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.