News

The Worldwide Whisky Web

Liza Weisstuch and Neil Ridley investigate the power of the web.
By Liza Weisstuch
Search “whisky” on Facebook, and you’ll find groups for enthusiasts in Japan, Australia, Israel, Italy, Norway, and at the University of Aberdeen, to name a few. You’ll find the Jewish Single Malt Whisky Society, which is self-explanatory, and Single Malt Sherry Head Society, “for whisky lovers who like their dram with a sniff of sherry in it. But everybody is welcome.” There are at least 30 groups that are have christened themselves ‘Whisky’ or have the spirit’s name attached to some synonym for enthusiasts, such as ‘lovers’, ‘connoisseurs’, ‘collectors’ or ‘nerds.’ Some link to relevant websites. Some are active, with dozens of postings notifying readers of the choice drink of the evening and snap assessments; some are as stagnant as a dram that went forgotten late at night. That’s to say nothing of the countless brand-run fan pages, where a notice will go up about a new release, a suggested pairing, or a tasting note, or a vague conversation-starter will be posted, and the vast and varied feedback is effectively instantaneous.Welcome to Whisky 2.0, our modern era where sipping a dram or preparing a cocktail is not simply a means for relaxing after dinner. It’s something for anyone, regardless of credentials or commitment, to study, to broadcast, and, let’s face it, show off a bit. Some of it is warranted, some of it may be better referred to as cyber-clutter.The ever-increasing wealth of information out there begs several questions. First and foremost: how useful is this populist approach? If everyone dubs themselves and expert, or an expert-in-training, will that alter how, or even if, the general consumer perceives the seasoned, qualified professionals? Perhaps most importantly, even if one is thoroughly internet savvy and knows every web site, participates in chats and forums daily and belongs to groups of whisky lovers galore, are they not robbing themselves of one of the inherent joys of drinking: the act of engaging multiple senses in real time with live people? These questions could generate a book’s worth of rumination and debate. For our purposes here, however, we talked to a few brand managers to get their expert opinion on how – and why – they’re leveraging the web and social media in the USA.The Macallan, arguably one of the more iconic, ubiquitous single malts throughout America, is, perhaps not surprisingly, at the cutting edge of interacting with and engaging its multitudes of devotees via the web. In mid-March, when I reached Josh Rosenberg, senior vice president and director of FirstWord Digital at M. Booth and Associates, which handles the Edrington Group’s whiskies in America, he was at South by Southwest’s Interactive conference, one portion of an annual jamboree in Austin, Texas that also showcases indie bands and film. He was kicking off the Macallan Tasting Notes Project, which sourced tasting notes from the crowds on Macallan Sherry Oak 12 Years Old and Fine Oak 15 Years Old. The notes are then posted online.“We know there are so many different nuances and there’s no ‘right way’ or ‘wrong way’ to experience or taste, so we ask what do they think or taste? There are other ways to stir the conversation and create content, live and virtual.” This is a natural outgrowth of the Macallan’s pioneering Twitter Tastings, which launched in June 2009.Bloggers and online influencers, like active Twitters, were invited to an organised dinner in Manhattan and encouraged to tweet tasting notes and reactions on their Twitter accounts, the social media site that allows users to post updates.“We want to be authentic and not engage consumers in ways that wouldn’t work,” said Rosenblum. “It was being brought up positively on the web that people were enjoying the brand, but conversations didn’t go deep. So our way to deepen the conversation and spread it was to start by gathered 22 bloggers and influential tweeters in New York and do a Macallan pairing dinner. It was completely powered through social media, so people around the table had combined following of 50,000. It helps empower – or power it. They’re each broadcasting to all their followers what’s going. It makes whisky less intimidating.” Jim Brennan, brand director for The Macallan Single Malt at Remy Cointreau, sees social media for amplifying not just brand awareness, but category awareness.He notes that social media efforts are not necessarily a tool for education, as he senses there are a number of “self-appointed experts” on the web.“I do not like if someone is passing himself off as a whisky expert and isn’t one, but I do like if someone says ‘I’m a spirits drinker and talking about what I like,’” Brennan explains.“I think it does make it approachable and reaches new people. Having people talk about single malt who aren’t the Old Guard is good for the category and the brand.There’s a fear that it’ll become stagnant and old and just about a 40 year old drinking his Scotch in a leather chair and wearing a suit.That’s the stereotype and now it’s more about breaking that stereotype, getting to new people who are creative and plying the nightlife. I can’t help but think it a good thing. There’s a fear around single malts, people think you can only drink it this way, don’t mix it. You have to get people thinking how rich and complex it is. We need to open gates and let everyone in.” In the American whiskey realm, Beam Global is blazing a trail with its programs in grand scale online consumer engagement, going so far as to give influential bloggers first dibs on its latest release, Red Stag, a cherry-infused bourbon.“We’re looking at a community of consumers, so we’re trying to create dialogue and interact with them,” said Doss.