When it comes to enjoying food and drink, nutrition and sustenance generally take a back seat to taste and smell. For those in whisky consulting, a sharp sense of smell doesn’t just enhance their enjoyment; it dictates their entire livelihood.
In the face of a virus that threatens the loss of these important senses, World Whisky Day Founder and Whisky Consultant Blair Bowman has taken drastic action to protect his health and career. Since March 2020, he’s been living an existence dictated by the first pandemic lockdown, leaving his house only for essential supplies and daily exercise.
This has resulted in a much-altered landscape for Blair, whose pre-pandemic career involved distillery tours, in-person tastings and flights to meetings across the world. He now conducts whisky consulting entirely remotely – yet despite the spirit’s traditionally sociable nature, the shift to online working has sparked a business boom for Blair.
He explains the pros and cons of online working, and what the future of whisky consulting could look like in a post-pandemic world.
Navigating online networking
Since COVID-19 forced us all inside – and online – we’re all agreed that there’s no real replacement for in-person events. This is especially true when it comes to connecting with new people. “I think the thing I miss most is the spontaneity and serendipity,” says Blair. “Not just in whisky, but in the wider world. You can be introduced to unexpected people, and you just never know where that can lead to. While those opportunities are still there, they’re harder to encounter when working online. Now, connections tend to happen through referrals, which is great but much less spontaneous.”
Blair also misses the long lunches he’d have with people, which helped him to build a bond and establish trust. “I’d sit down with clients, or potential clients, and we’d really get to know each other and discuss a wide range of different subjects – in addition to whisky. There’s nothing that really replaces the connections you build through spending extended in-person time together,” he says.
The tasting process at home
While networking may be a little more stilted than it used to be, the mechanics of whisky tasting itself have remained somewhat unaltered. Although many distilleries have specially designated areas in which to taste whisky, Blair argues that the process is filled with variables.
“The taste of a whisky today and the taste of it tomorrow will change because of all the different ways our senses work,” he explains. “I’m careful not to be in an environment where there are other strong smells present, but I don’t need to be in a clinical laboratory space. Often when I’m writing tasting notes for clients, I prefer to do it before lunchtime, just when my palette is a little bit fresher and awake.”
Arguably, tasting from home can even allow for a more consistent process. “You’re always in the same environment, using the same glassware,” Blair explains. “While there’s something very special about tasting a whisky in the place where it was made, and the memories and connections that come out of that, tasting at home is no different to being in a bar or a pub. Sometimes there may be subtle environmental differences, but it’s mainly about not being overwhelmed with strong smells.”
Hosting tastings is a large part of whisky consulting, and while the tasting itself is possible from home, hosting the virtual meetings can be a challenge. Blair still organises these for private clients, but tries to stick to a maximum of eight people which allows everyone to talk, albeit not as freely as they would normally be able to, he admits.
The age of hyper-efficiency
While the social aspect of Blair’s lifestyle has become much more limited, it’s revealed some incredibly strong benefits from a work perspective. “I’ve become hyper-efficient – I’m able to squeeze in many more meetings than I ever could before,” he explains. “The time I used to spend searching for parking spaces and navigating transport is mine again. Working remotely, I can literally travel around the world in the space of a day. I can start with Asia-based clients, then move to Europe and America over the course of the day.
“Before, we just weren’t cut out for this way of working. Now that everyone’s much more used to having virtual chats, I can have initial discussions with potential clients over Zoom to cover any pressing details.”
With the advent of online working, the world is being forced to challenge the status quo. Slowly, we’re realising that in-person meetings no longer have to be the de facto way of doing things, and a lot of our communication can be carried out just as efficiently through a screen.
“The world has really opened up for me in a different sense,” says Blair. “It’s made me realise that where I’m based doesn’t matter, as long as there’s a stable wifi connection. It’s nice to be based in Scotland because of its history with whisky, but nothing is stopping me from moving elsewhere and working remotely.”