Co-founder of SPUN Spirits, Matthew Fergusson-Stewart spent over 17 years in the whisky industry and more than five years as a whisky brand ambassador (in fact he still spends some time doing brand ambassadorial work for spirits companies). He shares his tips on how to run a spirits masterclass.
Having spent years as a whisky brand ambassador, I have not just hosted a lot of tastings, I’ve also been to as many tastings hosted by other people as I possibly can. Seeing how other people do the job is a great way to pick up ideas on how to be a better Brand Ambassador myself.
Here, i want to share some of the things I most commonly see done wrong, and not just highlight, but explain why they should not be done and how you can do it better. While my examples may be whisky-centric, the principles apply to all drink categories.
1. Get them a drink quickly.
The cardinal sin – talking for half an hour before anyone gets served a drink. I know your brand story is very important, but your guests are there to drink, and they want to get started. If you must do a fat chunk of brand chat before you start actually tasting, give them a highball or cocktail to go on with.
That said, you are always better off breaking up your brand chat and using different drinks to illustrate different points.
2. Mix education with entertainment.
If I wanted comedy, I’d go see a comedy show. If I wanted a dull history lesson, I’d go back to high school. What I actually want at a whisky tasting is to learn something about the whisky AND have a good time.
To make your tasting memorable and engaging you need to mix education and entertainment. The exact mix depends on your audience – more entertainment for beginners, more education for the geeks, but always a bit of both. Chances are your audience will be a mixture of experience levels, so mixing entertainment and education ensures everyone comes away with something.
3. Engage your audience, physically, verbally.
Have you ever seen a host repeatedly asking if anyone has any questions at the end and getting no response? Chances are, that host hadn’t engaged the audience with questions of their own. Ask questions of your audience at least several times, starting early in your session. You’re the one who decides whether your tasting is one way or two way communication, but it’s hard to flip from one way to two way right at the end.
That covers verbal engagement. But physical engagement is important too. By getting physical I don’t mean physically touching your audience, of course! But do get them to lift the glass and look at the colour or nose the whisky. Perhaps even show them some nosing techniques and encourage them to do it with you. They’ll end up having a better time if they don’t sit entirely still for an hour.
4. Don’t buy your own marketing BS, find your truth.
If you simply regurgitate a brand story, I don’t find you credible. Oh, your “whisky is aged to perfection by skilled craftsmen”? Tell me which brands will get up and say “some new intern does all our maturation and frankly it’s a bit shit”?
Your marketing team will always wax lyrical about maturation. But what do you personally find to be truthful about the brand messaging? Take that and run with it, because it comes from the heart. Then I’ll believe you. I don’t need another story about the finest oak. I need real points of difference to help your brand come alive in my mind.
5. Learn how to deal with noisy people.
They’ve had a few drinks and they’re getting a bit noisy while you’re trying to do your job. It’s to be expected, but it can be frustrating. The bad ways to deal with it are to just get louder, or to just speak to the people sitting close to you who appear to be listening while ignoring the noisy back half of the room.
Some better ways to deal with it are:
- Get their attention back with your words and movement
- Move around the room and stand right next to the noisy group
- Ask someone at the noisy table a question like ‘what did you think of that one sir?’
6. Pick one key brand message, mention it (at least) three times.
You might have worked for a very long time on how you deliver your content, but people will come away with just two things:
- A general impression of the tasting – was it great or did it suck?
- A maximum of one or two key points that you shared
Assuming you’re only going to get them to remember one key point – you decide what that point is. Choose your key message and make it a thread that is repeated several times throughout the session. Make it believable, make it consistent, make it resonate with everything else you tell them. It doesn’t hurt to be explicit and say “If you only remember one thing I say tonight, remember this…”
7. Front load the most important content.
The fact is you’re giving people alcohol and it will get harder to hold their attention the further they get into the evening. It is therefore important to front load the content you really want them to hear. Of course, you have to balance that against the cardinal rule above – don’t make them wait too long for the first drink. If they’re five drams in and you finally start introducing your key point, no one is going to take it in. Introduce it early, repeat it often.
8. The set piece, not a script.
Do not use a script, do not use cue cards, do not memorise your speech. You will not be engaging and you will be too rigid to respond to the audience. Instead, have a strong intro, have some ‘go to’ questions to ask your audience, and have some stories or anecdotes ready to roll. If you have set stories ready to roll, you’ll never get stuck looking for something to say, it won’t matter if you forget where you are up to, you’ll be able to tailor your content to your audience, and you’ll be ready to go if the event organiser asks you to stretch time.
Some of my favourite set pieces are based on some of my most common questions.
- How should we look after our whisky bottles?
- How should we drink our whisky?
9. Avoid microphones.
Obviously if you’re in a stadium of 40,000 people, you’ll need a sound system. But if you’re in a room of 40 people, learn to project and engage. More often than not, the problem isn’t that you’re not loud enough. It’s probably that your audience is too noisy, and they are noisy because you are not engaging them! If they are not engaged, increasing your volume will only cause them to increase theirs and there’s not a sound system that can save you. Keep a lively pace and speak as though you are speaking to the person in the back corner.
If you absolutely must use a microphone, for the love of whisky, please do your sound checks before the event starts.