“Traditional media is a one-way communication street. Social media allows two-way dialogue and quick feedback.” As an example, Beam posted a survey on Facebook aimed at anyone interested in learning about the new brand. Within two days, there were 2,000 responses. “These days it’s more than just consumer education, it’s how we get feedback. We can get straight to consumer insights.” Doss hits on a key term that just might be the holy grail: “community.” I called Chuck Cowdery, who Doss referred to as an influencer. Cowdery, author of BOURBON, STRAIGHT: The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey as well as his eponymous blog, and contributor to this magazine, summed it up best, noting that ultimately “a blog only as good as the person whose blog it is.” Or Twitter or group Facebook page, for that matter. The useful activity consistently happens when people interact in forums like straightbourbon.com, where moderators aren’t too intrusive, but do help keep the proceedings running smoothly. “If a site can reach thousands of people anywhere in the world instead of just people next door, then it’s easier to build community, even if people are scattered all over the world. I know one guy in Sweden whose friends also drink whisky and he’s connecting that group to the rest of the world. It allows five guys in Sweden to be as active as people in Kentucky who have neighbours into it, too.” In other words, cyberspace can generate community, and the solid ones organically lend themselves to real life social gatherings, where people can raise a toast in person. The best example is the annual late-night Gazebo sessions, a gathering of straightbourbon.com participants each year at BourbonFest in Kentucky. People bring their prized bottles and communicate the old-fashioned way. It’s an informal, unofficial party that attracts 20 to 100 people, and that’s where that community becomes a living, breathing group of people sitting together under the stars drinking whiskey.” During the past five years the number of blogs, online forums and websites has grown to staggering proportions, undoubtedly changing the way we all perceive and purchase our whisky. But with ever increasing demands for our attention and faster paced lifestyles, does this need for immediate, up-to-the-minute information at our fingertips sit comfortably with a product, which has traditionally existed on its own time line?Speaking from the perspective as a blogger (I co-edit Caskstrength.net) it is fascinating to see how distilleries have adapted to such a ‘brave new world’. There is clearly a thriving community of whisky enthusiasts online who, like with any other product fan base, from music to technology, act as the early adopters and effectively help evangelise the merits of their favourite new bottlings to a wider audience. Distilleries are becoming much more aware of ‘fan power’ and are frequently turning to blogs, forums and online chat pages to sew the seeds before a new product release. This process acts as a two-way process, in that the consumer feels closer to the whisky, with the distilleries in turn learning the likes and dislikes of their customers with a much greater intimacy.But their existence is nothing new. Sites like Serge Valentin’s highly informative Whiskyfun, or Gordon Homer’s Spirit Of Islay forum have been online for around 10 years already.“I started Spirit Of Islay by way of appreciation back in 1999, after my first visit to Islay really grabbed hold of me” reveals Gordon. “ We now have a core of 250 regular posters and many more viewers around the world”. Gordon also mentions that he was “one of the very first Ardbeg Committee members”, which has led to a solid, and more importantly, trusted relationship with the distillery over the past decade.Gordon points our that “It’s really important to stay honourable and play by the rules with pre-release information, that way the distilleries know they can trust you in the future.”As a result, Spirit of Islay was, at the request of the distillery, the first forum to post pictures of the newly packaged Ardbeg 10 Years Old bottling back in 2008. More recently however, news of the latest Committee bottling (Rollercoaster) appeared on the forum some weeks before its official release, helping lead to a frenzy of activity with the wider online whisky community, eager for more information.This sort of pre-release buzz clearly heightens demand, but as it is generally unregulated, is it a totally welcome prospect from a distillery’s perspective?Jason Craig, global controller at Highland Park continues: “A brand will never say their product is average or not as good as before, so the quality threshold is arguably kept higher by bloggers and forum fans, who review the product for the world to read and make their own minds up.“This of course has lots of positives, the speed of information around the world means that any size of brand can compete for coverage, with consumers able to find information earlier than ever and most importantly, to provide reviews of the products from impartial sources.” But with the growing numbers of consumer tasting notes appearing online and most major distillery ambassadors now jumping on the social phenomenon that is Twitter, have we reached the critical mass between ‘knowledge is power’ and ‘information overload’?Craig believes there is a fine balance at stake here. “The negative side is the speed of throughput – what’s there today is replaced by the next thing tomorrow, which is not ideal from a whisky brand perspective as new whisky takes a considerable time to make and release. But, as a brand, Highland Park loves new media and the immediacy of it - we actively embrace the opportunity that bloggers and forums provide and applaud those who take the time and effort to maintain and sustain them going forward.” Colin Dunn, whisky ambassador for Diageo single Malts also reinforces this sentiment: “Whisky appreciation in the UK is currently going through the sort of renaissance that wine did in the 1980s.Ordinary people have now been able to access and taste a huge range of flavours, as well as write about their experiences online, which in turn has led to a demand for more interesting whiskies in pubs and bars. It’s a hugely positive step for the business.”