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The Digital Whisky Explosion

In recent weeks, we’ve seen an explosion of digital methods replacing what was once a face-to-face activity. Whisky, of course, is no different.

Whisky is just one of many things that has grown over recent years by leveraging digital or social platforms to build connected communities like never before. First, the web itself; specialist forums, blogs and industry sites. In time, mobile technology evolved and digital broadcasts followed in the form of podcasts and the rise of social media channels in various forms; Facebook,Twitter, Instagram et al and of course, with the rise of higher-capacity bandwidth, video platforms such as YouTube. These days, every platform utilises video in some form. Newer applications are built on it. Marketers have said for years that, until virtual or augmented reality are real, video is where it’s at.

Specific to the context of whisky, while none of these platforms were without industry interaction or recognition, YouTube in particular seemed to be the most lacking in any kind of industry buy-in. Perhaps because its creators were perceived as mavericks, hobbyists or amateurs. Perhaps, because the medium is video.

In these times, across industry in general and certainly within this “whiskyverse”, due to forced circumstances, we suddenly see an expansion across all digital media and for those that already existed there, an accelerated evolution. Some may go as far to call this a Digital Whisky Explosion. For the consumer, viewer, hobbyist or fan, these may be exciting times. There’s also a danger that this is a Digital Whisky Deluge.

As a creator on YouTube, I realise fully that I’m part of the potential problem. Suddenly, there are virtual tastings, presentations, visits, festivals, club meet ups and product launches across all the aforementioned channels and certainly inside YouTube. There’s even a virtual pub. The reason? Because the medium is video.

These days, even your granny knows how to use Facetime, Messenger or WhatsApp video calling. Let’s be honest, who’d heard of Zoom before the pandemic? Video is a natural, default replacement for togetherness, or IRL (in real life). We’re becoming very comfortable with it.

It makes sense that, with every other tool removed, any industry would move quickly to seek replacements and alternatives. In these platforms of technology they have found them. But there’s a problem. Or two.

Firstly, they only remain temporary, make-shift replacements and alternatives where people cannot connect in real life. Given the choice of freedom of movement, they are instantly demoted to mere options. A choice people can make; to stay, or to go. A convenience, then. However, there remains a spectre of concern that some parties will take a view from a distance, run stats on data they don’t yet fully understand, see the huge numbers the platforms can report and misinterpret them as potential efficiencies to be gained. Perhaps mistaking them for an alternative to a talented individual.

Yes, these channels provide the promise of global reach and inclusion, but surely not while excluding the promise of something real.

Also, there’s too much of it. Not even the most ardent of agoraphobic, whisky-obsessed enthusiasts have a remote chance of keeping up. That’s not a problem in itself, the more choice the better perhaps, the cream floats to the top. Yet without care, we’ll switch off this potential new audience before they’re even engaged. Short term sellotape-fixes over long term layers of added value. The solution here is simple, yet to the ears of a traditionalist, often overly conservative, industry it will hit barriers with the frequency of fairground bumper cars.

The digital era has had its dawn. For so many, this is lunchtime.

There are a few things that need to be in place before something like this can sustain. The thinking I share here is not from the mind of an expert. I’ve worked in marketing for a small, forward-thinking, international electronics company for years, and I’ve built a whisky-themed channel around my own ideas, but everything I share here is self-taught, personal-thought. In case that’s not blindingly obvious.

For me, it needs to be approached as content creation over advertising. That is; there needs to be a layer of value. That can be knowledge, entertainment or some other form of value such as access to a community of like-minded people seeking a shared experience.

I use a mental check-list when I have a new idea and it goes along the lines of three Cs. I hope you’ll indulge me.

Content

It shouldn’t need to be said. It needs to be good-quality, interesting and engaging content that has some form of evergreen value. Certainly, an important facet of YouTube over literally any other platform is that it’s an asset library powered by the most potent of search engines ever devised. I recently enjoyed Horst Leuning’s first ever video – a review of Lagavulin 16 from 2007. A 13 year-old video that still has value today. Yes, it was pop, sniff, taste, rate and please subscribe (not to mention it’s in German), but it’s likely the first of its kind. Make your offering as original as you can, with as much thought as you can. The other Cs may help here.