10. Know your audience.
How much do they know about whisky? Are they consumers, bartenders, media, or trade? If you don’t know those things, how will you know what content to serve up? If it’s too simple or too advanced, they’ll get bored and you’ll lose them. Thankfully, one of the points above comes in handy. Ask them questions… Do they like whisky? Any collectors? Anyone been on a distillery tour? Anyone tried this whisky before? Not only are you starting a two-way engagement, you’re learning what level of content to share, what set pieces to use, how much education versus entertainment to use.
I’ve sat in consumer tastings where a slide pops up showing their pricing model for trade. Not only is this completely irrelevant, it’s embarrassing. You’re in a bar, and you’re telling your audience what the bar pays for the bottle they are drinking (and hence the premium they are paying over that price!).
Sort your stuff out before you start.
11. PowerPoint must die.
While I’m on the topic of slides, never do a consumer tasting with them. For training sessions in the trade they can be very useful, but they are terrible for consumer tastings. They are not engaging. They put the focus on a screen, not on you, and certainly not on the drinks in front of them. Sure, show a brand video, show a production video, show your interactive brand experience, but bring them back to you afterwards. You’re not a teacher in a school. You’re a whisky brand ambassador, an advocate in a bar and you want people to have a great time.
12. Turn questions into talking points.
Audience member up the front: Is this aged in a sherry butt?
Amateur host: Yes it is.
Experienced host: The gentlemen in front here has just asked if this whisky was aged in a sherry butt, and it’s a great question. It is aged in sherry butts, which I think the gentleman already suspected because it has a rich, mahogany colour. We use different types of casks to age whisky and the different casks can give different aroma, flavour and colour.
The amateur host took himself out of the room by answering a question no one else heard, and not one person learned anything they can apply ever again. The experienced host pulled the question into the room and taught the whole audience something about making whisky.
13. Move around.
If you’re reading this, you probably already know that speaking in a monotone will bore your audience. They’ll likely tune out. Keeping your feet firmly rooted in one spot and ensuring your elbows never stop touching your rib cage is the physical equivalent of a monotone voice. Your lack of movement becomes seen as a lack of energy and your audience will get bored. You can’t be constantly running up and down the aisle, but you do need to move around.
14. Educate on category as well as brand.
I get it, you represent a brand. You need to look after your employer by showing off that brand. But – to use a cliché – a rising tide lifts all boats, and part of your job is not just to promote your brand, but to enthuse people on the entire category. Rarely are drinkers completely brand loyal. Rather than fight this, you should lean into it. Become a de facto category ambassador and you’ll be more widely respected by the wider drinking community, which will make your voice more powerful. No one listens to an obvious brand shill.
15. It’s okay not to know.
I’ve seen hosts given a question where they quite clearly don’t know the answer so they ‘guess’ and give a wrong answer. In whisky, my strongest category, misinformation has been circulating in many areas for many years, and it is often propagated by ambassadors who continually give wrong answers.
Depending on the question there are a few ways of dealing with something you don’t know the answer to. If asked the diameter of your stills (yes this happens) you can quip back with “it’s a trade secret” or ‘”are you trying to replicate our product at home?”. Trying to estimate based on the time you visited the distillery is going to be wrong. My favourite way to respond to a question you don’t know the answer to is “I don’t know, but I’ll find out”. After the tasting, get their card and then get back to them with the answer. They will remember that for a very long time.
16. It’s not okay to dodge.
Question: Is your whisky chill filtered?
Well, is it? Don’t dodge the question. If it’s not, you don’t want to dodge the question anyway! But if your whisky is chill filtered, the first words out of your mouth should be ‘yes, it is’. Feel free of course to explain why this is done, but don’t explain why it is done first. Answer the damn question first, then turn it into a talking point as discussed above. Looking like you have something to hide reflects poorly on you, and your brand.
17. Pick on people.
We’ve dealt with picking on noisy people with a question to help bring them back into the fold, but the technique is far more useful. If you’ve asked a question and no one has answered, picking on someone is better than standing there looking like no one wants to talk to you.
Host: What do you taste in this whisky?
Host: How about you mam, what does it taste like to you?
That person will almost invariably offer an answer of some kind, but it’s better to pick on one of the more engaged faces in the room. Not only does this technique help your flow and your narrative, it boosts the two-way engagement mentioned earlier and puts you in command of your audience.
To get the humour and engagement going, you can even make someone the butt of a (gentle) joke. Pick a noisier and more extroverted person rather than a wallflower, as they are more likely to laugh with you, and remember that the best comedy punches up, not down. Wherever possible you should thank the person afterwards for ‘helping you out’ with your joke, it will make them feel important and add to their enjoyment of the evening.
18. Say hello to every individual.
Well this is just good manners. But in the time before and after a tasting, get around and speak to as many of the guests as you possibly can. Thank them for their question, thank them for coming, tell them you hope they enjoyed themselves… anything! If you’ve given a formal presentation and then guests are still at their tables, to table to table to introduce yourself and say hello. Have a little bit of banter, then move on to the next table. It’s not hard and it leaves a lasting impression.
Matthew Fergusson-Stewart is an independent whisky expert and the co-founder of SPUN Spirits. Fergusson-Stewart has spent over 17 years in the whisky business, including running The Auld Alliance – which houses Southeast Asia’s largest whisky selection – and spent more than five years as an award-winning brand ambassador for Glenfiddich. In 2016, he was awarded the highly prestigious industry award – Icons of Whisky Scotch Whisky Brand Ambassador of the Year 2017 (rest of the world).
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