As I didn’t enter existence until 1982, I can’t actually tell you what the world was like in 1979 when the Port Ellen – reviewed at the end of this piece – was distilled.
The internet was only born January 1983 and did not launch in public until 1993; we can safely say that it was a very different world. We can imagine that if you wanted to show someone a photograph in 1979 you needed to get it developed and printed, place it in an envelope and mail it to their home. Now, you just upload it to Instagram directly from your camera phone.
A hell of a lot has happened in the last 40+ years. Influencing, once the domain of huge PR and Advertising agencies, has been democratised – much like most other areas of life – by the internet. Being an influencer was once the remit of Hollywood heartthrobs, rock’n’roll musicians, or the occasional “aristocratic socialite.” Influencing is now accessible for most anyone with the time and energy – and perhaps resources – to go after it. Being influenced to buy a product is not a new thing, so why does the modern influencer evoke a strong negative reaction in some people?
In general terms, the top influencers are international footballers, or the Jenners and the Kardashians, with their millions of followers. The influencer associated economy has grown from £1.24 bn in 2016 to an estimated £10 bn this year, with influencers earning on average £200 – £400 a post. Whisky marketing only accounts for a fraction of this. Whisky focussed accounts fall into the micro-influencer category of 10k to 100n followers. Nevertheless, marketers often focus on the smaller accounts as they have greater engagement with their followers and more interaction than the super huge accounts.
One marketing manager working within the industry for a large brand commented:
“The biggest thing we aim to achieve with working with influencers is authenticity. That might come in the form of an expert (whisky in this example), or it might be someone whose lifestyle you like to follow and aspire to.
Influencers – rightly or wrongly – can often be trusted by their followers, so it’s important to us to carry out due diligence. There can be nothing worse for your reputation than working with someone who is inauthentic; that can only damage your brand reputation. The main reason for the change is consumer behaviour though; consumers media platforms have altered dramatically, so it makes sense that our media and consumer facing spend would do the same.”
It’s easy to see the #ad or #gifted hashtags and feel a little aggrieved that, for a few Instagram photos and a positive review, these modern-day whisky influencers seemingly get showered with free whisky by the big brands whilst the same brands endlessly bump-up prices to us, the consumers! I thought I would catch up with a few influencers and find out a bit more about the folk behind the immaculately curated Instagram accounts.
First up is @poshscotch. Ian’s tasting notes caught my eye in 2019 and I ended up joining his whisky club where I got to know him. Ian describes his non-whisky life as “Living in London since graduating in 2007, currently in the North West of the big smoke. I’ve got a little girl aged 7, a grumpy ex-wife and a girlfriend that wonders why I spend so much time and money on this whisky malarky. I work in IT and currently have my own consultancy business advising business how to empower their frontline and mobile workforces.”
Ian first got into whisky whilst working in Scotland regularly where “whisky was hard to ignore.” As the arrival of his daughter was imminent, he made the decision to “drink less but better,” which is a sentiment I can agree with… at least until we all found ourselves in lockdown with nothing better to do!
Malt: What social media platforms do you use?
@poshscotch (PS): Instagram is my main platform, but it allows you to pretty simply replicate the same content to Facebook and Twitter, where you can also find me. Technically I set up a TikTok, but that’s just to squat on, really. I think I’m too much an introvert to use YouTube and I’m not sure how much I could add to the great work people like Roy and Vin do.
Malt: I know from following you on Instagram you have an interesting collection; did that come about before you started @poshscotch?
PS: Yes and no! I probably had about 25 bottles by the time I started the Instagram account, but had been into whisky for a good three to four years by that point, so had killed off quite a few bottles by then anyway. Instagram has certainly been guilty of me growing the collection (now about 130 bottles) with things like my “featured weeks,” where I’ll look to do photos and reviews of seven expressions in seven days… but also, various whisky clubs, tastings, and the general “FOMO” they induce are just as guilty for the expansion!
Malt: What sort of time and effort (and indeed, money) does it take to keep an account like yours on the go?
PS: Too much! A week of reviews will normally take me three to four weeks to put together, from going out to do the photos and then actually spending the time to do the reviews. I’ll do a maximum of two per day, so my palate isn’t ruined. And if it’s a new bottle I like to have at least two drams on two different days to make sure the neck pour doesn’t influence it. And that’s after I’ve got the bottles in the first place, which can be months in the making!
