Online drinks masterclasses and tastings have become a major part of the lockdown - here hosts of these events discuss their experiences and if going virtual is here to stay.
One of the main social aspects of lockdown has been conducted over an app that many of us hadn’t heard of six months ago. But now Zoom has become as synonymous with the ongoing pandemic as staying at home and washing our hands.
Zoom has also been one of the most utilised ways for those in the drinks business to host group tasting events - but as lockdown slowly eases, will these virtual meet-ups, which have covered everything from whisky festivals to wine tours and craft gin tastings, continue?
I speak to a range of hosts, from wine experts to whisky ambassadors and craft gin producers, to find out about their experiences of hosting online drinks and what has been gained from this time spent at home.
The Scotsman wine columnist and master of wine, Rose Murray Brown has enjoyed sell out success with her virtual wine tastings. Speaking of the shift to online, Rose says: “I find the reach of Zoom is fantastic – I now have new customers spread across the UK – from Dingwall, Inverness and Aberdeen in Scotland – down to Norfolk, Sussex, London, Somerset, Cornwall – and I have had people joining from abroad (Germany, Brussels etc) as we can arrange to send the wine overseas.
"I have even had a customer who is going abroad now to Poland who wants to continue the tastings, so we will be shipping the wine to them so that they can still join in.”
Rose has also found that there can still be a personal element to online events, and she's been using hers as a chance to support local suppliers.
She says: "I take up to 28 participants- any more than that and you lose the personal touch. Also I send people lists of recommendations for cheeses and charcuterie and where to buy them (eg IJ Mellis or Great Glen Charcuterie) so they can do their own cheese matching along with the wines if they like.
"I have really been trying to help small Scottish independent companies throughout who have been directly affected by restaurants closing (eg Raeburn Wines, LArt du Vin, Sevslo Wine, De Burgh Wines, Woodwinters etc)."
Jennifer Masson, head of brand at Tomatin Single Malt is also planning for their tastings to continue online due to the fact the few of us can or will return to ‘normal’.
She says: “Online tastings will undoubtedly continue after lockdown. The Covid 19 impact on consumer behaviour will be far reaching and, while many of us are keen to return to ‘normal’, the reality is that few of us will return completely to our old habits. Combined with the readiness to focus on sustainable practices, we expect people to be far more cautious in many aspects of life.
“We have reached fresh audiences through partnering with other brands and organisations during this period to deliver virtual experiences, and we think there is a healthy appetite for this to continue. Our retail and distribution partners have also had great successes in delivering online tasting events, reaching a far wider audience more profitably.”
Ali Reynolds, Johnnie Walker GB brand ambassador has hosted online tastings and has found that many viewers have been more confident virtually than they might be in person
Ali said: “We’ve hosted multiple online tasting sessions during this time which have been really well received, and it’s been great to connect with larger audiences. Finding a suitable place to film at home, hoping the tech would run smoothly and talking to my laptop screen in a silent room was a challenge at first, but it’s been brilliant to connect with so many people keen to expand their whisky knowledge.
“I’ve found that people have been asking a lot more questions when it’s online, perhaps more confident when not in a room full of others. Whisky should be enjoyed by people on their own terms and at their own pace, and this is where the online sessions really excel."
Edinburgh based Wine Events Scotland, run by Diana Thompson, has also enjoyed success with regular, themed wine tastings including a recent collaboration with Lidl.
Diana has had great feedback from customers who want her to continue with these after lockdown. “Having been thrown into a situation and come up with a format which I’d have never considered previously, people are getting used to communicating over the screen,” Diana explains.
“Customers are comfortable either by speaking or typing comments and questions in the chat function. I’ve found it works surprisingly better than we’d have expected.”
Diana has also found that meeting for a drink then leads to other online chats, saying: “Many people are enjoying getting their friends or members of their family who they’ve perhaps not seen for a while to join in. They’ll often arrange another personal Zoom call afterwards so they can carry on amongst themselves.”
Janet Cathro and daughter Lynzi who own Jaro Design in Strathaven have said that they will continue to host their popular virtual craft gin tastings, which has been met with support from customers with young children and those who don’t find it as easy to go out of a weekend.
Not having to travel or pay for taxis, being able to continue to enjoy drinks at home after the event and length of time spent on tastings are some of the reasons given as to why people are keen to keep things virtual.
Colin McLean of McLean Gin has found his online tastings, held in collaboration with Jaro Design, a great way to keep customers interested at a time when they’d normally be at gin festivals.
Colin says: “ Although it (hopefully) won't be too long until the bars are back open, with social distancing etc. this is likely to be a very different consumer experience for quite some time. We also expect many people to be a little apprehensive about returning to such busy places when they've spent months in the company of very few.
"Likewise, prior to the COVID pandemic we regularly exhibited at gin festivals and other consumer-facing events, but don't expect these to return to normal for quite some time yet; we ourselves would be apprehensive about exhibiting at a large scale event where social distancing just isn't possible.”
Euan McVicar of Biggar Gin has also found the transition to online a way to keep customer interest in their gins in the absence of summer festivals.
Euan explains: “These events are a great way to both keep in touch with existing customers and reach out to new customers.
