Virtual crocheting, Zoom pilates and online museum tours are things we swiftly came to expect from 2020 and there appear to be no limits to the activities consumers can access via a screen.

In the drinks world the biggest events of 2020 were all crossed off the calendar in quick succession and the traditional format of networking, tasting and presenting new products became defunct, seemingly overnight.

Within days, events were switched to an online format and producers, retailers and experts found innovative ways to reach their audiences.

World Cocktail Day, World Tequila Day and World Whisky Day are just some of the drinks calendar events that went online this year.

There were whisky festivals, live rum tastings, podcasts, at-home masterclasses, Instagram Live tasting sessions, and virtual happy hours.

But did any of these attract enough attention to boost awareness or sales?

The drinks industry is resilient and adaptable, as past weeks have shown, and there are signs some of the online events have resonated with fans.

In the early days of lockdown an idea shared by English wine producer Black Chalk’s Jacob Leadley evolved into a social media concept #theBIGenglishwinegoodfriday.

Many producers worked together to encourage consumers to order a bottle of English or Welsh wine in time for Good Friday, with vineyards across the country subsequently registering a spike in sales.

Online retailers were, by their nature, in a good position to adapt to lockdown, and while the initial surge in demand took many by surprise, it wasn’t long before this off-trade channel pushed forward with virtual events.

The Wine Society’s members have enjoyed a number of Zoom sessions over the past weeks but a Lebanese tasting was one of its most popular, with 1,200 members joining head buyer Pierre Mansour at home and Gaston Hochar in Lebanon for a Chateau Musar masterclass, followed by a Q&A session. Impressively, the retailer estimated that 900 bottles of Chateau Musar were opened during the event. Another expert online retailer, the Whisky Exchange, was quick to launch a series of online tastings and talks.

While the networking and camaraderie of a whisky festival are hard to recreate in a virtual space, being able to connect with distilleries from around the world – including India’s Amrut, Israel’s Milk & Honey and Japan’s Miyagikyo – is surely a bonus for many whisky lovers.

The retailer also found a neat way to connect with consumers while driving sales by offering the chance to buy specially-curated Perfect Measure sample packs for each session from its website in advance.

Over the past few years there has been a surge of interest from consumers in learning about wine and spirits, and the virtual education space works well for these categories.

Other drinks have also successfully dipped into the online community. Ciderologist Gabe Cook held the World’s Biggest Cider Tasting Event in May, which he says was a resounding, global success.

The event had 800 followers from 26 countries, who watched Cook presenting live on his Instagram channel. He spoke to 18 cidermakers from 14 countries, representing six continents, in under 60 minutes. 

Cidermakers from Brazil, the US, Norway, Australia, Japan and South Africa all highlighted their different styles and heritage.
Cook said: “To see so many friends, and previous unknown people alike, tuning in to the broadcast was wonderful. The world of cider continues to grow bigger and stronger and I am so proud to be a part of this global community.”

Others are offering a more personalised service. Waitrose, for example, offers virtual wine or gin tastings at home, with a Waitrose expert introducing each drink to online groups.

And Diageo has a Virtual Good Host Guide for get-togethers. The concept uses a series of short animations to provide top tips, from encouraging hosts to pick a theme for their online celebrations to planning the perfect shared playlist.

Dayalan Nayager, managing director of Diageo GB, said UK holiday periods and weekends “are traditionally spent with family and friends and so as we all navigate the challenges caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, we want to provide tips to help people be successful virtual hosts instead”.

He added: “This guide serves up great tips in an accessible format and will help people make positive and responsible choices about alcohol at home”.