The photo equipment is going to be off-putting for many. It’s difficult to spend less than £750 on kit here, plus a gimbal for any phone reels etc., is unlikely to leave you with change from a grand. And I’ve certainly bought bottles for the account. I don’t even want to know how much I’ve spent, but it’s into tens of thousands. The bottles received for free are worth many orders of magnitude less than this. Then those brands will mostly have requirements (X shots/ style of shot/ review etc.) I’ve only been paid actual money once. Don’t start this for the money!
Next, I’d like to introduce you to @swedishwhiskygirl. Moa, originally from Sweden, has been based in Edinburgh since 2015. “I moved to Scotland to attend a professional dance training and decided to stay after graduation. Now I work full time with marketing and sales for a ski travel company whilst also building my own business creating whisky and spirit-related content, write for spirit publications, host tastings and events, judging, etc. During lockdown I also started to learn how to knit and sew, so when I’m not working you’ll most often find me sitting on the floor (my favourite place) with my sewing machine or some yarn.”
In September 2021 Moa was shortlisted as an International Wines and Spirits Competition Spirits Communicator of the Year, alongside industry stalwarts and journalists.
Malt: It seems spending time in Scotland makes getting into whisky almost inevitable?
@swedishwhiskygirl (SWG): I’ve always been interested in flavour and where it comes from. Previously I had done courses in wine, but have always enjoyed cooking and baking as well. When I met my boyfriend – who works in the whisky industry – we tried whisky samples together and started learning about them. Eventually I tried Ardbeg 10 and it was the first whisky that I really liked as it reminded me of Swedish forests, bonfires, and smoked meats. After that I was pretty much hooked.
Malt: Which platforms are you on?
SWG: I use Instagram, YouTube, and my website primarily. Instagram is where I started out and I love taking photos and interacting with the community that way. It is still my main channel and the one I enjoy the most personally. Through my website I get the opportunity to write longer texts. I started YouTube during lockdown when I had some time to spare; it is a channel where I got to speak more about whisky, rather than just write.
Malt: Do you have a passion for collecting whiskies too? I noticed that your account is more experience-focussed?
SWG: I haven’t counted the whisky bottles in my house lately, but I’d guess it’s somewhere around 200 bottles. I’m not a collector, as I’d rather focus on trying whiskies and traveling to distilleries or doing various tastings and experiences related to spirits. I know there’s plenty of interesting unicorn whiskies out there, but I can’t afford most of them. I’m of course lucky to sometimes receive some press samples of really rare and interesting whisky that I would never be able to buy myself.
Malt: What sort of time and effort do you dedicate to social media?
SWG: Quite a lot of effort, I would say. I’ve been posting continuously – almost every day – since 2018, which in itself takes both time and energy. It’s hard to estimate how much time, but more than an hour a day taking photos, filming video, editing, planning, doing emails, writing articles, scheduling meetings, learning new techniques etc on a daily/weekly basis.
Last year was the first year I was making any money from my content so before that all expenses such as whisky, website software, editing software and camera equipment was all personal expenses. I don’t currently schedule my content, but I know what times and days (and content) that usually generate slightly better engagement for me.
Next up I’d like to introduce @marvelatwhisky, an account with a rather creative approach to whisky. Rich hit 40 this year and is watching out for his midlife crisis! “I live in London with my wife and puppy (Jack Russell) for most of the year, but we usually spend 3 to 4 months in the US, as I’m an American citizen.”
Malt: What about your interest in whisky, Rich?
@MarvelatWhisky (MaW): I guess for as long as I can remember I have always had a taste for whisky. My Dad would often pull out the Blue Label and this would usually be accompanied by a stern glare as I reached for the bottle, after which he would hand me the Black Label with a wry smile… So whilst my friends would drink Jack and Coke on a night out, my default poison of choice was always Black Label on the rocks coupled with a bottle of lager. Around 2015 I was poured a glass of Yamazaki 12 and this ignited a real sense of intrigue and set my off on my journey of discovery.
Malt: We found each other on Instagram but what other platforms do you use?
