Great Expectations: Why whisky fans deserve better

I am a whisky fan… a regular, dram-loving, amateur enthusiast. But I am not a whisky geek, meaning I rely on more knowledgeable experts, like the great writers on Malt Review, for tips, steers and a good deal of insight. Does this particular dram taste more like run-off from a Welsh slag heap, or King Arthur’s undergarments after a six-century soily sleep? My tastebuds probably can’t articulate the difference, but I will know if I like it.

You see whisky fascinates me… I want the full back story; I get the ‘provenance’ flutters, the ‘terroir’ tingles. I want authentic, good quality, great tasting whisky and I’m prepared to pay. Which, I think, puts me smack dram in the middle of most distillery’s target markets.

Whisky club member? Tick. Tasting attender? Tick. Distillery visitor? Tick tick (Buy me a dram some time and I’ll tell you about my London to Talisker pilgrimage on a Triumph Bonneville two years ago… spiritual stuff). And I spend money on whisky. On good whisky. In fact, for some Scottish producers, I would argue that I’m a super fan. I look forward to new releases, I line up, I get involved, and wallet be damned…!

So, why does being a fan so often feel like being a mug?

Take the marvelous, community-driven Feis Ile. A week off work, flights, ferry, car hire, accommodation, meals… even from the UK, before Port Ellen has opened proceedings you’ve dropped £1000. And that’s before a single, solitary dram has passed my excited, expectant lips. So why do some Islay distilleries expect you to queue up outside for half a day in a car park while the Hebridean gods do their worst from above?

Think about it… you’ve committed that holiday time at the expense of your partner’s or family’s plans, you’ve shelled out to be there, you and 300 others are trying to spend more money on a bottle of whisky than most will ever commit in their lifetime, and… there’s one working till? Aside from the blatantly obvious – a queuing system and mobile payment terminals, of course – there should be a red carpet, dwarves mingling with trays of canapés, fireworks and, frankly, cannon salutes.

But by far the biggest crime against consumers is the onsale. To return to Islay once more (and this is purely because it’s happening right now – I’m a big fan of the festival and so many involved who put it together) this year’s limited Feis bottlings highlight the problem. Imagine you’ve got just 2,630 bottles of a 2020 release like one northeastern distillery on the island. You know demand will be high, so why allow two bottles per person? Remember those super fans? After the website crashes, and the second round of sales, why not have another 1,315 of them NOT walk away feeling hard done by and giving just that little bit less of a f*ck.

The SMWS festival bottling release last week topped it all; truly an exercise in how to lose members. A three-hour warning on the bottles dropping, an online shopping experience exposing tech that was cutting edge when Netscape was released (that’s a reeeaally old web browser, millennials), and thoroughly wasted time, nerves, and patience of all involved.

I know these are first world problems, and that in the current climate I should just zip it, stay indoors and be thankful I don’t have the global lurgy. But my fellow whisky fans and I make up a decent slice of turnover for these companies, and I think we deserve more.

When being a whisky fan is akin to being punched in the face, then standing back up and asking for more, what sane person would spend time and money doing it? And when the extent of a distillery’s appreciation for their most loyal customers is needless queues, and systems that encourage flipping while actual fans miss out, perhaps we should take up a more enjoyable hobby like road rage. Or dish-washing.

All that said, some folk just seem to get it. Bruichladdich’s festival bottling was run on a ballot system again this year. Even if you missed out, at least you had a fair shot. Last year’s bottle was pre-paid for, so guess what… fans got to spend their Feis day meeting others and enjoying a few drams, not queuing up with an ever-increasing, stress-inducing FOMO. Imagine a producer putting on a day that properly rewards those super fans who’d made the pilgrimage…

Ballots for all on sales; numbered bottles that are registered to a purchaser; more distillery memberships that reward those super fans; rotating purchase opportunities so all fans have equal number of bottles annually; schemes that reward fans and bump them up or down the purchase queue depending on activity; premium memberships that give early access to onsales alongside a set of anti-flipping conditions; money-can’t buy rewards for super fans triggered by certain criteria. There are ample ways to improve the current malaise.

Distilleries don’t need brand ambassadors as much as they need customer experience managers. I don’t need whatever narrative is passed down from marketing departments of multinational owners that month; I want to hear from someone who appreciates how equally exciting and frustrating this can all be, and who can actually improve the experience. Build a community, not a sales deck.

