Patrick Fogarty, who runs Dr Ink’s Curiosities, an award-winning cocktail bar in Exeter, estimates that 10,000 people have taken his virtual masterclasses since they started last March. “Everybody is looking for something to do. We have never been busier,” he said.
Desperate to relieve lockdown boredom, many people in the UK and across the world have turned to virtual tastings, which have soared in popularity over the past 12 months.
Tens of thousands of Britons are going online to be guided by experts on the flavours and aromas of a range of products, including cheese, chocolate, cocktails, mead and honey, as well as the more traditional whisky, cider, beer and wine.
Fogarty started Stir Crazy when the pandemic hit, and made his existing management team business partners. They send out boxes of ready-made cocktails – and also small bottles of spirits so that people can make their own concoctions, guided by Fogarty on YouTube. The team sent out 60 boxes for their first masterclass; within weeks, it was 600.
Soon, companies got in touch wanting corporate events. Now, the team runs a monthly session for the public that sees hundreds attend, as well as private tastings. Other businesses are also capitalising on the concept. “We were the first to do online masterclasses. Now there’s a plethora of them,” said Fogarty.
Hundreds of miles further north in York, Love Cheese, a small independent shop, started running online cheese tastings in March. They sent out 60 boxes with a range of cheeses and small bottles of alcohol. Now they send up to 400. Jordan Thomson, general manager, thinks about 12,000 people have taken part in their public and corporate tastings. “It’s gone astronomical, considering we’re a small shop in York. It’s been amazing,” he said. The shop used to run sell-out tastings before lockdown, but only 25 to 30 people could attend. “Virtual events have given us a chance to reach the masses rather than being constrained by the physical limitations of the shop,” he added.
In London, Jennifer Earle, who runs Chocolate Ecstasy Tours and is a judge for various chocolate-related awards, started doing remote chocolate tastings in June last year. She first thought she would do one or two events, but demand was so great that she now runs an online tasting every month with a special guest. She said: “I’m coming up to the 11th one and there have been between 50 to 100 people on all of them.”
In October, she switched to tasting filled chocolates instead of bars because a lot of other businesses had also starting running remote chocolate tastings. In each class there are at least 10 people who live abroad; attendees have come from Dubai, Hong Kong, California, and almost every European country.
Agnes Tyburn, a scientist and founder of Beesitter, which aims to educate people about bees, has also seen an international dimension to her virtual honey tastings on Zoom.
Tyburn, who is based in Cambridge, ships her tasting boxes, which include five types of honey from small, sustainable beekeepers and two types of cheese, all over the UK and Europe. There’s also been interest from the US. She limits her monthly sessions to 15 people, and all have sold out.
Tom Gosnell, of Gosnells, has adapted the format of his mead tastings since the first lockdown was imposed. He started them on Instagram Live but now runs public sessions monthly on Zoom; about 40 people came to the last one, he said. More than 1,000 people have attended additional private tastings.
No one plans on stopping online tastings, despite the prospect of Covid restrictions easing over the next few months. Earle said: “People will still be looking for things to do without leaving the house. People are enjoying connecting with others who live in different parts of the country or the world. As long as there is interest, I will keep them going.”