William Grant and Sons' 1887 virtual bar: Interview with Glenfiddich and Hendrick's Gin's brand ambassadors

William Grant and Sons' 1887 virtual bar: Interview with Glenfiddich and Hendrick's Gin's brand ambassadors

Counter with a glass

Text: Janice Sim

We're currently living in an unprecedented time, where McDonald's took a few weeks off and birthday gatherings in the flesh would be deemed against the law. Looking back, things certainly did take a wild turn since the first COVID-19 case in Singapore was reported. Since the start of April when the circuit breaker took effect, businesses all around have taken a sizable hit. Restaurants and bars are devoid of dine-in customers, and in place, are only takeaway and delivery orders left up to the hands of the people staying in at home.

Of course, it is in these times of distress that we being humans counter the situation by putting our heads together. Many creative initiatives have since been birthed, and one of them has been running successfully since the announcement of the circuit breaker measures. The name is 1887 Virtual Bar, a digital platform by William Grant & Sons to raise funds for their bar partners to stay open. Every Thursday, every session on Zoom will feature live guest shifts with bartenders from our city's favourite drinking holes on rotation. Apart from inviting fellow imbibers to come online in an interaction bar-like activation, the cocktails showcased will be available on sale through a ticketing platform. In exchange, a digital drink coupon will be handed out for you to redeem once all bars resume normal operations. WG&S will match every dollar, which will go to their respective bar partners. And while every Thursday night at the 1887 Virtual Bar shines the spotlight on different bartenders and tipples, brand ambassdor of Hendrick's Gin, Charmaine Thio and brand ambassador of Glenfiddich, Brett Bayly remain to be permanent fixtures of the enterprising initiative. Below, they share more about 1887 Virtual Bar, overcoming technical difficulties, and what they are drinking in isolation.

Since the restrictions on the bar closures, how has it really affected the industry and business in general?
CT: Without a doubt, it's been quite a wild ride for the F&B community. It goes without saying that every bar's business has been affected in some significant way. I was just having a chat with a couple of bar owners and even before the restrictions were put into place, business already dipped from about 15 to 25%, particularly if they were quite tourist-dependent. So you can imagine things are exponentially worse now that you can't even serve any guests at all. Many bars have set up online sales solutions which are fantastic and they're offering meals and bottled cocktails for takeaway in response to the whole dine-in restriction. But the reality of it is that many of them may not be able to ride out the storm. It's definitely more important now, with the extension of the circuit breaker, that if you really enjoy these outlets and venues, you should support them by purchasing directly from them when they're offering these takeaway-delivery meals.

How did the idea of 1887 Virtual Bar come together?
CT: The idea of 1887 Virtual Bar was conceived during the first wave of bar closures in Singapore where any cocktail bars that didn't have a kitchen had to shut — no questions asked. While at that point of time, dine-ins at certain establishments were still allowed, the forced closure was a very real possibility. So the teams wanted to make sure we had some kind of idea that would help those without a choice but to close. I think it took us about two to three weeks to get all the basic mechanics in place and to find suitable hosting platforms. Most of the time was spent finding the right platform, how to go about selling cocktails, whether we were going to do the deliveries or not. However, in terms of getting bars interested and signing up, it didn't take that long at all. I think one of the great things about the 1887 Virtual Bar is that it is a platform for F&B enthusiasts who can afford to continue purchasing food and drinks from outlets that they want to support. WG&S is also doing that matching programme where every cocktail that you buy, we match dollar for dollar, up to S$1,000 per bar. So that's a great way for them to generate the cash flow and help bars with their business.

Virtual 1887 Bar

Were there any challenges you guys faced at the beginning?
BB: Yeah, absolutely. Any time that we're engaging tech of any format, questions like lighting, sound, and Internet connection were some things that came up. What people don't see during these sessions, though Charmaine and I get a lot of credit for, is that we also have a team who sits behind. We've got moderators who are constantly watching the chat, we've got our brand managers that are sitting there to spot and take care of technical issues. So there is a lot that happens that viewers don't see, and I think we're really fortunate that we were able to get on top of that really quickly with the company having relevant assets on hand, like ring lights and webcams that we can actually get delivered out to the venues.

There were a few little hurdles but overall, we would take it as a learning process. This isn't something that we had in the pipeline as it wasn't something anyone was really thinking of, so for us to activate very quickly was a bit of a scramble but it was a lesson to learn through every single session.

It's been more than a month now since the 1887 Virtual Bar opened. How has the reception been like?
BB: For myself personally, I was a little bit shocked in a really positive way. We expected there would be good attraction given that it wasn't so much one of us alone trying to push this. There was a positive response initially from the bars where they were happy to get onboard with this. This was a platform for us to advertise our brands and go brand-heavy with it, but it was also very much about supporting the industry. So far, what we've managed to do is hit the target for the allocations of S$1,000 that WG&S will match. We've managed to hit that on every single session that we've done, which is brilliant. That means there is serious money going into these bars during their closure and it's giving them a platform to advertise their cocktail delivery services while getting their names out.

We've been really fortunate and that's why we're really trying to pursue this throughout the entire period of lockdown. We just did a live session in the Philippines last week as well so now we've extended it there. Coming up next week we're going to Malaysia and we're doing our second session in Philippines. There's also been some inclination that we might extend this to the other regions that WG&S tailors to so our little Singapore-based project is extended for a holistic purpose for the greater community.

Brett Bayly

Now that we're all stuck at home, what are you guys constantly making and drinking? 
BB: Charmaine and I are very different. I'm not a big gin drinker, which is obvious why I work for the whisky brand. For myself, I usually only keep campari and vermouth in my fridge as I do prefer classic, fuss free cocktails. Currently, I'm drinking highballs that's been my go-to because it's just whisky and soda, and it's genuinely a favourite of mine.

CT: Brett and I are actually not all that different [laughs]. Honestly highballs are a huge staple in this household mostly because I'm lazy and I don't want to go through the fuss of pulling out all the equipment and juicing a lemon. Most of the time, it's scotch or a gin and soda, but apart from that, when I am making cocktails, it's usually a martini. It involves two ingredients and I don't have to shake anything. I also have an IGTV series called Martini Mondays, so that guarantees one martini every Monday, sometimes two if I goof off a shot.

Charmaine Thio

After this circuit breaker and once life goes back to normal, how do you think these few months of being in quarantine will change the drink industry?
CT: The agility of bars coming up with creative solutions in light of the situation has been very impressive, and one of those would be the cocktail delivery system. That should be something to remain so now people will have more options as compared to just buying a bottle of wine for their house parties. More and more bars are going to be offering cocktails for takeaway on a permanent basis. We've seen this already happening in China so it's likely that it'll stay here in Southeast Asia as well.

BB: Yeah I think that this is an interesting period that will end up reflecting as almost an historical point for the F&B industry. What we've essentially seen is sort of the first proper step into ecommerce. The pizza delivery guy has been a staple since the 70s and 80s. We've had delivery apps for food like Deliveroo and FoodPanda since forever. What we're now seeing is the transition of an experience of being out and dining with all the elements to reside in our homes. Previously it has only been retail, now this has really been that first step to how we can recreate that experience from home without bringing in a caterer or all the extra expenses to it.

For more information on the 1887 Virtual Bar, click here.