MaW: Instagram principally, as this is the platform where I found a whisky community that shared my geeky interests. I do have a Facebook account, although not active and I am an avid hater of Twitter. I recently set up a Tik Tok account, but because “brand exposure” is not my focus, I stick to where the best community, the best reviews and the best people are, which for me has always been Instagram.
Malt: You’ve got some incredible bottles featured on your account; is collecting a focus for you?
MaW: I’ve been fortunate in that I started buying whisky quite intensely around 2016, so I was lucky to purchase some bottles which at that time were fairly priced. The collection is mainly slanted towards Scotch, followed by Bourbon, and I’d say my main vice is Springbank.
Malt: What sort of time and effort do you dedicate to social media?
MaW: Effort is difficult to quantify. Sometimes the idea of an image comes to me instantly and within a couple of hours its done. Other times I can spend weeks with a concept in the back of my mind before it fully formulates itself. I’d say there is a lot of effort that goes into maintaining my account and constantly striving to improve it. As I said earlier, it’s not really a feed of my life events, rather a place one can go to and immerse themselves in weird whisky and superhero focused art. It’s an expensive hobby all in all, but rewarding!
Before moving on to some more general questions, I’d like to introduce you to CJ at @singlemaltvault. CJ and I met through a mutual whisky club, we got to know each other better when we signed up for a walking virtual challenge along with others from the club.
CJ is marginally older than me, being 40 already! He is married with 3 kids and works with the family DIY retail business in West London. CJ and I met briefly for some lunch when he visited Edinburgh for the Launch of the Johnny Walker Experience and I got a glimpse of the PR machine in action, which partially prompted this article.
You’ll find CJ on most of the major social media platforms, including TikTok, but Instagram is where he is most active. The Single Malt Vault contains a hefty collection of desirable bottles which CJ has amassed since 2008. One thing you’ll notice is how many of the serious bottles on CJ’s account are open and being enjoyed. As they say, whisky is better shared.
Malt: How did you get into whisky?
SMV: I always say being Indian is a bit like being Scottish when it comes to whisky, you’re brought up with it… legally, of course. There’s usually an open bar or bottles on tables at weddings or other functions. I have memories of starting with Chivas, Famous Grouse, and Johnnie Walker Black. In terms of taking a real interest in whisky, I visited Auchentoshan with family and friends in 2008 and this was quite an eye opener. Just seeing the process, taking in the distillery characteristics, trying new make for the first time, and of course a range of single malts was quite some experience. But beginning to attend whisky shows since 2016, meeting all the amazing characters in whisky, really ignited my passion.
Malt: When you started your social media where there any other whisky accounts that you looked to for inspiration?
SMV: Nate who runs @SingleMaltDaily that I actually used to message from my personal Snapchat for most of 2016 who just kept encouraging me to make an Instagram, which I finally did. Then there was Eric @ScotchAndTime, who basically pushed me to stay active. Then there’s Ely, @TheScotchWhisperer and Jay, @TheScotchFather with who I would have discussions about whiskies that I had never seen or even thought about trying. I think Ely was the one that got me into independent bottlings, and he unearthed some gems.
I don’t consider Single Malt Vault an influencer account; it’s a brand in its own right, built upon my own values, not by design. It was just a bit of fun to begin with but has grown from what is just a part of my own personal whisky journey.
Malt: It’s probably fair to say that none of those interviewed seemed to embark on to social media with the specific goal of becoming an influencer, but clearly along the way the dopamine hit from “likes” must’ve kicked in. Some more general questions to all of you now: tell us about some significant milestones?
MaW: Biggest milestone without a doubt was being followed and then reposted by the official Springbank account. That can’t be topped! One other great milestone was when I made a post of a Back to the Future “inspired” Boutique-y Whisky bottle, Christopher Lloyd (a.k.a. Dr Emmett Brown) liked and commented on it. Heaven!
SWG: Reaching 10k on Instagram definitely was a milestone as it does unlock some additional features, and it also feels like such a definite number as it changes the count format from 9999 to 10K, which might sound like an odd detail, but felt like a big step for me. Another thing that made me feel quite shy – and also made me realise that there’s actually an audience out there that is following along – was the first time someone came up to me and said, “Are you Swedish Whisky Girl?” That really made me both happy and a bit scared since I was mostly doing my photos and texts because I thought it was fun, and not to gain followers.