Timed-out shopping carts and unannounced free-for-alls should be a thing of the past. The fan experience for whisky lovers could be improved five fold with some thought, and a small amount of investment. A distillery, or whisky club, predating the wheel is no excuse to ignore progress and technology. I’d bet all my bottles on there being huge untapped fan-bases just itching to get involved and invest both ways – emotionally and financially – if the experience was better.

For every fan that snaps up an in demand bottle, there are 20, 50, 100 that don’t. How is that majority being encouraged to still feel part of the club, and come back? I’m super disappointed not to be on Islay right now for the festival, and I’m already booked for next year. But will you find me standing in a wet car park in an avoidable mess of a queue? No, I’ll be in a harbor inn around the corner, meeting fellow whisky lovers in the warm and expecting a bit more.

Photographs kindly provided by Jess.


Slightly ginger, a little bit shaggy, Greg is a distinctly amateur whisky drinker. Does a particular dram taste more like run-off from a Welsh slag heap, or King Arthur’s soiled undergarments? His tastebuds probably can’t articulate the difference, but he'll know if he likes it. All opinions - of which he often has many - are his own.

  1. Susanne says:

    ‪Brilliant article. We wanted to attend Fèis Ìle once but decided that Islay is nicer to visit without insane queues everywhere (I’m enjoying it this year, though). Ballots is definitely the way to go regarding any extra special usually single cask whiskies. I miss out on many great whiskies because trying to be among the first ‬whatever hundred buyers is way too annoying and usually a waste of time. Whisky fans definitely deserve better.

      1. Ed says:

        Hi Greg,
        Interesting comments. A shame that the pics were not of Feis Ile queueing though!
        There are issues everywhere but I think Springbank do pretty well during their Festival mostly.

  2. Baris Basaran says:

    Very well written article, nailing a serious issues with such a precision.
    Fèis Ìle is also begging for a better content imho. One local band was playing exactly the same set at every distillery last year. Is that really the best Islay can come up with ? There is so much potential for this festival which unfortunately not tapped at all.

  3. Darren says:

    I actively avoid festivals. I seek out distilleries when they are likely to be quiet. As a result I got a one on one tour of Brora 5 or 6 years ago because I was the only one at Clynelish that morning. I got to sample some very rare whisky one on one with the late great Duncan McGillivray at Bruichladdich. I have sat and had a long chat with the visitor centre manager at GlenDronach and we exchanged samples (she got a nice 1959 Glenfarclas from me). I have had a one on one tour of Glenglassaugh involving areas closed off to the public. I could continue this list and get very boring.

    I visit Islay regularly but I will never attend Feis ile which I consider the whisky equivalent of the boxing day sales. I am a geek and I like to relax and take in the ambience of a distillery. I like to have a proper conversation with the wonderful people that make this drink we love so much and decide my purchases at leisure.

    I certainly no longer run the gauntlet of internet timed releases when their servers (or whatever they are called) are clearly incapable of dealing with the traffic. I applaud those sites that run ballots. I have won many but I am not disappointed when I fail because I recognise the system was fair.

    1. Greg says:

      Thanks Darren, maybe your approach is the best – refusing to play a part in fuelling that demand. Perhaps we should all just step back, and take a long view….

    2. The Lowlander says:

      Festivals are a great opportunity for people who don’t have lots of money to taste whiskies which they wouldn’t ordinarily be able to sample or buy. Its about being done right though.

      Whisky Fringe in Edinburgh was one of the worst I’ve attended. Definitely more bling and show than substance. The time I went, they had so many people upstairs that they had to operate a One in, One out system! Not great if you’ve already waited outside in the queue and then have to wait in another one to taste some specific whiskies!

      On a more positive note, the Fife Whisky Festival is a bit of a gem. Sure, while you might not get the wide range like the Glasgow Whisky Festival, it is far less congested and you have the opportunity to talk to most of the exhibitors and more importantly get to taste the whiskies you want to taste.

  4. Richard says:

    I would add another idea, which is to switch to 35cl bottles. I’m not sure how easy that is from the perspective of the bottler but I would gladly take a half bottle over nothing.

