Why do we travel to other countries? To learn about different histories and cultures, and meet all kinds of people. That’s how I felt about joining the Single Malt Appreciation Club (SMAC); to learn about the history and culture of whiskies and meet people from different walks of life, and I’m delighted to be doing both,” beams Raghav Sharma, 39, an educator and business owner from Gurugram.
Sharma is among the growing tribe of Indians who have joined various liquor appreciation clubs to learn more about their favourite libations and socialise with their fellow enthusiasts. However, as it did with everything else, the pandemic has thrown a spanner in the works, with in-person events and tastings having to be “diluted” into an online format. “I joined in the first week of March, but because of the pandemic, have not been able to attend any physical sessions, and can’t wait for that,” notes Sharma.
“Tastings are a completely sensory experience, and in a virtual session, more than half that experience is wiped out immediately. Someone else and I may be tasting the same wine over a screen, but they are not physically in front of me. I cannot see their eyes as well as the glass, how it hits their palate,” explains Magandeep Singh, India’s top sommelier, who adds laughingly, “You are essentially doing a tasting with a thumbnail.”
And indeed, that seems to be the nub of the issue. “We were lucky that we had two flagship events at just the right time, one right before the pandemic hit last year, and one this year just before the second wave,” notes Hemanth Rao, Founder, Single Malt Appreciation Club (perhaps India’s most pedigreed club, having started a decade ago, and now boasting close to 4,000 members across the world), admitting, “But otherwise yes, it has been extremely challenging to keep people engaged in what is essentially a social gathering for likeminded individuals when everyone is under lockdown.
Usually, these are events have people from all over coming together to celebrate their spirit of choice, and it’s a very physical, visceral feeling, which is nearly impossible to replicate online.” Rao says they have been compelled to improvise, much like any other liquor appreciation club in India. “We have been having a lot of online events where we pair similar whiskeys with cheese, or chocolate, or Indian food. Because it’s online, you can’t keep people engaged just with one type of spirit over an extended period,” explains Rao, noting that this is what most clubs have been doing.
It is because of this Singh has largely stepped away from the majority of tastings and sessions, “Unless, I am assured of the integrity of the concept, of the virtual platform we’ll be using and that I can actually provide something of value to a discerning audience.” When he does hold sessions, Singh has changed his perspective from what restaurants, industry insiders, and other stakeholders want to know to what people at home want to know, like glassware, tasting notes and more. One of the these virtual and hybrid event service providers is VouchPro that enables wineries, individuals and clubs to hold tastings and sessions through their 3D immersive technology.
Indeed, VouchPro recently performed the logistically mind-boggling feat for a leading winery in the country and helped a organise an event with over 1,000 participants across the globe, who were sent wines before a virtual tasting session. In these tastings, the hosts walked the attendees through each wine, including tasting notes, the creation process, and ideal pairing ideas. “By using VouchPro’s advanced virtual event platform, the audience was able to enjoy exclusive wine tasting sessions with experts, a virtual tour of the vineyard facility, specially curated musical concerts, and other unique sessions from the comfort of their homes,” gloats Anubhav Bajpai, CEO & Co-founder, who says that other clubs, be they gin or beer or wine, are also availing the service.
However, the online medium, note both Singh and Rao, has allowed a number of under and unqualified ‘charlatans’ to profess expertise and hold virtual sessions for the uninformed. “We supplement our sessions with debates, competitions within group members and also in-depth conversations with industry leaders, master distillers, marketers and brand ambassadors to tell their stories and learnings so that it’s not just about a single spirit, but history and culture,” concludes Rao. Just what Mr Sharma wanted, as i t turns out.