Collaboration

You are not the only creator, you are not the only blogger, feed, channel, brand or web-page. Why would you try to pretend otherwise? These are not the days of print, you can’t get any guarantees you’ll be the only column on the topic, the only ad on the cover page. Reach out on possible collaborations to folks at the same level or stage, or those closest to you. Find synergies. See how it explodes your audience, endears your messaging and adds layers of value that was previously impossible to fathom. It’s not a silver bullet, but forward thinking minds collaborate to an extreme level, and when it’s done well, it truly is of mutual benefit. Choose the collaboration targets fairly, ensure your audiences are aligned and you all do well. An incidental benefit here is the added value to the audience. It might even be the biggest value. Which brings me onto the third C.

Community

Perhaps the most overused of words, it seems, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be used if the context is correct. Building a community around a particular brand can be done, but that’s probably closer to a fan-base. That’s not bad in itself, but a community is born of more than a bi-directional relationship. It’s a network. It is a living, breathing, constantly evolving thing in and of itself. There is rarely any individual at the helm. It develops its own culture and self-regulates. Its membership is present from choice, and a perceived value in belonging. If you are creating, sharing, saying, showing or selling anything that you wouldn’t want to be a part of as a member of that community, perhaps don’t do it. The single biggest marvel for me is the attraction of our beloved, inclusive, welcoming, sharing and knowledgeable whisky community. It’s truly a wonderful thing. I hope that, and its values, over everything, is what endures.

A perfect illustration of this would be to apply the rules of a whisky festival. The brands congregate in a shared space, one big family feeling takes hold. They butt their tables close to each other and quietly consider their USPs without trashing their neighbours; Collaboration. The Content is covered as they bring knowledge, personal skills and insight to colour their latest brands and deepen the value proposition, all the while taking care of the eager and willing Community of fans and whisky lovers who flock to their wares with genuine, appreciative excitement. It’s not a perfect analogy but the unwritten rules are adhered to and everyone benefits. I don’t think that’s a difficult concept to apply, especially while we grapple with an influx of parties eager to make the most of the available tools in the same shared space.

I won’t differentiate between brand, producer, writer, blogger, vlogger, host, sharer or agent, we are all creators in this space, this “whiskyverse”. We speak to an audience of enthusiasts who choose to spend their valuable time and money in its bubble. We can guarantee that when the dust from this explosion (or deluge) settles, the community will remain in rude health. We can be sure, however, that it’s the actions that we as creators take now that will determine our place in it.

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Roy / Aqvavitae
Roy / Aqvavitae

All my favourite things I once hated; curry, wine, walking, olives, beer, golf, seafood. Certainly, I once hated whisky. It’s a common tale. Yet one day a distillery visit and a single sip changed that, and my life trajectory. I share whisky through video, mostly on YouTube. I'm a self-declared evangelist, and I don't think I'll ever tire of marvelling at all that exists in a small pour of the world's finest spirit.

  1. Avatar
    Ed says:

    I’ll be honest for the most part I like the medium. Problems arise when the bloggers or you tubers invite brand ambassadors on and it impacts what would otherwise be an impartial review.

    I also don’t like the selling of whisky tat, tshirts and coins etc., and the monetising of what is a hobby, no problem with people making money from views, voluntary donations and adverts but I don’t want them to sell to me once I click on their content if you know what I mean. Perhaps I don’t appreciate the expense behind the scenes but it makes me cringe somewhat.

    Horst has his hands tied because he is a major seller in Germany but his smell and tasting notes are some of the best in the business and I like the way he puts the time stamp in the description so you can click to that part so you can skip the prelude if you wish.

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      WhiskyWolverine says:

      I agree with Ed on his take regarding selling merchandise on channels as well as fishing for free whisky or distillery sponsored trips. Additionally, I think the reviewer MUST say where they got the whisky they are reviewing. I want to know if it came from a brand rep for free. I think there is a considerable amount of bias in reviews favoring particular brands that are very friendly to the vloggers (Compass Box comes to mind).