    1. Greg says:

      Good point. I enjoy That Boutiquey Whisky Company bottlings at 50cl for that reason – it’s more than enough to enjoy a specific release. That said, I wonder what the environmental impact is of twice as much packaging…?

  5. mark p says:

    The measures you list out above all make sense but would require something akin to giving a damn, and putting in effort, therefore can likely be ruled out swiftly.

    Though I’m a little apprehensive about your use of the term ‘super-fan’. Providing exclusivity to any subset will come with its own supply shortages soon enough and is implicitly ostracising of the larger community.

    1. Grahan Ward says:

      Really enjoyed the article Greg and I am sure it strikes a chord with many whisky drinkers. I have been going to Islay for the Feis for the last five years, but wasn’t intending to go this year, as the group that I was going with could not attend for various unfathomable reasons, like getting married! I agree that the clamour for festival bottles and the general madness of Feis week is overblown. I went over with a friend in February and it was much the better time to be there, apart from a couple of the Distilleries being closed, so read up in advance. People have so much more time for you, if you want to purchase there are distillery only bottlings every but as good as the festival bottles and usually cheaper. Not everything is open, but the slow pace of life means that you get much more chance to take it all in.

  6. Jojo says:

    Those outfits that get it, do their jobs. Creating artificial demand (lines, people waiting, etc) makes you feel fomo pretty quickly. And I’m actually surprised that SMWS hasn’t introduced membership tiers yet. These are all businesses at the end of the day. Enjoyed this article.

    1. The Lowander says:

      ” I’m actually surprised that SMWS hasn’t introduced membership tiers yet.”

      Please don’t give them any ideas! 😀

  7. Gerry Monahan says:

    Great article. I’d also include distilleries that encourage tastings of their products providing free samples to a club or online group that, in turn, give them to a small group of members who have a large Twitter following. Tastings are advertised as open to all whisky fans but in reality this is not the case and the real fan feels like a mug for getting involved in the first place.

  8. Tyrone. Otie says:

    Great article, I love Islay but I could not see myself wasting time lining up for a limited edition bottling.

    A lot of the festival events on Islay look like a lot of fun, from the warehouse tastings to the music and food. I can see having a lot of fun sipping drams and meeting people.

    Regarding special bottlings, Ardbeg at least releases enough bottles of their annual special release so that most people can acquire one, no matter where they live.

    I firmly believe the other distilleries have more to lose with their current limited offerings practices.

    For example, the Port Ellen offering this year may as well have gone straight to auction. Having a virtual event to talk about a bottle that cost so much that 99.99% of whisky fans will never taste was a waste of time. I kind of expected (or perhaps hoped) that with the distillery reopening they might have thought about engaging with whisky fans that may be considering buying some of the new offerings in coming years, perhaps next year?

    I do believe there is room for all types of whisky industry participants, including flippers and auctions (who might bring distilleries free marketing and enable collectors access to rare bottles), but not as part of events that are meant to be inclusive and fun.

  9. Jeremy says:

    Good article. I’d like to add though that ballots are best if done by pre-registering the payment on a card. If it’s just email addresses it comes down to how many email accounts people can be bothered to make/register for ballot. Some clearly do this more than others. By linking it to a card then it is more limiting for ballot entries from one person trying to grab as many bottles as possible.

  10. Welsh Toro says:

    Hi Gregg, good article but I have a question for you. Do fans deserve better? These events are fun for like minded whisky enthusiasts to meet and enjoy each others company over some whisky and good times. Piling up to Scotland, unless you are Scottish, to hang about a distillery in a very obviously ‘flog it’ environment with tailor made Feis Ile expressions to lure you in to purchase exclusive and limited bottles like an absolute sucker. Fine, if you want to be part of that distillery’s sales strategy and marketing campaign with some higher than average abv whisky at the end of it go ahead. Seriously, why do people do it? Standing in queues, having paid for the journey, to get a bottle of whisky. Is it bragging rights? I don’t know. I just can’t be arsed with it. The whisky boom has made people behave in a ridiculous way and those that enjoy these events get what they pay for. A large queue and a bottle of whisky if you’re lucky. Big deal. WT

  11. Orly says:

    I just buy the bottles at the store or online if they are hard to find. I pay to be in a Caribbean resort at the beach.

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