Forced tasting room closures, slower than desired reopening plans and understandably nervous consumers have made this year a trying one for most craft distillers. As with any challenge, however, there comes opportunity. And the great big opportunity of 2020 in craft spirits is going virtual! In our recent article, “5 Reasons Why Virtual Experiences Should Be A Permanent Tool In Your Marketing Toolbox,” we explained why these virtual events are so valuable. Done right, virtual experiences drive real sales, grow your audience, increase brand awareness, help you engage more efficiently with your existing audience, provide broader consumer access to your maker and build that all-important community.

Sounds pretty good, right? Even if your tasting room is starting to open back up, it’s likely going to be a while until visitors and sales return to where they once were. And let’s be honest, weren’t you looking for ways to increase visitors and sales before any of this craziness even started? Whether you’re using virtual events to simply fill the gap until life gets back to “normal” or you see the opportunity to use virtual events to grow your brand even when your tasting room is back in full swing, it’s important to just start doing them. So, let’s get tactical and talk about six virtual event ideas to grow and bring to life your brand.

Virtual Tasting Experiences

This is, honestly, where most people want to start. At first blush, it seems like the most obvious way to replicate the tasting room experience virtually. And it can be! If — and this is a big if — you have a way to let consumers buy smaller-sized bottles so they truly can taste through a few different items. This can be 50ml mini bottle kits or 200ml bottle sampler packs, but it’s important to realistically recognize that most people aren’t going to buy multiple full-size bottles to participate in a virtual tasting. It’s expensive and risky if they’re new to your brand.

Since getting spirits into smaller-sized bottles is challenging, this is often where people get overwhelmed and give up. But trust me, as someone who has helped sell over 5,000 mini bottles of craft spirits to more than 700 consumers in the past four months alone, it’s a path worth pursuing — not only to enable virtual tastings, but to make many of the other ideas we’ll be addressing more broadly appealing as well. Think about it: trial is one of the hardest parts of selling craft spirits. Miniatures will not only help you create great virtual tasting events, but they’ll be invaluable for trial opportunities in your tasting room and other in-person events as well.

Start exploring smaller bottles now and set yourself up for success virtually and in-person. Then, host virtual tasting experiences for different combinations of your spirits centered around a theme. Send guests a digital tasting mat that indicates which items you’ll be tasting in which order, include a branded template for them to take notes on, a tasting flavor/aroma wheel and whatever else you think might be helpful for them to have on hand while you walk them through your spirits. And don’t forget that special promo code to encourage full-bottle sales after the event!

Cocktail Classes

Next up, and a little more full-bottle friendly, are cocktail classes. This is usually the next natural thought for most craft distilleries, especially if you’re looking for ways to keep your tasting room staff busy during tasting room closures. Consumers love cocktails, and learning how to become a home mixologist is more important and appealing than ever, so take advantage of that!

Keep in mind, though, only the most dedicated consumers will go buy 20 ingredients and make special trips to specialty stores to participate in a full-blown cocktail class. When you’re getting started, keep it simple. Create cocktails using common ingredients people likely have at home or can easily be picked up on their next trip to the grocery store. Our mixology class is one of our most popular offerings, and we keep it high-level by simply teaching how to make sours, fizzes and highballs. Why? Because all they need is citrus, simple syrup, soda water, an egg and maybe some bitters to make all three cocktails. Guests can use whichever spirit they’re in the mood for, which helps them learn how to make cocktails themselves rather than teaching them one specific recipe. Keep it simple, start small and expand your cocktail creations as you build enthusiasm and a following in your cocktail-making community. And, always send them detailed shopping lists and ideal tools to have on hand in advance.

Behind the Scenes Tours with the Maker

If you offered tours when your tasting room was open, then you already know how much people love them. Why not offer virtual tours with the distiller either leading the tour or being “caught in action” making one of your spirits during the tour? Structure each tour as the story of one particular spirit and use that as your guide. Encourage people to buy that bottle in advance and then learn how it came to be on your virtual tour. For a gin tour, go deep on the botanical selection and your particular method of infusing those botanicals. For a whiskey tour, perhaps dive into the mash bill and tell the story of each particular grain’s contribution.

