Casting the whisky net further afield

Online tastings during lockdown have broadened consumers’ horizons

Virtual whisky tastings will have helped broaden consumers’ knowledge about whisky

LOCKDOWN changed a lot of things. For the best part of four months all bars and restaurants were closed, leaving everyone little choice but to ‘socialise’ via video calls.

As more people spent more time online – and major events like Fèis Ìle (the Islay Festival of Music and Malt) were cancelled – whisky companies were quick to shift much of the activity usually reserved for distillery visits online, resulting in a raft of virtual whisky tastings and masterclasses.

And as the country now emerges from lockdown, those online tastings are expected to have left a lasting impression on consumers’ perceptions and knowledge of whisky – and on what they are likely to order in a bar.

Teddy Joseph, whisky specialist at Edrington-Beam Suntory which counts The Macallan, Bowmore, Laphroaig and Highland Park among the whisky brands in its portfolio, said established brands have “performed well” during lockdown,  and virtual tastings have helped broaden consumers’ horizons when it comes to whisky.

“We’ve also seen less well known whiskies perform well, gaining popularity during the lockdown period as consumers become increasingly inquisitive and open to trying different styles of whisky – something online tastings have definitely helped to encourage,” he said.

“We expect this growth to continue amongst established and less established brands over the coming months.”

Ben Stewart, director of UK and European sales at Wemyss Family Spirits, agreed that virtual tastings during lockdown will have shaped consumer drinking trends to some degree.

“A lot of brands made a lot of noise during the lockdown period and there will certainly be a few craft spirits that got in front of new audiences through their activations,” he said.

“Lockdown gave brands an opportunity to engage with their audience at home and encourage them to try something new. The lockdown period also pushed consumers to support local and this will definitely include their local craft spirits.

“It has been a challenging few months for the spirits industry and the craft spirits producers will have been hugely affected. For those that navigate their way through there is most certainly a new local audience that they can tap into and engage.”

Iain Alan, Glen Moray visitor centre manager, agreed.

“Customers have had direct access to producers online and been able to join in discussions with consumers from all over the world,” he said.

“This can only help with people’s understanding of the category and what brands are trying to do.”

And the knowledge consumers have gleaned from lockdown tastings only underlines the importance of staff training, according to Iain Weir, brand director for Smokehead at Ian Macleod Distillers.

“Virtual brand tastings and training sessions are also a great way to keep staff up to date,” he said. “Speak to the local reps to see what support you can get in providing assets to help to do this effectively.”