"Normally we would be meeting gin lovers at gin festivals and tastings at events all over the country through the spring and summer. We see the potential for these events to spread word of brand further than we could with just physical events so we hope that in time we will see a return to physical events but with online tasting remaining part of the landscape.
"People have been looking for entertainment during lockdown and there are only so many Zoom quizzes you can do per week. That has led to to people joining online tastings that might not normally go to physical tastings or gin festivals."
Glenfiddich’s brand ambassador for Scotland, Mark Thomson envisages video calls as an addition to future events. “As an ambassador, hosting events often, there can be large group sizes, but not all can make the date or time available. I can see the benefit sending out tasting packs to those who can’t come, then have them join in the live tasting in the room.”
Co-founder of OurWhisky, Becky Paskin agrees that online tastings will likely continue as part of business strategy, saying: “Their ability to unite consumers from across the world is powerful on a level we’ve not experienced before outside of major whisky festivals.
" As we head back to a new normal, the events that will be most popular are the ones that actively engage and excite audiences. "
Becky's own virtual whisky festival, which took place in May, was a huge success raising thousands for The Drinks Trust charity.
Speaking of this, Becky says: "Online tastings have been hugely popular during the Covid lockdown, and have proven an effective way for whisky brands to continue engaging not only their existing audiences but reaching new consumers as well.
"Certainly the tastings hosted by OurWhisky during our Virtual Whisky Festival engaged a variety of whisky drinkers who were seeking to connect with one another, learn something new and participate in a shared experience.
Using online platforms to host guests has been an ideal way to let the world explore remote distilleries, while keeping everyone safe.
One of the best examples of this so far this year has been the online Feis Ile festival, which was streamed live from Islay, and included some new whisky launches.
Speaking about this, Chiara Giovanacci, global marketing manager for Bunnahabhain said: “Being able to use online tastings to connect the distillery with a global audience is an amazing benefit and we’ll definitely continue to use them even after lockdown restrictions begin to ease.
“Despite the festival’s unfortunate cancellation, Bunnahabhain was able to debut two new expressions online during Fèis Ìle, transporting whisky fans to the shores of Islay to celebrate the festival remotely, many of whom wouldn’t previously have had the opportunity to attend the amazing event.
"Our website offered bespoke tasting kits to be enjoyed during the online broadcast, which added another layer of interactivity for participants, learning about whisky from the comfort of their homes with the help of an expert guide.
“While we can’t wait to host immersive, face-to-face events once again, virtual tastings will certainly have a big role to play in our future plans – bringing people closer to the most remote distillery on Islay."
Tobermory distillery are another team that worked online to showcase their drinks to a wider audience during lockdown.
Amy Burns, global marketing manager at Tobermory Distillery said: “Hosting virtual tasting sessions during lockdown was a really enjoyable way to let fans from all over the world experience our beautiful gin. Despite being based on the idyllic Isle of Mull, Tobermory Distillery can use online broadcasts to welcome visitors into our colourful island home.
“Broadcasting to the world through an online gin masterclass, we shared with viewers the creativity which contributes to our distinctive spirits, the expressive art of a perfect serve and a glimpse into our 220 year history – while taking questions directly from fans.
"It gave people who may not have attended this type of event before the chance to enjoy their first tasting and let others delve deeper into some of the science and processes which go into our craft , hearing directly from the distillery team.
“We’ve used virtual tastings before the pandemic but their importance has increased massively in recent months and will be a regular fixture for us as we look ahead.”
Stewart Buchanan, global brand ambassador for GlenDronach, BenRiach and Glenglassaugh single malt whiskies has used Instagram Live to host whisky tastings throughout lockdown and has enjoyed the personal experience that this has afforded.
He says: “Throughout lockdown, we’ve been hosting an online conversation series via Instagram Live that has helped us keep contact with the whisky community and whisky friends across the world.
“Online tastings do offer a real personal experience when it comes to how people interact while enjoying our single malts; it seems that guests are more relaxed and confident about asking questions from the comfort of their armchairs.
"We’ve seen that more and more people have been tuning in each week and it feels as though whisky is being enjoyed on a much wider basis. There also seems to be a broader spectrum of people taking part, including a younger demographic who want to see what it’s all about.
“As a Brand Ambassador, I’m usually travelling the world sharing the stories of our single malts in person, so online events are a totally different way of working. The only challenge really is keeping an eye on international time zones - I might be hosting an online tasting live to Australia at 9am, then working with partner stores in San Francisco at 11pm.
"You have to structure your week quite carefully. The beauty of whisky is that there are so many angles you can explore it from. Online tastings and events have helped open doors to new audiences who might be looking for something new to learn about, or a new community to join during lockdown. It has been fantastic to see a global audience tune in each week.”
Personally speaking I have found myself eagerly anticipating weekly wine tastings - to learn more about the grapes and to drink something completely new, as well as rediscovering much loved whiskies, trying new gins and mixing cocktails.
There have been fun, informative nights that have included friends and family. I can only imagine how these small online communities have helped those who have been in lockdown alone, and that’s certainly something worth raising a virtual glass to.