Breaking the Conventions

Breaking the Conventions

Educating the consumer about whisky

Thoughts from... | 02 Dec 2016 | Issue 140 | By Neil Ridley

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Five hundred bars and counting… That was the last text message I sent to my colleague Joel Harrison, a regular contributor to this magazine. What I was referring to was the insanity of the last six months. As part of the research and writing process for our new book (shameless plug… It's called Straight Up: Where Bartenders Drink), I mapped out that between us we had visited, supped in, reviewed or simply interviewed someone about the better part of the aforementioned number of fine drinking establishments from right around the globe. From Guatemala to Ginza in fact.

What this process has done for us (save for making us look about 10 years older) is, to an extent, crystallise how the bartending community works; what they look for when it comes to new trends in whisky and other spirits; how they communicate about new products to the consumer and how they can be both hugely influential and indeed, the gatekeepers for some of the decisions you make (not all) concerning which spirits you decide to buy and enjoy at home.

One such part of this lengthy process was a recent visit to Germany and a terrific event called Bar Convent Berlin, now in its 10th year. From relatively humble beginnings, BCB, a bartender focused trade show, packed with seminars, talks, discussion groups and a seemingly immeasurable number of new products to try from glossy stands (over 900 apparently), has become the European gateway between brands and the 'On-Trade', ie. the people that run bars and serve you drinks from behind them. What we're not talking about here is an almighty p**s-up for 10,000 industry liggers, but a genuinely positive gathering of the best palates and minds in the business.

Whisky Magazine's erstwhile editor-at-large, Mr Dave Broom was in attendance - talking about the impact and future of No Age Statement whiskies to an enthused crowd. What they got was not a brand deceiving with flattery, but the cold, hard truth about the state of the Scotch whisky business and how things are moving at a swift pace to keep up with demand. The audience blinked, nodded understood and applauded.

In another hall, the latest interactive experiences were being unveiled by some of the most successful drinks brands in the world. Jack Daniel's showcased its sophisticated 360° virtual reality tour of the distillery, giving attendees a sensorial journey to Tennessee, led by master distiller, Jeff Arnett. For the cynical folks out there, the investment in such a project has bought a new level of education and understanding to both consumers and bartenders - and it is this type of thing which helps bring the spirit to a wider, more forearmed and forewarned consumer. Elsewhere, Glenfiddich were busy demonstrating why they have entered the field of experimental whiskies, much to the enjoyment of our trusted bar community.

Whilst brands can spend serious money on these events utilising the latest technology, sometimes the simplest ideas are the most engaging. Havana Club rum took the sensible decision that rather than bringing the entire bar community to Cuba, it would instead bring one of the most talismanic elements of Cuban drinks culture direct to Berlin. What it achieved is extraordinary; an almost identical replica of El Floridita, arguably the most famous bar in Cuba, complete with delicious frozen Daiquiris, served by the charming head bartender of 25 years, Alejandro Bolivar Rodriguez.

If anything, BCB was a shining light on the huge, continued importance of educational experiences for drinks companies. Our own homegrown events (including our own excellent Whisky Live) and other trade/consumer shows can really learn something from how simple but genuine, highly interactive concepts lead to lasting relationships between brands and the consumer - more often than not via the influential members of the bartending community. For any brands who don't see the point in these shows, you'd be advised to jump on a flight to Berlin for next year's event and see how BCB is the convention that breaks with convention.
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