In March I was all set to present at the New Orleans Bourbon Festival before it was cancelled at the last minute to prevent the spread of the pandemic. Since then I have missed countless whisky tastings, events and festivals that I would ordinarily take part in. The last one I attended in person was The Bourbon Classic.
Virtual meet-ups became commonplace as enthusiasts and industry folk struggled to connect with each other under rapidly changing parameters. In the early days of the pandemic it was the bartenders and brand reps leading the way to virtual mixology classes, and people like Molly Wellmann and Sailor Guevara were on livestreams night after night offering people a distraction while mixing up a special concoction alongside a dose of history. It felt like being at a bar.
After a few months of trying to navigate this new world, distilleries and organisations began offering virtual tastings and festivals. For example, Traverse City Whiskey Company celebrated their annual cherry festival with a virtual release of their acclaimed cherry whiskey.
I attended a virtual release party for the new Maker’s Mark 2020 Wood Finishing Series Bourbon with Jane Bowie and all the whisky writers I know. Tasting kits were delivered to our doors and we joined a Zoom meeting where we were able to go through all the component whiskies, as well as some of the experimental components that didn’t work, in order to really understand how they went about developing their target flavour profile using wood staves as a finishing tool. Aside from being a highly educational diversion from pandemic life, it was also an exercise that felt oddly comforting, as though the Bourbon world was still out there.
Then The Whisky Chicks took their annual Bourbon Mixer virtual, including an auction that raised $30,000 for The Coalition for the Homeless. While this isn’t the first time the event has raised money for this charity, it seems considerably more necessary right now. There were virtual sessions and guests from the industry while members watched right from the comfort of their own homes.
I was able to participate in a virtual Bourbon festival myself. Every year, Bourbon Women host the SIPosium, a national conference where members get together to learn about every aspect of the industry.
The production of this festival was unlike anything I’ve participated in so far this year. Several weeks beforehand we reported to a recording studio to tape segments that would be played for viewers at a scheduled time slot. This took place with surgical precision. Two weeks before the event we scheduled an equipment test to ensure we had adequate internet bandwidth, good lighting and atmosphere, and that our equipment would work properly.
The day of the festival we dialled in to answer viewer questions that came up during the video. For my segment I spoke with Susan Reigler about pairing whiskey and cigars, as well as what is going on in the craft industry, including trends to be on the lookout for.
The event consisted of more than 10 hours of programming that reached more than 28,000 people with nearly 2,000 active participants watching at home. Dare I say it was almost as good as being there in person. Almost.
As we head into the fall special-release season, I expect to see more virtual events and tastings. Old Forester is already committing to releasing its famed Birthday Bourbon virtually for curbside pickup at the distillery, so as to prevent people from camping out to score a bottle.
I’ve also seen virtual events where locals can pick up tasting kits and tune in to smaller events, such as The Bourbon Salon at Oxmoor Farm with Michael Veach and Susan Reigler.
Nothing is quite like being there in person, but overall the virtual events I’ve attended so far have been quite enjoyable and I can see these formats being used in certain circumstances quite successfully once the pandemic moves into the history books.
However, at that point in time it would take a stick of dynamite to keep me out of the next Whisky Live or Bourbon Affair or Bourbon & Beyond. I hope I see you there, too.