SMV: The first event that comes to mind was when Fettercairn did their rebrand in 2018, and I was invited to be in the company of established industry writers and bloggers.
PS: Being sent your first bottle to take photos of was something that I took extraordinarily seriously. Nine out of ten of the bottles featured on my account are either my own, or at least passing through to a few trusted friends I help ship to, and it’s still incredibly gratifying when someone appreciates your work and wants to send you something. I think I normally go over the top and try and over-deliver in terms of the number of photos! Then, being asked to work with the team at The Whisky Baron was pretty mind-blowing.
Malt We’ve covered the significant milestones; what about low points?
SWG: The lows are any time I receive threatening, uncomfortable, or rude messages. I’m quite an emotional person and struggle with being able to just ignore people that clearly don’t deserve the attention. There was a point during lockdown when most voices on the social media platforms sounded so hatful, negative and angry – not towards me, but just in general – that it really affected me, and I felt really sad to see people that way, and I felt like I didn’t know what to do to try and help and improve the situation. There’s been the occasional scam accounts or some accounts that just take my content and publish as their own, but so far it hasn’t been a big issue and my followers seem to report, as well as make me aware of those accounts fairly quickly when it happens.
PS: I’ve had my fair share of scam accounts when I’ve done giveaways, and Instagram are increasingly poor at removing these even when they have suspicious links in their bios. At the time of writing there are still two up there, and I know at least one person who got stung which I can’t help but feel a bit responsible for.
On the selfish side: you want your own account to do well, and you want sponsored posts to do well for the brand. But it’s undeniable that sample sets, no matter how well photographed, just won’t perform as well, so sometimes it can be quite hard to manage the expectations of brands, who would want a 3 cl sample of their IB release to perform as well as a bottle of Blue Label. I don’t and won’t buy likes or pay to sponsor those posts just to manipulate the numbers, even if it means losing a relationship over stats.
SMV: I’ve had a copycat scam too, with several accounts that were created around a giveaway, and I was very concerned… more so for anyone that might get scammed than anything else. As far as I’m aware, no one was, and so many people had messaged me to inform me. This has definitely made me more cautious with giveaways.
MaW: For sure my images are “stolen,” but I think that’s part and parcel of the Instagram game these days. In terms of lows, the passing of Brett (@ScotchTrooper), who was a huge influence on me and my account, was a devastating pill to swallow. However, being a part of a fundraiser that raised over $100,000 for his treatment was such an inspiration and testament to the online community. As for spats, I have no time for them. My “block” trigger-finger works frequently and if we have different outlooks on life, well then, I just won’t be seeing yours in my feed anymore.
Malt: Does having the online presence impact on your mental health?
PS: 100%. It’s tough out there, and Instagram, I would say, takes a fairly horrendous impact on your mental health. And that’s just from the numbers game which appears totally random. It’s depressing to see excellent work go un-noticed for seemingly no reason. I rarely unfollow active accounts and again it’s tough when you see your followers going down rather than up for a period.
At the same time, I feel “lucky,” being male and blogging about whisky. Instagram almost encourages soft porn – quite often my “explore” feed will just be about 30% models for no real reason. Some of the amazing women out there with whisky accounts I know, suffer with mansplaining (bad), just horrible abuse about them (worse) or their bodies (even worse still), when the post was about the dram, regardless of whether they were in it or not. That’s just awful.
SWG: I want Instagram to be enjoyable for me and not just a work tool. However certain comments can of course affect me, and I want people to like me and to be friendly towards each other, so If someone is disrespectful it upsets me. I wouldn’t say I’ve experienced online bullying, but I’ve had people who continuously commented non-acceptable things on my YT because I didn’t want to buy followers from them, and pretty much every day I have DM’s about the way I look, what people want to do with me, or similar things which I never respond to. I think that as a woman I easily feel a bit threatened by the sexist messages that frequently show up in my inbox. I try my best to encourage respectful behaviour and ignore the people that want attention through rude or negative comments.
SMV: This is a very good question, because I think it can affect people without them even being aware. It’s very rare that I take much notice, but when I do, I’m very lucky that my wife is quick to point out that is not really that important. There has been no racism thankfully. I think bullying can come in so many forms, with people who have an opinion and believing or suggesting that’s the only opinion that matters is probably the style I see most of.
