TWENTY years ago, when I decided to enhance my cultural awareness by exploring the Malt Whisky Trail in Scotland, the only source of information was a sketchy map found in the murky office of what was then the British Tourist Authority in London.
Of course, the adventure was the thing, so the trial and error that led to discovering the wonder of Glenfarclas, Dalwhinnie, The Glenlivet, Strathisla and other expressions of Scottish culture was special in itself.
The problem with that kind of random education was that it was extraordinarily difficult — and expensive — to build on any of the knowledge gained. And so it would have remained, had the world not been transformed by two revolutions: the internet itself, and social media. Not only are vast treasure troves of information — as well as the whiskies themselves — available online, but connoisseurs, aficionados and wannabe whisky lovers are able to share and learn through websites, social media, and dedicated apps.
This changed world of whisky was the subtext this week at the media launch of the FNB Whisky Live Festival, due to run in Sandton in the second week of November.
A tasting session was presided over by Marsh Middleton, a connoisseur who runs whisky workshops and events, and presents the “Let’s Talk Whisky” radio show on SAfm. His start, however, came from conducting interviews on an iPod and posting them online. Today, his @letstalkwhisky Twitter feed is at the core of his activities.
Through the process of interviewing the experts, Middleton built up a network of some of the world’s great connoisseurs, and became an expert himself.
“Ten years ago, I had just got into whisky and realised there was this amazing world of flavours and brands with amazing above-the-line marketing campaigns. But most brands didn’t have websites, and Twitter and Facebook weren’t around.”
Through the process of interviewing the experts, Middleton built up a network of some of the world’s great connoisseurs, and became an expert himself. “Four years later, Whisky Live popped up, at the very same time as this revolution in people power called social media. Today, you can’t shout above the line any more; you have to converse.
“I learnt that if you want to know something, you can just ask someone who knows, and then share it with the world.”
Enter Alex Farnell from Brandhouse, which represents premium brands such as Johnnie Walker and the Classic Malts range of single malt whiskies.
His title provides a clue to the changing face of whisky marketing: national reserve brand ambassador manager. His role, described as “customer and consumer mentorship” includes managing five regional brand ambassadors.
“People don’t want to hear from the brand as much as they want to know if there’s someone behind the brand,” he says. “Online connects communities of people who are passionate about whisky. Being in touch with people who are passionate about the interest inspires me to stay there and go further.”
Farnell also facilitates beverage giant Diageo’s global bartending programme, called World Class. It culminates in the naming of the Diageo Reserve World Class Bartender of the Year -won this year by a “mixologist” from Chicago. This very “real-world” contest is now moving online too, with YouTube becoming its most visible face.
Mix in local e-commerce sites such as aficionados.co.za, tasting and teaching apps such as WhiskyCast, Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible going mobile, and any number of whisky blogs, and the “water of life” truly has a new digital life.