Life in a Virtual Whisky World

The pandemic is shining a spotlight on accelerating trends in the virtual whisky world. A world of Zoom meetings, virtual whisky shows and socially distanced drams.

This world is familiar to me. Disability and illness have meant I have lived between the virtual and physical whisky worlds for 12 years.  A world I have grown to appreciate. I participate in tweet tastings, build on-line friendships, attend virtual shows, watch videos, and research the industry all on-line.

The central principle used to map interactions in the virtual domain is the Time and Place matrix.

Same time same place – face to face (mask to mask) is the most personal interaction but the most difficult and time costly to achieve.

Same time different place starts to expand geographic participation opportunities to a global audience.

Same place different time is where some of our more enterprising distilleries have reached out with video introductions in their cinema suites to provide context at the start of each tour. But access to this content is limited to visitors.  distillery displays and wall boards also fall into this category.

Different time different place offers the ultimate convenience both for the provider and customer.  It offers maximum participation but is potentially not as engaging as same time different place which offers more personal interaction but is onerous to provide in terms of time and travel for the visitor but only time critical for the distillery staff.

Recent events have revealed opportunities for a different future.

Steve Rush’s industry leading tweet tastings have for many years shown how effective virtual tastings are. A global audience can attend or participate with tastings often trending at the top of hashtag results in the UK.  This is now a well established addition to the whisky world.

The recent highly successful Whisky Exchange virtual show also opened a window into the future. Participants from the first sessions onward requested the virtual show to be continued each year alongside the physical show. Virtually, it allowed a global audience to participate, watching and interacting through on-line chat and in video meetings with speakers and other participants, using the Hopin platform, which worked very well.

Personalities emerged; Dawn Davies of TWE as host was a natural and won the respect of everyone. Billy Abbott’s beard narrowly beat Dave Brooms.  

By participating from work and home many leading industry experts were available to the delegates including Brendon McCarron of Glenmorangie and Ian Palmer of InchDairnie experts who demonstrated the depth of knowledge and experience of our Scottish experts. 

Diageo’s Menstrie team were well represented along with  their leading Brand Ambassadors Colin Dunn and TJ Littlejohn. 

Richard Seale of Four Square joined from Barbados. Alan Park of the SWA shared his knowledge of whisky legislation and,  the  exceptional Magali Picard of Demptos in France shared her research expertise on cask maturation.  Surhinder Singh conducted a tour of his personal whisky collection an extraordinary array of whisky knowledge and expertise.    

There were in excess of 1700 attendees over the week and I expect the sales of Perfect Measure samples that supplemented the talks and tastings sold well.

2018 saw 2 million visitors to Scotland’s distilleries with an average spend of £34, raising £68.4 million continuing the upward trend.  

This revenue is encouraging resulting in the industry investing hundreds of million in new or refurbished Visitor Centres.  The impact of shutdowns in 2020 is focussing minds on the potential of their virtual equivalents. A virtual distillery tour is a commercially attractive idea and appears to be a direction of travel currently under consideration. The opportunities this might present are clear.

  • 24 hours a day opening with global access

  • Opportunities to present barley farming, malting and seasonal distillery work, activities separated physically or seasonally for a physical visitor.

  • Revenues from visits and sample and bottle sales with the distillery Shop open and promoted 24/7

  • The gathering of significant analysable data from the visitor’s on-line interactions

  • Building an on-line community of interacting fans

A number of distilleries have already launched various virtual offerings following different formats.

These include, Buffalo Trace, Four Roses, Laphroaig and Glen Turret with others announcing future plans.  Each adopts a very different approach ranging from photographs and text to video and 360-degree simulations with different interfaces and navigation.  Finally, there are complete digital reproductions such as are found in video games.

The best of these, I believe, currently is Bardstown which takes a practical and realistic route perfect for the casual tourist market.  I see it largely as the type of foundation a more comprehensive visit could be built.

Glen Turret is producing an interesting hybrid approach with point and click navigation and video inserts.   I ended up drifting through walls and feeling the site lacked depth and real engagement.  It is not as far as I can see the full release version yet (as they say…’fools and bairns should never see a job half done’!) but it is nevertheless interesting. 

Laphroaig’s video only approach has more feeling than most as John Campbell is a natural and engaging host.

These are brave steps, but every one of these has issues.  At present these are novelty website sections rather than genuine virtual distillery experiences. Many of these early attempts are difficult to navigate, frustrating and time consuming.  Graphics are weak, videos dated, and interaction low.  They lack enough depth for an enthusiast. No stakeholder group is fully satisfied.

The nature of our product marketing demands an immersive ‘emotional’ sensory engagement.  Our ultimate objective is to create a loyal community of dedicated cheerleaders who will buy and continue to buy our products over years to come while promoting it to others.

To offer what we might  visualise as a great virtual visit requires a cross between:

  • A blockbuster movie

  • An award-winning video game

  • A 500-page technical manual

  • A sensory experience akin to standing in the middle of a barley field with its sights, sounds, smells, tastes and sensations.

All of this requires to be interactive and delivered working slickly into your visitors’ homes.

To create this  would require a very large budget and a considerable dedication of in-house resources.

There are plenty competent web designers who will promise the marketing department the earth.  To build the best at present requires a skillset few have.

The user interface is key but not as significant as the server side and back office technology.  The technology to deliver the full big vision does not yet exist. 

A compromise is required which needs to start with an analysis of stakeholder’s expectations. 

At a simplified level the stakeholder groups are corporate/marketing, tourists, whisky enthusiasts and variations on these. Their needs are often mutually exclusive, and they all want it for nothing! 

A virtual distillery tour can be best achieved as a compromise on the following basis:

  • It will be delivered by rethinking the distillery virtually – not recreating it digitally
  • It will be a compromise – a taster that encourages physical visits
  • It will be an experience that is grown organically with an annual budget
  • It will require significant thought before starting the build
  • It will utilise established available technology, executed better
  • It will currently be restricted to visuals, audio and tasting samples with the odd fun ‘dabble’ with scratch and sniff!
  • It would be built by a team of consultants, technologists, designers, audio-visual specialists and in-house staff

I anticipate a successful venture would operate on the following principles:

Pull not push – so a visitor can choose how they tour around the distillery and what they chose to investigate.

Multi-layered data – a visitor can delve ever deeper to get more detail

Tasting opportunity – the Distillery would offer different sample packs including new make, core range, cask strength and distillery specials, complementing different virtual tour options and resources

Realism – Virtual does not mean inauthentic

Enhanced experience – The virtual tour offers additions to a physical tour which means rich media, immersive experience and detail and insight not otherwise available.

Pipeline based – drawing new visitors into the brand then converting them to customers then enthusiasts and advocates.

The virtual tour would aim to create and develop a community. A community that becomes a brand’s cheerleaders, that provides both promotion and ideas. A community which is knowledgeable and once started will run with its own momentum.  The owner will be able to record the visitor and community interactions, questions and comments that provide data for analysis,   Future development will be based on data not anecdotes.

The virtual future is an exciting and demanding one.  Millions will undoubtedly want to physically visit distilleries but many, many more may check out the brand virtually.

Join me for a dram if you are passing through Dollar or hook up online.