Malt: At Malt we get our fair share of opinions in the comments like that, CJ. We are always open to the constructive criticism of course, but sometimes it’s another level!
MaW: There is no doubt that social media impacts your mental health. The quantitative data exists to prove it, so anyone saying otherwise is not being true to themselves. I guess because my posts take quite a lot of time to construct and then produce, I’m invested heavily in them, and hope they receive the reaction that motivated me to create them in the first place. I try not to get too hung up though!
Malt: Personally – though I know I speak for all Malt writers, and editors too – I would like to take the time to condemn the sort of sexist, misogynistic behaviour experienced by Moa above, and the other negative behaviour described by the interviewees. Moving on: do you fear of the ever-changing algorithm? Will we soon see some TikTok style dance moves?
MaW: I’d like to do more stop motion video, and video seems to do well at the moment. For me, Instagram has changed most from the perspective of commercialisation. I have noticed that every third image I scroll to is sponsored and every second story is a promotion. On top of this I see many accounts positioning themselves as advocates of distilleries or voices of the people; invariably they are seeking freebies. Good luck to each and every one. I just want easy access to the people I follow, rather than being pushed toward a site that sells socks merely because I bought a pair of Nikes!
SWG: My recent posts do much better actually, which mainly has to do with the knowledge I’ve gained through experience over the past few years. The main thing that has changed for me is that I now know to keep an eye out for changes in the algorithm, how to use hashtags and other technical aspects of social channels, but I’m constantly learning, which also makes it fun. As for TikTok? Well maybe I should create a @swedishwhiskygirl dance, or do some dance moves inspired by whisky; after all, my background is in professional dance and without dance I would’ve never moved to Scotland.
SMV: The only time you’ll see me dance is at a wedding! Instagram is forever developing, so it’s not easy to just pinpoint a way to post. But the algorithm is always focused on people, and what people want to see. If you post what you’re doing, what you’re drinking, what your thoughts are, and people are interested, then Instagram will push that to those people.
PS: The algorithm was already there when I started, so there were no easy pickings. Many of the influencers are in chat groups together and rumours of algorithm changes (mostly speculative and unfounded!) spread like wildfire. People are anxious about it for sure. The reality is no one really knows. At the end of the day, real engagement with people and putting in the hours seems to be the best way to get success. Post regularly and hope you get lucky. I got a reel with 1.2 million views earlier this year. Mostly they get 5-10k views. This was fantastic.
Malt: Along the way have your whisky purchases been influenced by considerations of Instagram content? I see SWGand MaW feel not?
PS: I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t to a certain extent; Glendronach was (and still is) my favourite distillery, and still has the most bottles in my collection. My love of Bunna came from Feis Ile 2019, so again that grew naturally.
I’ve certainly had some people comment that I feature blends too prominently, and it is hard to argue that their reach is not a factor in that. But I genuinely find blended malt (and blended whisky) an underrated category where there’s still value to be found, especially at auction with older releases. £70 for 1970’s JW Black Label is a far better dram than some £120+ malts I’ve had.
I’ve killed bottles of higher-end blends like Blue Label Ghost & Rare; did the knowledge that they would do well draw me to them in the first place? You bet. Did they turn out to be delicious whisky? Damn right. I’d never buy something that I know I won’t like, and if something I buy, even if it was for likes, turns out to be rubbish, then I’ll let my audience know.
SMV: My approach to buying hasn’t changed due to the social media aspect, however it has changed due to my own personal preferences and space of course, which is an issue many of us have, especially as the family grows.
Malt: Do you even need to pay for whisky anymore?
MaW: Haha… you know as well as I do that the whisky we seek out doesn’t come free! I have been fortunate to collaborate with several companies and I am always transparent about my remuneration. Most of the requests I receive don’t make sense to pursue as either it is not a product I can stand behind or the “ask” doesn’t match the offer. Every so often though, a great company comes along, and it is a real pleasure to support them in their initiatives.
SWG: One of the perks of doing what I do is having the opportunity to try the press bottles and samples that get sent over. When I get the question for paid collaborations the brand will request a specific brief or numbers of posts/videos as well as the content stats after it has been posted, but there’s also various press offerings sent without any agreement as well as requests to post and highlight a product in exchange for the product. I consider all enquiries, but do not accept them all if I don’t feel it suits me, my content, or my audience. This is one of the most difficult things to manage for me because I like being involved with and working with brands as it lets me be very creative, but at the same time it’s difficult to know your own value.
