At the start of the year, Israel’s Milk & Honey launched its first commercial single malt whisky, M&H Classic. A significant occasion for the burgeoning distillery, the plan was to showcase the new flagship expression at the world’s greatest whisky shows alongside the next release in the M&H family, Elements Sherry Cask. Then COVID-19 hit.
With festivals cancelled, specialist whisky retailers closed and the temporary absence of the world’s bar scene, like many other whisky makers, Milk & Honey was forced to embrace new digital avenues of communication. Though as it transpires, virtual masterclasses and tastings have serendipitously revealed an exciting new opportunity for distillers to simultaneously reach hundreds of whisky lovers around the world.
Retailers have diversified into themed tasting sets, allowing drinkers to follow along during live-streamed masterclasses, while whisky brands have hosted events from new product launches to cocktail demonstrations and even live music festivals. Every night of the week there is something new to discover in the world of whisky – without leaving our living rooms.
Although some retailers do offer small tasters of their stock, bars have traditionally been the place to discover and try new whiskies, whether through the recommendations of experienced bartenders, brand-led masterclasses or by simply scanning the back bar shelves. But in their absence virtual tastings have stepped into the breach, enabling us to quench our thirst for knowledge and discovery.
It’s been several months since we were last able to step foot inside a bar, and the world has changed so much in so little time. But now, as bars slowly start to reopen to guests, they’re operating in a very different world, dominated by digital experiences. Have virtual tastings changed the way we discover new whiskies forever?
Judging by their popularity among whisky makers and drinkers alike, it’s unlikely virtual tastings will disappear anytime soon. Prior to March 2020 whisky events were restricted to whatever was happening in our local area, and whether we were available to attend. Now we can discover new whisky at the click of a button and at our own convenience. We can order in samples and taste along with whisky makers themselves, an experience most of us don’t get the chance to have.
Even whisky shows, many of which were cancelled in light of the Coronavirus outbreak and may struggle to maintain social distancing precautions, are embracing online solutions by hosting virtual exhibitions, masterclasses and tastings.
Virtual events like these provide an exciting new way for whisky fans to learn more about their favourite spirit in accessible ways. But they will never replace our bars.
The whisky bar is a place for discovery and connection. They are a space for us to have real personal interactions and meet other whisky lovers. They can do something no Zoom livestream can ever achieve – they provide a home we feel comfortable returning to again and again, knowing that we will always be welcome through the doors. They’re hubs for our whisky-loving community.
While COVID-19 has undoubtedly impacted consumer confidence, the way specialist whisky bars have responded to the crisis is extraordinary. From navigating lockdown by bottling cocktails and delivering samples of their own stock, to adapting their businesses in preparation for reopening, their resilience and dedication to helping us continue discovering whisky and connecting as communities has never ceased. Although their smiles are hidden behind masks, the genuine warmth and hospitality of staff has helped put those of us returning to the bar at ease.
The way we are discovering whisky is changing – it already has, and irreversibly, but that doesn’t mean bars are rendered obsolete.
These are the places we gather to share stories, connect with one another and meet new people over our shared love of whisky.
They are a vital part of the whisky landscape, but now more than ever they need our support to survive.