This post is a little off-topic for Chocablog. There is chocolate in it, but it’s more of an aside than the main feature. Today I want to talk about bad PR, stereotypes and treatment of the disabled. Oh, and Bowmore whisky.
Yesterday I was invited to attend an event organised by Bowmore Whisky. Not the usual PR event we get invited to – this was open to the public for a small fee – but one that I was invited to (and did not pay for) because chocolatier Paul A Young was involved with it.
The idea seemed fairly simple, a magical exploration of the senses exploring whisky, chocolate and the isle of Islay where Bowmore is made. Sounds fun, but alarm bells started ringing during a last minute conversation with the PR company. I happened to mention that I have some mobility problems, and it was only then that I find out this event was to mainly involve climbing a lot of stairs in the dark.
The event took place in an old town house in East London. A building that is apparently lived in, but has not been modernised in any way. This was supposed to evoke feelings of being on a far-off Scottish Isle where simple luxuries like electric lighting haven’t yet reached. Through creaky floorboards you could see the cellar below, and steep narrow staircases shot off the main reception room, where around 100 people crammed in, waiting for their experience begin. I’d love to show you photos, but we were asked to turn our newfangled electronic devices off – and it was probably far too dark to do so anyway.
For those of you that don’t know me, it’s worth mentioning something about my medical history at this point. I won’t go into detail, suffice to say I have a bone disease called Avascular Necrosis (warning: do not click that link if you’re currently enjoying some chocolate!). It’s similar to arthritis and caused by having had lots of steroid treatments following a couple of kidney transplants and cancer. These days I’m mostly Ok, but the stairs – and the dark – in this place scared me.
Had I been seriously disabled, I would have been unable to take part in the event at all. A minor detail that was missing from any of the public information about it. I wondered if a disabled person who had booked without knowing would simply have been left on the street.
The event began with organisers pinning random objects to people’s lapels. I got a red button, some got feathers, others got strips of tartan. With these objects, people who had paid to experience Bowmore with friends and partners were immediately split up and forced to do the whole event with a group of strangers. Knowing I was going to have difficulty getting around, I ignored my button and decided to stick with my feathered friends. I can imagine others who paid for a shared experience didn’t get to share much at all.
And so we were led down some rickety steps where astronomer Gary Fildes talked to us about the sky. He spoke eloquently for 15 minutes or so about how many stars and galaxies you can see from the island of Islay where Bowmore is distilled. The answer, in case you were wondering, is “quite a lot”. It was an interesting talk, if somewhat basic. It didn’t have much to do with whisky, but it’s always nice to hear real experts talking about their passions.
So we made our way back up the stairs in the dark, where for some inexplicable reason, a series of bad actors funnelled us into ever smaller rooms and talked in ever more bizarre Scottish accents about absolutely nothing of consequence. The highlight was when we climbed two flights of stairs only to spend 5 minutes listening to a girl lying in bed talking shit about a cat.
I can’t help but think that if I were a resident of Islay, I’d be a little offended by the way “the locals” were being portrayed here. If Bowmore are to be believed, then the lack of electric lighting on the island has caused some kind of mental illness that makes them spout nonsense about cats and ghosts in bizarre accents. Very few of them ever leave their beds, and when they do, it’s only to tell stories about the wind to unsuspecting sassenachs.
For me, this was a bizarre way to sell a product that is, as far as I’m aware, a quality single malt whisky, made by a passionate and highly skilled workforce from natural ingredients. The whole thing was presented as some kind of low-budget Disney experience.
The highlight, as you might have guessed, was the room containing Paul A Young. He served a simple dairy-free hot chocolate in china cups and didn’t talk in a fake accent. Along with the hot chocolate was a bonbon made from Bowmore, which we were told to stir into the warm drink to release the flavour. Paul took time to explain the ingredients he’d used, why he’d chosen them and how the flavours complemented the whisky. For the first time all evening, the 20-odd people in our group did not wear looks of bemusement, but instead smiled, talked and asked for more. This was good stuff.
After descending more nasty, loose stairs into the cellar, the final part was due to be the whisky tasting, but I was in so much pain by this point, I only managed to try one before making my excuses and leaving. I had to pick my own coat from trom the unattended coat rack (I did consider taking a nicer one) and find my own way out as nobody wanted to help. Everyone involved seemed more concerned with keeping in character.
Now I recognise that my viewpoint is somewhat unusual and that there were people that would have got a kick out of it, but two things bothered me about this evening. The first was that so little thought was put into making the event accessible – or at least publicising its inaccessibility. Obviously, an event in an old house isn’t going to be suitable for everyone, but it didn’t seem to cross anyone’s mind that someone might require assistance. It doesn’t take a great deal of planning to let a disabled person experience an event like this in a comfortable and inclusive way.
More importantly though, I found it strange that a quality whisky brand should want to present itself in such an artifical manner. It was the complete opposite to the way Lindt had presented themselves at an event earlier in the week. They managed to make a large multi-national brand seem fun, approachable, and most importantly of all, real.
Granted, there was a tasting at the end of the Bowmore event, and Paul Young clearly understood what people wanted, but the majority of this two and a half hour event was taken up by a group of actors trying to convince people they were part of the star attraction at Disneyland Islay. Some undoubtedly enjoyed it more than me, but the looks on most people’s faces indicated more confusion than pleasure.
I had hoped to learn a little and to experience the real passion and tradition that goes into making whisky. Instead, it was a painful experience.