      In terms of the new medium, people need to learn the best way to use these programs like zoom. Having 4 guests on screen at once is a mess. With lag and inability to see other peoples’ faces, you cannot take verbal cues as to when you should speak, or when you are speaking over someone else. Whiskycast in particular has been doing this, and I have difficulty tuning in with the haphazard process of talking with each guest. It would be better to have 1 or 2 guests on at a time so they can interact with the host, or each other, in a better way. The whiskycast whisky writers happy hour was brilliant however, as all the guests knew each other well enough to know their cues.

      Roy does great work, but I agree with being overwhelmed by whiskytube content, especially live streams. I may sit out for a bit, but I’ll be damn sure to be there for the next recycled review!

      1. Roy
        Roy says:

        Thanks for the comments. I hope I can reply to Ed and WhiskyWolverine here.

        The people who know me and support me know where I get my whisky from. I get it from them. The community. Either through their support in Patreon or gifts placed in my hands directly when we meet at real-life events, which is what it’s all about. It’s often an emotional topic for me to discuss, it doesn’t seem real. But it is. I have more whisky than I know what to do with. I share it like crazy. I know fully that I have a privileged position, but not in the way that most assume, it’s not a traditional model.
        I’ve become better at politely turning down offers of free whisky without causing offence. I try turning it into discussions about access, information and other layers of value a brand could bring to a community that is infinitely more useful than a free bottle. Such as collaborating with each other, or guesting with me to share a topic or concept usually not talked about under usual circumstances.
        As a whisky community, we are impassioned and curious. We crave insight and knowledge, if brands lead with that, I welcome them. It’s a joke/rule that when brands join me they share another whisky which is not part of their portfolio, should that be what they drink and enjoy. It shows the true nature of whisky enjoyment. It’s honest.

        This isn’t meant as criticism against any other feed, channel, blog or writer who has found another working model, it’s simply mine.

        Lastly, anyone who thinks about the merch thing for longer than a moment will realise selling merch is a fools game. You are selling a brand. First that needs to be built. That’s the tough thing. You shouldn’t ever offer merch unless it’s been asked for. In time, it can supplement your investment and time, but don’t imagine you can sell t-shirts, coins or whatever and survive. They mostly exist as a token of community. Some prefer to simply not bother, but they’re still welcome in that community. That’s why it’s always fully optional.
        While none of this is directly on topic with this piece, which was intended to ensure that sharing whisky through video remains of high quality and integrity, I wanted to respond.

        Thank you both for taking the time to write out a comment, the feedback is always valuable. Slainte. Roy.

    2. Avatar
      Menno says:

      I think I understand your sentiment, and I tend to agree if it’s a case where the provider of the content is using that content to cover up what essentially is a sales pitch.
      Yet I think with most channels (to keep it close to home), things like merchandise in any possible form is something that happened along the way. More than that, quite often the merchandise is a result of channel hosts responding to a ‘demand’ from the community. Making your channel a succes takes a lot of time and commitment ( here’s another ‘c’), and quite literally no sustainable channel today, started out with the idea of seling products. You ‘d have to be a marketing mastermind unlike anything the world has ever seen to be able to build a community solely based around the idea of selling shirts, mugs or coins. That’s not how these things work (you can fool some of the people some of the time, etcetera). Like I said, it’s content and community first, cool merchandising next. It takes time, effort and commitment to make a channel work and sustainable, if offering merchandise to help cover some of the cost, without pushing it down your viewers throats, a lot of members of that community are more than happy to give something back, be it in the form of ‘sponsorships like patreon or by buying a shirt. Think of these channels of enthusiasts and hobbyists like 15 year olds buying their first guitars and drumkits, giving it all they’ve got. Those that are willing to go the extra mile, to work hard, creating something they really believe in themselves, and putting their content out there, so that in some way few people at first can connect with and relate to, are building a solid foundation to reach a broader audience and succes. That’s the difference between being a creative content provider, let’s call them Radiohead or Matthew Herbert, and a markering product like One Direction, or The Spice Girls. Without disrespecting the later, they are a created rather than a creative ‘content provider’ with just one thing in mind (making money) where the former are doing their thing with creativity (important ‘c’ no.5) in mind, with succes as a result, selling a few T-shirts along the way. The espiration date of these marketing based, branded ‘products’, are limited and build-in their DNA, while Thom York is still out there, doing his thing.

