The shift to digital: are virtual Australian whisky events the new normal?

NewsStories
featured image
The Virtual Australian Whisky Show Supplied

As 2020 staggers onwards, the Australian whisky industry continues to adapt, much of it in the form of virtual tastings and online streaming events. Tasmanian Whisky Week is one of the latest major events to pivot, announcing at the start of this week that a virtual whisky tasting would replace its larger showcase event.

Kristy Booth-Lark, who’s heading up Tas Whisky Week this year, told us that the virtual tasting, which comes with a pack of whisky samples from 18 Tasmanian distilleries, is nearly sold out. Four pop-up tasting events, two in the north of the state and two down south, will also go ahead, with Booth-Lark saying they were glad to at least offer something to Tassie whisky fans.

‘It’s not going to beat actually going to an event or to the distillery, that will always always take priority. But it does give people the opportunity to either virtually meet the distiller or brand ambassador and get involved in something that they might not have been able to otherwise.’

 

The tasting set for Tasmanian Whisky Week 2020 – Supplied

 

The first major Australian whisky event to move to an online format this year was The Whisky Show, run by David Ligoff’s Alchemist Events. Ligoff had never run a virtual tasting event pre-COVID, but the move to digital was made easier by the app that he created in partnership with The Whisky List for last year’s show.

‘I was spending fifteen grand a year on printing a program for people who’d use it once and then throw it away,’ says Ligoff. ‘So within a week, we quickly tweaked the app to include embedded video and one-click shopping, and that really changed the event from a virtual tasting to a virtual show experience.’

Two virtual whisky events were released by The Whisky Show across April and May focusing on American whiskey and single malt. Ligoff’s next tasting event in August, again in partnership with The Whisky List, is The Virtual Australian Whisky Show, featuring samples from 18 different distilleries across the country.

A number of new whiskies are being sent out to those who’ve signed up, including a first peek at Remnant Whisky Company, the new independent bottling label set up by Peter Bignell, his son Tom and several business colleagues.

Whisky & Dreams was the other major Australian whisky festival to shift online in recent months. Ben Baranow runs the event through his importing company Baranows Emporium. He says that changing the popular Melbourne festival to ‘Whisky & Dreams At Home’ was daunting but worth it.

‘I certainly didn’t appreciate how much work it was going to be to get it up and running,’ says Baranow. ‘But around 90% of the people who purchased tickets to the physical event switched to the online tasting, which just blew me away. We received so much support from industry and the community, and that was a huge help… I definitely think online whisky tastings are here to stay.’

 

 

Supplied

 

With the explosion in virtual events and tastings, the question know being asked is – has the drive to digital irrevocably changed the whisky business?

Matt Bailey, The Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s (SMWS) national ambassador, definitely thinks so. The Australian branch of the SMWS was one of the first businesses here to move to online tastings pre-COVID (Sydney’s The Oak Barrel were also early leaders, and they’ve just announced their annual whisky fair will shift online to the Sydney Whisky Forum 2020).

Bailey started releasing video clips for Australian SMWS members via Instagram around January 2019, but went deeper into it after a positive initial response, turning occasional tastings into nightly sessions every week day (we don’t know how he does it).

Asked if he thinks the current situation will change the way whisky producers and retailers operate in Australia, Bailey’s unequivocal.

‘Absolutely, and it’s something they should take careful note of. I truly believe there is an opportunity here to engage with consumers differently, permanently, post-lockdown,’ Bailey says.

‘I think brands need to be nimble on their feet, adapt fast, and be ready to really contextualise their message appropriately. There’s also no reason for a country as geographically massive as Australia with such a small population relative to size to not continue with virtual tastings and learnings in new ways.’

 

Supplied

 

Ligoff can already offer insight on that latter point.

‘We’re now reaching people that normally wouldn’t be able to get to the shows and events. We’ve had tremendous feedback from people out in more rural areas. They’re saying, ‘This is fantastic! We can never get to the shows, and now the show’s are coming to us.”

But talk to Australian whisky producers about the new digital landscape, particularly those in remote, rural areas, and the responses are mixed. Over the past few weeks, several rural distillers have told us that their internet speeds simply aren’t quick enough to allow them to stream events and online tastings with any confidence (we’ve all seen a few streaming events go awry on that front).

The other question on everyone’s mind is the distribution of people and resources in the post-COVID world.

For Ligoff, and many other retailers, bars and brands, the huge positive has been unprecedented access to local and international distillers and ambassadors. The flipside to that development – do whisky brands still need multiple marketing specialists in different locations where fewer people might be able to do the job remotely?

As with everything at the moment, there’s still more questions than answers. Certainly, there are now unique opportunities for producers and creators in the whisky space. What these opportunities evolve into is anyone’s guess.