For a spirit so reliant on the slow passage of time and informed by hundreds of years of tradition, it’s perhaps a little surprising that whisky has found itself with a wealth of digitally-inclined acolytes.
It would be even more surprising, though, if the whisky community – a famously outspoken bunch – hadn’t carved a space for itself amongst YouTube’s two billion active users. The platform’s inherent meritocracy has encouraged the rise of a new kind of whisky celebrity, supported and celebrated by social media’s kingmaker – the mythic ‘subscriber’. Those that tend to succeed aren’t backed by a distillery or distributer, and they don’t always have a background in the industry. Most often, they’re passionate whisky lovers just like their viewers.
If you’re not yet familiar with the personalities that have shaped and built YouTube’s whisky community, we’ve gathered five to get you started.
Type ‘whisky review’ into YouTube, and you’ll be met with the grinning face of YouTube’s whisky godfather. When it comes to reviewing drams online, Ralfy (Glasgow’s Ralf Mitchell) is at the top of the game.
With over 1,000 reviews posted to his channel, the undertaker and self-proclaimed ‘whisky anorak’ has won over 120,000 subscribers for his enthusiasm, knowledge, and his ability to share wisdom and opinion without resorting to snobbery. If there’s a whisky you’re curious about, it’s likely that Ralfy’s reviewed a dram in his bothy on the Isle of Man.
“I was viewing other whisky videos back in 2009, and thought that most content was either misleading, naïve or sanitized,” says Ralfy. “The video format worked for me as I looked the part with the bunnet and jacket, and the accent helped too. It’s worked well – 10 years is a long time on YouTube!”
Ralfy’s online longevity comes down to his infectious passion for integrity in whisky-making, and it’s difficult to resist his (always good-humoured) crusade against artificial colouring and chill-filtration. You’ll soon yourself among his army of ‘malt-mates’, and wait with eager anticipation for the next review.
Come for the reviews, stay for the patter.
Roy Duff – the mind behind the Aqvavitae channel and its ‘whisky evangelism’ – is one of the most generous creators in the YouTube whisky community. In his own words: “The whisky world I was enjoying was wonderful, but I had so much to share that I felt hemmed in, claustrophobic even. I couldn’t keep whisky to only me and my friends any longer. I needed to evangelise.”
He bears his claim out, whether he’s sending mystery drams to fellow YouTubers, sharing a drink with guests and fans on his weekly live-streamed ‘vPubs’, or helping whisky newbies with their pronunciation. The ‘Recycled Reviews’ are a treat, seeing him consider the full lifetime of each bottle before it gets a score and is tossed in the glass bin. If you’re looking for a passionate, thoughtful and sometimes emotional look at the world of whisky, Roy’s your man.
With YouTube’s status as an international water-cooler and whisky’s ever-growing popularity overseas, it’s not just Scottish creators who are making an impression in the digital realm. The Whisk(e)y Vault, presented by the Texas-based ‘whisky sommelier’ Daniel Whittington and ‘whisky mooch’ Rex Williams, holds the top spot in terms of subscribers.
Even then, for Daniel, the community has yet to reach its full potential: “Only a few distilleries have truly realised the power [YouTube] has to build a community around their brand. Our channels keep us in direct contact with a group of amazing human beings.”
Daniel is serious about his spirits, and Rex his irreverent sidekick. They’re something like the Laurel and Hardy of the YouTube whisky community, but that doesn’t mean they don’t know what they’re talking about. The pair upload reviews on a near-daily basis, and are an especially good resource for those interested in the world of American whiskey – they do, after all, make some themselves.
The Whisk(e)y Vault crew aren’t the only whisky-loving duo on YouTube. Bart Brunscheen and Scott Brunow – the ‘Scotch Test Dummies’, as they’re known to fans – are as charming and enthusiastic a pair of whisky fans as you’ll come across on the platform. Their motto embodies the approach of whisky YouTubers as a whole: “If you bought it, drink it your way, and don’t be afraid to have a little fun with your whisky.”
The Dummies really shine for their blind tasting shootouts – the ‘Ardbeg Ardpocalypse’ is an enlightening, palate-bending journey through the distillery’s output – and for their collaborations with fellow YouTubers. They’re also regular uploaders of reviews that are made particularly compelling by the pair’s differences in opinion. Scott sits towards the sherry-bomb end of the spectrum, while Bart is a fanatic for smoky peat-reek.
Happily, they find plenty to agree upon.
Canada is well represented in the form of Rob De Santis, host of Whisky in the 6. The Toronto-based creator is among the younger generation of whisky reviewers on YouTube, and is known for his educated, to-the-point reviews. His motivator? Guiding viewers to the perfect bottle. “Knowing that you’ve led someone to their favourite whisky, or…to money better spent, is the reward any whisky-reviewing channel worth his salt should be pursuing,” he says.
The channel is packed with reviews of limited-run whiskies (including a few SMWS bottlings), and he’s not one to let a rare spirit go untasted. His ‘rundown’ series sees Rob taking a deep dive into a specific distillery or theme by tasting what he’s got, then eloquently sharing his notes and observations. It’s an engaging way to learn more about lesser-known bottlings from major distilleries, and is always thoughtfully presented.
SPREADING THE WORD
The rise of the whisky YouTuber may be a fairly recent phenomenon – especially relative to the history of the spirit itself – but its impact is already significant. It’s democratised and demystified the sometimes-intimidating world of whisky by making knowledge accessible and entertaining, and has engaged enthusiasts the world over in lively comment sections. The creators cite this human connection as one of their biggest motivators.
It’s what fuels the Whisk(e)y Vault crew, who say that: “Our direct connection with our community drives our content creation…and gives us a reason to keep pushing forward.”
The Scotch Test Dummies’ Bart echoes this sentiment, and sets his sights on global domination: “I think the majority of the world has no idea how good whisky is, and we hope to change that.”
From Ralfy’s point of view, he and his colleagues are changing that, and their status as independent commentators is intrinsic to their success. For him, ‘it’s a peer-to-peer connect’: “There is simply no argument about YouTube content creating new whisky customers…I see it happening all the time. The reason is simple – new customers feel empowered by advice and opinions that aren’t superficial marketing punts like all the others they’ve seen before!”
Aqvavitae’s Roy puts further weight on the social aspect of the platform, saying that: “The people element is everything. Without the connection, I’d have stopped.” Rob at Whisky in the 6 agrees: “The connection with my audience is what keeps me in the game.”
Between them, from the Isle of Man to Scotland, the US, Canada and beyond, whisky YouTubers are creating communities by initiating new enthusiasts around the clock – and knocking back some fine drams in the process.
This feature is from the February 2020 issue of Unfiltered. The magazine is delivered four times a year to members of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society. To sign up and receive your own copy, visit www.smws.com/whisky-club-membership