      1. Avatar
        thesherrybomber says:

        Hence why I prefer some of the older, smaller channels. Seems much of “whiskytube” is focused as much on entertainment, selling merchandise, forming a monopoly/cartel and can come across as cliquish.

        Guys like Ralfy would be the obvious exception, but the guys who are low tech, spend ten, twenty minutes going in-depth, and don’t upload every day (or week), are what I’m most comfortable with. I’ve been following some for years and it feels like a genuine relationship.

  2. Avatar
    Tom F says:

    Hello Roy,
    not quite sure of the point your article is making, if you want to to engage in “collaboration” & “communty” fine if thats your thing but Ralfy manages quite well sitting in his bothy & dispensing (usually) his wisdom & valuable information.
    I do enjoy “recycled reviews” not least since your palate is similar to mine & can happily spend a couple of hours listening to whisky talk on your platform, however my heart sank when you announced that you were joining Tomatin in a “virtual whisky festival”, I feared your good name was being hijacked for a taccy marketing exercise and so it proved. When attending a festival you can walk past the stalls of mediocrity & go straight to the ones your interested in eg. Kilkerran. At the”virtual” we had to stop at every stall and listen to a salesman telling us that we should buy their godawfull NAS offering because a viking once shat in the woods near their distillery! The lowest point of the afternoon came when, I think it was the Tomatin salesman said something like “we don’t put an age statement on this since it’s FLAVOUR LED.” I choked on my age statement dram. What audience did he think he was talking to for god’s sake?

    1. Avatar
      Part of the community says:

      Dear Roy,

      I do agree with Tommy F on his comments above.
      The problem I have with these brand ambassador collaborations on community platforms is the loss of integrity in the content presented. Marketeers have an obvious conflict of interest when they show up on these platforms trying to sound genuine about answering the community’s questions while peddling their whisky. Tommy’s Tomatin NAS comment above is a classic example of this type of behaviour.
      Having a geniune conversation needs to include both praise when it’s merited and criticism when its deserved. Let’s face it, NAS and the addition of E150 colouring deserves criticism especially at the retail price level that some of these distilleries are trying to get away with.
      Brand ambassadors for the most part are incapable of being forthright and self critical because of the fear that it will affect their bottom line.
      The host has to be a representative of the community. If the community has concerns and criticisms about certain practices in the production of whisky, then it is the responsibility of the host to address these topics with the distilleries and their representatives. Otherwise, the conversation loses integrity and the platform because essential billboard advertisement, a one way conversation.
      As Ralfy states in his content, whisky enthusiasts are customers not consumers, so please do not treat us as such.

      1. Roy
        Roy says:

        Thanks Tom & PotC. Good to get the perspective and thanks for taking the time to comment. Apologies for the tardiness of my response.

        The point of the article was to focus on the format continuing to bring good, thoughtful, quality content. The natural process is to have a huge rush and then watch it recede as the audience becomes tired, or they return to a more normal routine with less available viewing time.
        It is possible, with the insertion of timestamps, to pass by “stalls” of what someone may perceive as mediocrity, much as they would at a real festival. I asked for time-stamping, but so many concepts are new to the content providers, it’ll take time. Some hand-holding is perhaps still needed.

        My position here is not of joining or partnering, but it’s okay for you to think of it like that. I do want to support a concept that sees traditionally protective brands and marketers getting together to cooperate. Brands that have practices to hide needn’t apply. I will do my best to ask questions on behalf of the customer. Brands like Tomintoul were asked some tricky questions directly about their presentation. They took the hit to reveal some market dynamics that exist for all the brands; mass-market/volume versus natural/enthusiast presentations of products, and other that may seem neither meat nor fish. It takes a skilled presenter to tackle these. In time legacy concepts and market targeting become clear. And so, as our whisky journey and preferences change, we pass by some stalls, we pause at others.

