Gorgeous drinks have infiltrated our Instagram feeds. There are frothy sours, meticulously-placed garnishes and perfectly frosted highballs, made not for sipping, but for the thirsty eyes of scrollers.
Welcome to the world of drinkstagramming.
These micro-market influencers lead a million-dollar industry. Their accounts command TV-scale reach and hold a faithful following of drinks lovers.
Influencers aren’t new, but in the beverage space, they have become prevalent-often as a growth strategy for new product launches or stale brands needing an image refresh.
They act as part brand ambassador, part trusted source, part content creator. For a fraction of the cost of a big-budget marketing campaign (with arguably a far higher ROI), they conjure authentic buzz for brands and bars, complete with compelling visual imagery.
Artisan or craft brands without a vast budget or an army of PR and advertising folk can woo influencers-often, its as easy as sending samples and letting the liquid speak for itself-to help the product gain traction.
Cheers to Happy Hour ‘s Brenton Mowforth plays pied piper to drinkers, leading them to new spirits or bars through engaging images with a knack for virality.
If ‘influencer’ makes you think of curated feeds and clever copy, well, he does far more than that: He’s a one-man marketing band; styling, photographing and copywriting his own posts, yes, but also acting as a hired-gun brand strategist and activation specialist.
“[Brenton] has been wonderful working on our brands, including Hendrick’s, Monkey Shoulder, Glenfiddich, Tullamore Dew and Drambuie,” explains Beth-Anne Perry of William Grant & Sons’s Canadian arm, PMA. “His beautiful photos, eye for detail, recipes for exquisitely crafted and curated cocktails from prominent cocktail hot spots and bartenders has been fabulous for us to partner with.”
But the market is getting crowded. There are many content creators who look solely for virality: opting for asinine garnishes and vapid recipes that would prompt scoffs from real bartenders.
Mowforth isn’t trying to replace bartenders. Instead, top-tier drinkstagrammers are acting as industry advocates and connectors; amplifying not just their own recipes but the work and knowledge of stalwart bartenders. They are storytellers, spreading knowledge of the industry and connecting authentically with consumers in a way a magazine ad just doesn’t anymore.
For years, Jordan Hughes, behind High Proof Preacher, was a preacher. But Instagram opened the door for Hughes to become one of the most regarded cocktail photographers in the industry.
It started as a pastime. “I thought Instagramming would be a fun combination of two of my hobbies: photography & cocktails. I’ve never worked at a bar, but living amidst Portland’s happening cocktail scene, the bar & spirits world fascinated me.”
He went down a hole, reading through cocktail books and grilling bartenders on techniques and tools. As the account grew, brands started seeking him out.
Now, Hughes works with brands on social strategy and management. He’s on a photography retainer with beverage companies and restaurant groups. His photography has taken him to Belize, Scotland, Mexico and beyond. On the side, he pens pieces and creates recipes for VinePair, Chilled Magazine, thirsty., and Imbibe Magazine.
Why influencers? A big draw is the pre-installed audience of liquor lovers.
“A brand could easily tap a lifestyle influencer with a much larger following than me,” explains Hughes, “but they won’t know if any portion of their following even cares about spirits. Since I have a more niche focus, I’ve been able to build an engaged audience that genuinely cares about cocktails & bar culture. These followers generally trust and seek out my opinion.”
Cocktails were once a hyper-niche fandom, who met in cult bars around the globe, but now, the conversation has burst open. Online, Mowforth is able to interact 24/7 with his audience.
They let him know their thoughts on a drink or product, good or bad.”Everyone is really critical-it makes you constantly step up your game.”
He tailors his content voraciously to meet online trends. “I look through the feedback, analytics and common denominators-I can understand why a post performs well or why it doesn’t.” He can understand what his followers are looking for. (For example, he knows his audience hates dramatic lighting.)
“Tracking our success is far easier than traditional marketing,” explains Mowforth. For him, someone who cut his teeth on traditional marketing, social media offers an expanse of benefits.
“Unlike an out-of-home ad, I can tell you how many people see each post and how many times they’ve seen it. I can tell you where they’re from.” He gives the example of a Scotch ad on the subway. “Half the people who see it may not drink, while a further half of that audience may prefer gin.”
While people will flip past ads in magazines and on YouTube, Mowforth knows his following actively seeks out his content. “I know that I am publishing content for people who love cocktails.”
The job is far more than snapping a picture.”For the average sponsored post, I’m spending at least 2-3 hours setting up, styling & shooting the content using professional lighting equipment & camera gear,” explains Hughes.
“There’s the prep time for taste testing, & developing a cocktail recipe, editing and retouching the final images, writing copy for the post, creating Instagram stories to support the in-feed post, and more. It’s usually at least 6-8 hours per sponsored post when it’s all said & done.”
It’s Hughes’ scrupulous nature that keeps brands in his orbit.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” explains Hughes. “If I start doing too many paid posts; well no one wants to follow an account full of ads. I’d like to think that I’ve gained a certain amount of trust with my followers, so I’m pretty choosy about who I partner with & what products I promote.”
Hughes promises himself sponsored posts will never be his base income. He doesn’t want to rely on it-it will cloud his authenticity. “If my account somehow disappeared tomorrow, while it’d be a huge bummer, I’d be okay.”
Mowforth rounds out his Instagram by acting as a marketing consultant to brands. It’s in his blood-before Instagram, he was a digital marketer and a regular in Toronto’s bar scene. He started an Instagram to learn more about classic cocktails. It snowballed from there.
Now, he offers a variety of services for brands-he can make recipes, run competitions, help get products on back bars or provide analyses and insights to help a brand gain more traction on social platforms.
One of the big appeals of Instagrammers is they can help a brand traverse the confines of Tied House Law, a marketing rule in the United States that bans producers from providing anything of value (including advertising and social media promotion) to retailers-including promoting cocktails at on-premise locations or events sponsored by the brand (though brand ambassadors can carry the torch on the latter).
But brands can partner with influencers to promote events and cocktails where brands can’t. Instagrammers can direct drinkers to prominent accounts, building and strengthening relationships with key accounts.
But the simplest benefit of influencers?
People drink with their eyes.
Mowforth remembers a particular campaign with Hendrick’s. He had a bartender make a fluffy, ivory-white Ramos Gin Fizz, a drink that requires anywhere from ten to twelve minutes of shaking.
“The cocktail went viral: everyone started re-sharing it.”
To the bartender’s dismay, “People were buying three at a time.” The bar was slammed.