Whisky maker John Dewar & Sons recently teamed up with Amazon for its first-ever livestream alcohol tasting, we caught up with master blender Stephanie McLeod to find out why digital platforms are playing an increasingly important role in customer interaction. 

When tradition meets technology it can often lead to new and exciting opportunities, not just for consumers but also for the producers and companies looking for new ways to engage with them.

Traditionally, the role of master blender would have seen those specialist whisky makers hidden away from the public to focus solely on the task of creating a consistent stream of quality whiskies.

Recently, though, the job has become a tad more glamorous, with a fandom thirsty for ever more information, authenticity and connection to their favourite brands.

These reluctant heroes of the whisky world now find themselves front and centre, hosting the kind of tastings and events that have usually been the preserve of the slicker marketing and sales teams. Throw technology into this mix and these master distillers and blenders are expected to have more strings to their bows than ever before.

This is why Stephanie McLeod, master blender for Dewar’s, who is more used to the quieter confines of laboratories and bonded warehouses, suddenly found herself under the spotlight as host – alongside brand home ambassador, Matthew Cordiner – for Amazon’s first-ever livestream alcohol tasting.

“It was the most terrifying and exhilarating hour of my life,” Stephanie said when asked about her live TV debut.

“I’ve never done live TV before and to be honest, I didn’t come into this industry for that purpose.

“But we were all intrigued by the prospect of doing something so new, as Amazon had never done anything like this before and we certainly hadn’t, so everybody was excited – and also perhaps a little apprehensive – about what was going to happen. I mean, were people even going to join in?”

Thankfully, the innovative tasting was a roaring success and a great many people did join in, purchasing the special pack of whiskies that accompanied the event and sending in more than 500 questions for the nervous and excited host to answer.

“Getting through the first terrifying few minutes was hard, but then I really began to enjoy it. The beauty of it was that we had three very different whiskies, with the fruity Aberfeldy, the ethereal Aultmore and the bad boy of the bunch, the roughty toughty Speyside Craigellachie, offering something for the beginner to compare and contrast with, but also something for the experienced drinker to enjoy.”

Ahead of the livestream, the Single Malt Discovery Collection – the limited-edition set of the three special single malt whiskies – was made available exclusively at amazon.co.uk, allowing the consumers who purchased them to take part in the tasting.

The decision to host the special tasting on Amazon UK and Amazon DE, according to Mike Birch, vice president of digital commerce for Bacardi, came with the trend for digital platforms to offer newer avenues to connect and interact with consumers, and follows other brands using other mediums such as Twitter and Facebook Live to do something similar.

Stephanie added: “We really have had to embrace the fact that people are shopping online and are getting their information about whisky online as well. Therefore it is important to us as a company to make sure that this is information of the highest quality. Consumers are thirsty for knowledge – and of course, new whiskies as well.”

Stephanie, one of only seven Master Blenders in the company’s history, said technology would continue to play a big part in the Scotch whisky industry, with live tastings and innovations such as QR codes offering fans more and more opportunities to connect with the brands they love.

“It’s the perfect way for us to tell our story to our fans and I’m sure that we will be doing these events more in the future.”

Stephanie, who says she’s pretty lucky to have the job she has, entered the industry thanks to academic connections at Strathclyde University, who offered her a role in sensory research following a short stint with Scotland’s other national drink.

“When I graduated from the University of Strathclyde, I started working for a famous Scottish soft drinks company and I was there for a bout 9 months when my old supervisor from the university phoned me and said they were looking for someone to work in their research group which was focusing on whisky and why it tastes the way it does.

“I immediately said yes, but at that point I thought that I didn’t like whisky and I knew nothing about it.”

The blending expert explained that it didn’t take her long to fall in love with the uisge beatha.

“When I first found out that all whisky comes off the still clear and that it’s only when you put it into a cask that the magic happens and it comes out this glorious amber colour, I was hooked.

“Add to that the fact that all of the distilleries use the same three ingredients and that whisky is made using the same process in each but that two distilleries which sit side by side can create two completely different flavour profiles, it just blew me away and I just knew that I wanted to be involved more fully.”

She stayed at Strathclyde University for four more years before joining with Dewar’s as part of the quality team but it wasn’t long before her experience with sensory work was soon being put to good use.

“Dewar’s always kept in mind my sensory background and it wasn’t long before they were asking me to train to become a blender, I jumped at the chance.”

Now a master blender, Stephanie, who laments the fact that blended whisky often isn’t given more credence by whisky fans, stated that she’s delighted to be able to prove to younger women who are looking to enter the sector that a career path is open to them and that the industry has changed massively over the past decade in a bid to shake off its stereotype of being an older, white male dominated business.

“We’re definitely doing more than ever. I mean, the, the Scottish whisky Association has just launched a series of videos about the people behind the industry and I’m in one of them and there are certainly other high profile women in there too.

“These videos really show that it’s not a man’s industry, but that it’s for everyone who wants to be involved in it. There are such a diverse selection of training programmes open to people across all of the companies.

“All of the brands are waking up to the fact that we must be more inclusive, because it just makes what we do that much richer.”

She added that it’s not just graduates they are targeting but that they also want to encourage more people, and women in particular to take up STEM subjects with the knowledge that there are careers out there waiting for them.

“The more younger people we encourage to become engineers and scientists, the more that will then flow through to Scottish whisky as well when they graduate, it’s mutually beneficial.”

 

 

 

 

About The Author

Sean Murphy

Driven by a passion for all things drinks-related, Sean writes for The Scotsman extensively on the subject. He can also sometimes be found behind the bar at the world famous Potstill bar in Glasgow where he continues to enhance his whisky knowledge built up over 10 years advising customers from all over the world on the wonders of our national drink. Recently, his first book was published. Dubbed Gin Galore, it explores Scotland's best gins and the stories behind those that make them.

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