I do occasionally buy whisky that I’m curious about, or as gifts to friends and family – but I probably shouldn’t because we have the luxurious problem of running out of space in the flat for all the bottles.
SMV: I think generally the whisky community would all have enough whisky that they wouldn’t need to buy anymore. But I get your question, and it’s simple: I want to experience a variety of whisky so I will always be buying more. It’s part of the journey. Events like the Johnnie Walker Princes Street launch are far a few between, and I don’t get to go to all of them so when I do, I’m always grateful.
Malt: Do you find yourself holding back in your reviews or views online to avoid upsetting future commercial collaborations?
MaW: I definitely try not to criticise any company that dedicates themselves to producing something that takes time, effort and craft. That’s said: whisky is subjective, and I am keen to give an opinion. It’s just my opinion though, and it may differ to many others. Where a brand loses its sense of identity and perspective I’ll say so, but that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the product they produce.
SMV: I am very much focused on what I personally like, rather than dislike, plus everyone has different senses with their nose and their palate. There are occasions when I will mention something I dislike, which have included some of the biggest brands in the industry. It’s a direct comparison to food, how we would all order something different from the menu, due to our personal tastes.
SWG: No, not at all. My approach to whisky is that I want to like the things I try. I wouldn’t drink it if I thought it to be bad, and taste is also a matter of opinion, so even though there’s flavours I like more or less I try to describe them equally because I know there’s people in my audience that might love them. That’s what’s so fun about whisky – exploring different flavours – and even those I might prefer less lets me have a think about where they might derive.
If there’s a brand I don’t like for more valuable reasons – like if myself or someone I know have been treated badly by someone associated with the brand, or if they’ve released a message through the brand that I disagree with – I’d rather not talk about them at all to avoid giving them more exposure. The internet doesn’t need more negativity. But I’d of course consider bringing more serious issues to attention through my channels if I felt it was needed.
PS: It’s difficult. When I was still scoring, I gave a gifted sample a 4/5 (which would be “recommended” in my book). I think this was immediately interpreted as 80/100 as an equivalent, therefore “pishwater.” I didn’t hear back from that brand for over a year. It was one of the reasons I stopped scoring, because it was a number lost in translation and the words, written with meaning, were meaningless.
However, saying that, I always do a concluding paragraph, and whilst I don’t swear or use particularly extreme language, I hope that my followers see me as not holding back. That’s the part where you get my honest opinion.
Malt: Thanks to the people behind the accounts for agreeing to be interviewed and for being open with us.
So hopefully that gives you, Malt readers, a bit of a flavour for some things you assumed or supposed about the world of an influencer. Perhaps it also gave you some surprises or a new perspective? I’d like to additionally thank CJ from @singlemaltvault whose generosity in surprising me with a sample of Port Ellen (reviewed below) is very much appreciated.
Gordon & MacPhail Port Ellen 40 Years Old (1979-2019) – Review
54.7% ABV. SRP of £2,495.
Colour: Pale gold.
On the nose: Gentle peat intermingled with delicate fruits, actually the peat is more prominent that I expected at this age. Very old varnish, elastic bandage, BBQ charred beef fat, a light fruitiness bringing it all together.
In the mouth: Delightfully fruity at first, soft ashy peat and wood spice, nutmeg and allspice, then mineral notes, a slight waft of earthy autumnal bracken, more sweet wood spices, peaty chimney smoke on the breeze, oak influence growing alongside the peat which dances across the middle of the tongue on the finish.
What an incredible whisky, which has been opened and shared. Kudos to CJ at Single Malt Vault for that from the outset! This is a whisky from a time before the internet, when Islay was a remote and unknown place, before the influencer. Liquid history that cannot be googled or found on Wikipedia.
I was recently asked the criteria for giving a high score and I said it would have to be whisky I could “get lost in.” This is certainly one of those, a beguiling nose rewards patience and time. The palate surpasses the nose, which is often not the case with modern whisky. It is surprisingly well balanced and not too woody despite 40 years in a cask. It is a testament to Gordon & McPhail’s cask management for eking out these barrels to such a ripe old age.
Lead photo courtesy of The Whisky Exchange.