        If you take the LWF, the alternative is 12 different brands, on 12 different channels, hosted/presented by their BAs or appointed reps. Perhaps that’s a good way to “pass by” and avoid the brands you feel are mediocre. Then who loses, really? That’s a delivery only to fans. We are then excluded from things that could genuinely engage elsewhere, but worse, you are truly left with a one-way conversation. It’s then a presentation. An ad.

        Whisky helps teach me to keep my, often closed, ageing mind open. I hosted the LWF because I helped conceive it. I really believe it’s a step in the right direction. Not perfect, but a positive step. Try to imagine the difficult discussions the individual companies may have had before it went live. It is difficult and brave for them to set up like this and only the brands who were passionate and confident will step forward. They asked to host it on my channel. I politely declined, even though it would have pulled huge numbers for me. It’s not aligned. But me hosting on theirs? I’m okay with that under current circumstances.

        I hope you give it time. I invite more perspective here or direct to me. My position still stands that I’d love to encourage and see more industry collaboration. I prefer them to move closer to taking a place inside the community rather than trying to occupy a position above it.

        Slainte to you both. Roy.

        1. Avatar
          Part of the community says:

          Hi Roy,

          I understand your position. Please becareful as this course of action with brand ambassadors is a slippery slope. Too many of us are tired of being fed marketing propaganda.
          I watch and participate in these channels to get an sense of community and have honest conversations about a passion we all share. I would not like this to be tainted and conpromised.
          Like I stated above with Ralfy’s statement, we are a community of customers not consumers.

    2. Avatar
      Blair Conrad says:

      The “virtual whisky festival” certainly wanted someone with Roy’s integrity to host it.
      The brand reps involved however reflect on him in no way. Good luck trying to drag Aqvavitae through the muck. The man’s honesty and compassion are unquestionable.

      Beyond that, I love hearing distillery reps talk about their products because then I can get a sense of what that distillery is ABOUT. Without naming anyone I came out of that video event with information that will guide me on future purchasing decisions. It’s not hard to tell who is genuine and who is “trained” and that has nothing to do with the host.

      I honestly believe that Mr. Duff was involved with this event only because he believes that it informs already knowledgeable people, further.

      That’s a good thing.

  3. Avatar
    David Wright says:

    Great read Roy!
    As you say, community is an overused word. A lot of distilleries have these so called communities but they’re needing to realise not everyone can press the Buy it Now buttton on their ever more expensive realeases, thus creating exclusion. What’s wrong with making minis or smaller bottlings available for those on a tight budget? Without inclusion there is no community, the word is used as a soundbite only.

    Cheers and thanks for your YouTube channel and the Lockdown Festival!

  4. Avatar
    Hellen Widdowson says:

    Great article Roy.
    Having followed Roy on his channel for some time now I have to say that his has to be one of the most unbiased channels within the whisky tube community. Even when there’s been a distillery/independent bottler etc involved I don’t think I’ve ever felt sold to. The Lockdown Whisky Festival was a great idea, bring together various producers who otherwise may have never interacted that way surely has to be applauded? There were nigh on 1000 on line watching throughout … I’d expect them to have a similar view to mine. Looking forward to sampling a few drams whilst watching the second festival!
    With regard to the ‘tat’ that Roy has made available, this ‘tat’ has been made available at his patrons/viewers request, something I believe he thought long and hard about doing! Whilst appreciating that some of Roy’s contemporaries may have not have had that moral dilemma, I for one love the idea of the coins etc … personal preference is everything … and is exactly that, if you don’t like it move on.
    There is an awful lot of content out there, maybe even to a point where it’s becoming over saturated, but again that boils down to that word choice again … I can’t watch a lot of the content, but there are some seriously great channels out there … whether it be informative, amusing or whatever. Rally, Scotch Test Dummies and Aqvavitae have yet to disappoint. Slainthe Roy, keep up the great work …

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