The only watch-out on this one is to make sure you have cleanly captured video and audio. A jerky, jittery, barely audible livestream or movie is no fun for anyone. Get a Bluetooth microphone for the host and, at the very least, have something attached to the phone or camera (like a selfie stick, short tripod or ideally a gimbal stabilizer if you’ll be doing these often) so it’s easier for the person recording to hold and move smoothly.

New Release Parties

Have a new release? Sell those bottles in preparation for a virtual release party! These can be more casual in nature and include elements from any of the previous ideas we’ve already shared. Maybe you do a little section on tasting notes up front, then have some general party and catch-up time, followed by a fun cocktail to make with this new spirit. You can also work in raffle prizes, trivia and more to simulate whatever a new release party would really feel like in your tasting room. The key here is to use this virtual event to create buzz and get people excited to be the first to try your new spirit with you!

Barrel Selection Programs

If you sell full barrels to consumers or trade, using virtual events to host barrel selection events can be an incredibly high value use of your time. This is, again, where having the ability to create and send mini bottles is crucial. Letting guests invite their friends to taste through 3–5 different barrels to select the exact one they want to purchase when it’s ready is fun, exclusive and allows you to keep these types of programs going strong.

In the same vein, make sure to consider taking your sales calls virtual as well. Many craft distillers who are doing this have been getting amazing feedback from the trade… some even saying they prefer this virtual format to the old “drop-in” format that used to be so prevalent. Scheduling and sending their well-designed tasting kits in advance (full of all of your sales materials, of course!) ensures better focus on you and your brand while also being respectful of their time.

Corporate Events

Lastly, if you can tap into the corporate community locally and showcase your brand as a way to host engaging virtual events for their employees, clients and potential clients, this can be a huge win. Honestly, this alone has tripled the size of my own business this year. Big companies have engagement and entertainment challenges to solve, money to spend and a desire to do something unique. Add in the local small business support angle and it’s a win-win. Again, mini bottles are your best friend for this, if you can make that happen. Otherwise, focus on cocktail classes that feature one of your spirits, plus a cocktail box that has all of the other ingredients needed to make the cocktails featured.

If you don’t actually want to host the corporate events yourself, partner with someone who already does corporate events. You get the local corporate clients on board to do an event with your products and then pull in the event hosts to do all of the heavy lifting. You simply coordinate getting the product to guests locally. That gives you the benefit of corporate event sales without actually putting resources behind hosting corporate events yourself.

A Few Final Considerations

Whenever hosting virtual events, there are a few common things to keep in mind to elevate your experiences and truly make people excited for the next one. First, make space for guests to engage, talk and ask questions. If your event is planned for an hour, only have 35 minutes of content. This is an experience designed to engage and connect with your guests, not a show they’re simply there to watch.

Similarly, whenever possible, host your events on a platform that allows everyone to see everyone else, unmute themselves and chat so that they can engage fully and really feel like they’re at a social event.

Third, you don’t have to do this all on your own. Partner with other brands locally and even consider joining forces with other local distilleries for more expansive gin tastings or whiskey tastings. Bonus? You get access to each other’s audiences and help promoting the event!

Lastly, to charge or not to charge? It’s a tough question. We’re personally big believers in trial over event fees. I would much rather my guests spend their money to try a brand’s craft spirits than spend their money to attend an event. Best-case scenario would be to charge a nominal fee to attend the event but waive that fee if they buy a bottle or kit from you so it entices them to buy and attend rather than just attend without buying. That being said, be inclusive and let guests who don’t have your spirits join as well. Then do your best to make them super jealous that they don’t have it during the event and offer a promo code at the end to entice further sales.

While we’re all anxious for our world to get back to the reality we once knew and loved, virtual events are here to stay. And for that we should all be thankful. Taking the time to build your virtual program now will pay off for years to come if done right. Never before have craft distillers had such direct access to their consumers… so let’s take advantage of that to grow your brand.