandemic with more market awareness and interest than we have seen before. I certainly think that is in part due to the online and retail boom, but I also believe that, since folks can’t spend money on so many usual things, that they are seeking out high-quality, luxury spirits to enjoy at home and we, certainly, check that box.”
Jennifer has also launched her own virtual show called The Long and Short of It, as she explains, “One of the gifts of this year was the opportunity to think very creatively and really push the boundaries of showcasing the single malts. Also, since the airwaves were suddenly flooded with grounded ambassadors, I wanted to offer meaningful content. I couldn’t visit my colleague (and co-host) Beth Hickey in Seattle, but I could appear on a show with her every week and tap in to her incredible talent. Additionally, we were able to pull in amazing guests from both coasts – that would have been impossible to pull off in person. I had always wanted to explore a highly curated ‘grape and grain’ pairing, but due to CA regulations around hosting a consumer tasting event, featuring both in one sitting, this was illegal.”
Another whiskey content creator I came across was Cameron George, national brand ambassador for Ardbeg Whisky. He created his own virtual show called WTF and his own YouTube channel. He explains how the concept came to be, “WTF, or Whisky Thru Food, is a show that I dreamt up after searching for inspired content and all I was seeing on YouTube in terms of whiskey content were more classical tastings/reviews and distillery tours. As we look at the evolving landscape of whiskey from around the world we can see that not only is the consumer set changing and diversifying, but how we speak about whiskey is also evolving. I wanted this show to be a refreshing take on whiskey, its inherent flavors, their development and how we, in this new world, can utilize these flavors to elevate each new liquid experience… Part of the aim for WTF is to create tasting experiences for viewers to build a deeper vocabulary in the hopes of being able to better describe the experience of whatever whisky is in their glass.”
It is interesting to consider how this time has changed what is being written about whiskey, how 2020’s shutdown impacted the way it’s reported. Mark Gillespie, host and executive producer of The WhiskyCast, says, “At first, it didn’t seem like a scramble to switch to virtual events as much as there was a general desire in the first few weeks of the pandemic to take brand ambassadors and distillers out of the limelight. It was actually hard to get interviews during the first few weeks because some larger brands didn’t want to be seen promoting themselves while the pandemic was raging throughout Europe and the US. That changed once we started seeing major in-person spring events like the Spirit of Speyside Festival, Feis Ile, and WhiskyFest Chicago being cancelled or postponed… and brands slowly started embracing the idea of virtual events.”
When I ask Mark if he’d noticed any type of relationship between the brand size and how well they did virtually, he explains, “I think the smaller brands were more nimble and willing to experiment with virtual events at first, largely because they had fewer levels of management to engage before making decisions like that. At some of the larger global spirits companies, it can be like the proverbial ‘turning around an aircraft carrier’ when decisions to go virtual have to be approved by marketing, legal, IT, etc…”
And then there are the often unseen, unsung heroes of the social media teams behind the Facebook, Instagram and Twitter posts and so much more. What was this past year like for them? I ask social media director for Uncle Nearest, Haleigh Brown, what changes she has seen in the whiskey industry in regards to virtual events and if she thinks they will be long lasting?
“Virtual events are 100 per cent here to stay. As technology continues to advance, and people see the advantages and immense possibilities found in digital events, they will just continue to grow and evolve.” I ask Haleigh if the engagements have been fruitful. “Absolutely. With the increasing amount of time people are spending online, brands must evolve and reach consumers in new and exciting ways. You either get with the times or you get left behind. The greatest thing a brand can do is have a vibrant online presence that they can back up with real engagement strategy. Somehow, many brands forget about the ‘social’ aspect of ‘social media’. It’s about creating conversations with your followers and engaging them in authentic, meaningful ways while always demonstrating gratitude. That’s how you create a solid loyal tribe online.”
When speaking to everyone about how virtual life had altered the whiskey business, everyone had a really positive outlook and felt that virtual events were hands down here to stay, even as in-person events would begin coming back once it’s safe. And there was a lot of talk about being able to spend more time at home with, or closer to, family which is always a positive. The whiskey business did a pretty darn good job; we did our best under incredibly difficult circumstances to show care and concern for each other, as well as staying engaged with our consumers.
Now, thinking back to my own summation of this past year, what stands out is that previously I could only be in one place at a time. If I was hosting a whiskey dinner in Seattle, I couldn’t be in Portland at the same time. Virtually though, I can be in both places at once, and it’s been really cool to meet so many people in different spaces that I would never have reached in person. It gave those who aren’t comfortable in a crowd the chance to enjoy a whiskey show. My virtual experience has brought me closer to so many in the whiskey community, whether consumers or fellow whiskey warriors.
And speaking of the positive, so many brands were able to do important fundraising events and launch some really beautiful projects in 2020. Just one example among so many, Lynn House explains, “This year was our fifth Heaven Hill Brands Bartender of the Year Competition. We got through five of the eight regionals live. We postponed the remaining three, and the national finals.The three remaining rounds were done virtually. This year, given all that the industry has been through, and recognizing all that our Elite Eight have endured, we made another pivot with the competition. Instead of there being one winner, we named each of them Bartender of the Year and they all walked away with a $5,000 cash prize. We then hosted the finals virtually.”
There is always a light in the dark, and even though these dark times are not past us just yet, I believe in finding the positive – and, hey, we’ve whiskey on our side!