While Scotch geeks wax lyrical about "mouthfeel" and the many flavor notes they can pick up in each sip—lemon peel, grass, oak, pebbles—to the novice drinker, a single malt whiskey can taste mostly like a punch in the face.
For some, it takes years to acquire a taste for Scotch. People often first get introduced to it by sniffing their father's glass growing up, or by sampling it with friends who point out the different tastes and smells to look out for. "It's a very social beverage," says Raul Gonzalez, marketing director for The Macallan, a Scotch whiskey company founded in 1824.
Scotch companies generally try to introduce new generations of drinkers to their product by offering tastings that foster this kind of communal experience. The Macallan, for instance, has brand ambassadors all over the U.S. who are on the lookout for people who fit the profile of a whiskey drinker: people with disposable income who might already be foodies. "A considerable part of our marketing budget goes to running experiential events," Gonzalez says. Last year, the brand introduced 20,000 consumers to a free one-hour guided whiskey tasting full of educational tidbits about the whiskey aging process.
But to the average young person, a traditional whiskey tasting may conjure up images of old men in tweed jackets sipping on aged single malts in a country club. While Scotch brands are working hard to make tastings hip and sexy in an effort to appeal to the millennial set— Dewar's, a blended Scotch whiskey brand, recently held a tasting in a trendy L.A. bar with a live DJ set in the background—The Macallan has tried to take an entirely new approach to reaching new drinkers.
Enter the world of the social media Scotch tasting.
Since community is such an integral part of the tasting process, it makes sense to tap into digital tribes that might be interested in Scotch. But trying to translate tastings onto social media has its challenges. "One of the hardest things to do is to explain what something tastes like with text or an image," Gonzalez says.
The Macallan wanted to get creative about enabling people to sample the beverage in Twitter communities, so it has launched an experiment in Twitter tastings. The events mimic in-person tastings; they occur in the evening after work, and are hosted by a guide. The Macallan sends out little tasting kits in the mail, consisting of four-ounce bottles of different drinks and tasting instruction cards. The idea is for participants to follow along and share their thoughts about each. In their recent events, the diverse guest list included chef Thomas Keller, the Scottish actor Kevin McKidd, and the founder of MakeLoveNotPorn, Cindy Gallup, among other non-celebrity Scotch tasters.
"People can talk about what they are feeling and tasting in an environment that isn't formal or stiff," Gonzalez says. And he's not kidding. As people took swigs of The Macallan collectively on Twitter, they proceeded to share thoughts like this:
Besides Twitter, The Macallan is also trying to use Instagram in creative new ways. While it's still not possible to experience smells and tastes on Instagram, the brand thought that the platform would be a good place to modernize traditional tasting notes.
This year, The Macallan released a limited edition Scotch called Edition One that is blended from eight different casks. And since 80% of the flavor of Scotch comes from the cask, The Macallan created eight separate Instagram accounts that offer a visual sense of what each cask brings to the blend. Scotch drinkers who might be interested in the new edition can learn more about it by clicking through the various images to learn about the drink's profile.
While the in-person tastings are able to expose Macallan to thousands of new drinkers, Gonzalez estimates that these social media efforts have managed to reach 8 million consumers. Of course, their engagement with the brand is far more superficial online than at an IRL event. But these efforts also help the brand acquire some street cred, making it seem less stuffy and more approachable. "We want to move Scotch from the library and the fireplace into the world of today," Gonzalez says.