How you buy a bottle of wine or order a cocktail at a bar could be quite different in a couple of years.
The alcohol industry is digitizing. A slew of new websites and cellular apps are transforming the consumer experience.
Tech-savvy drinkers and proprietors have already benefitted from this movement. Apps like Drizly, Distiller, Next Glass and BarEye greatly increase customer convenience and purchasing power, while expanding the scope of sales.
Ease of Purchase
“Alcohol is such an antiquated industry,” says Cory Rellas, co-founder and COO of the digital alcohol delivery service Drizly. “If you can get food delivered immediately through your phone, and Amazon can deliver orders to you the next day, then why not have the same services for alcohol?”
It’s a good question — though also rhetorical. “Nobody was doing it because of all the regulations,” Rellas says.
Enter the Drizly model. The software platform, launched in 2013, connects costumers and retailers, while avoiding most of the legal challenges. “We don’t actually touch the money or the alcohol,” Rellas explains.
Rather, the app allows users to place alcohol orders. These are fulfilled within 20-60 minutes by delivery drivers, who work for whichever retailer is providing the product. Drizly equips all drivers with high-tech ID-checking technology, to prevent sales to minors.
Purchases must be $20 minimum, plus a $5 delivery fee. The company’s revenue comes from selling subscriptions to stores for the rights to be Drizly’s only partner in specific zones. (The company also hopes to financially leverage the vast amount of data it’s collecting about alcohol-buying patterns.)
“We want to accelerate the three-tier system, not disrupt it,” Rellas says. “This digitizes the liquor store, and connects it online with the consumer.”
Drizly is at the forefront of digital alcohol delivery, particularly after their recent partnership with Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America. But many additional apps are entering this space. Some provide similar services, while others are more specialized.
Hard-to-Find Made Easy
Many drinkers are familiar with Untappd. The popular social platform allows users to discover, check in, rank and discuss beers. These same drinkers may have wondered: Why is there not a comparable app for whiskey?
Distiller aims to be just that.
“We’re coming along at a time when more and more young people are getting into spirits,” says Mikael Mossberg, CEO and founder of Distiller, which launched in 2013. “We’re riding that wave. It’s a huge cultural movement.”
Similar to Untappd, Distiller allows users to list which whiskeys they’ve drunk, and provide their own grades and tasting notes. The platform also employs a “tasting table,” a team of 20-plus experts who provide their professional opinions on brown spirits.
Users can create and share “wish lists” of whiskeys that they dream of drinking. Through a new partnership, Distiller hopes to help some of those wishes come true.
“We’ve been bringing users down the road to discovering new spirits,” Mossberg says, “but that has been the end of the path. We didn’t have the means of providing whiskeys, of showing where to buy them.”
In July, Distiller connected with Ezra’s. This Chicago-based, premium-alcohol store boasts a robust digital store. Distiller users can now order whiskeys from their app, and receive delivery from Ezra’s in states that allow alcohol purchase through mail.
“We wanted to be there at every step of the way of the user experience,” Mossberg says. “We wanted to close the loop.”
Retailers are not alone in gaining business through apps. Bars and restaurants are also poised to capture additional sales.
What bar would not want to sell drinks while closed? Or to customers who were not present? These two concepts would have seemed absurd ten years ago. But today, thanks to digital technology, they are already in practice.
The app BarEye allows people to buy and send drinks from their phone. Recipients must be on Facebook or have the app. “This opens up a whole new revenue stream for businesses,” says co-founder Andrew Bennett. (The other co-founder is entrepreneur and Pro-Bowl NFL Linebacker Jonathan Vilma.)
BarEye users can also order for themselves, rather than waiting for service or opening a tab.
Bars and restaurants can use the app to broadcast deals to nearby users. These deals are redeemable at BarEye kiosks installed within participating locations. “On a slow night, a bar could send out a free drink to all girls within five miles,” Bennett says. “It’s a customer outreach tool.”
Information gathered by BarEye on transactions allows a user to deduce someone else’s favorite drink. Or, businesses can gather key data about the spending and drinking patterns of their patrons.
BarEye launched last year in Tallahassee and thus far has focused on college bars. The app is in 25 Tallahassee bars, with 15,000+ downloads, mostly among Florida State University students. Bennett intends to expand BarEye into New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Miami and Austin, and is seeking additional financial backers.
“Ten years from now,” Bennet says, “we’re going to describe to 25-year-olds the way that people ordered drinks today — elbowing your way through a crowd, trying to get the bartender’s attention, being ignored by the bartender for a few minutes, having to scream your order over the bar, and then later figuring out your tab, if you even remember to close your tab — and they’re going to look at us like we’re old fogies.”
How we determine our next drink might also seem outdated to citizens of the near future.
In the age of digital tracking, we have access to a wealth of information. Habits, preferences and other fine details are collected, stored, utilized and displayed.
For instance, Distiller uses these tools to graph tasting notes across a range of flavors: peaty, vanilla, salty, floral, etcetera. Each whiskey entered into Distiller’s database is broken down as such, helping users better discern their palate’s preferences. Drizly and BarEye also collect consumer data, to empower users and businesses alike.
The app Next Glass takes these practices to another level.
It employs algorithms that predict what you should drink next. Users enter what wines and beers they have or have not enjoyed. From this info, Next Glass can recommend products new to you that match your personal tastes.
“We test every wine and beer bottle scientifically,” explains Next Glass founder Kurt Taylor. “We have a full lab and several scientists. We’re trying to test everything that is widely distributed. We analyze about 100 bottles per day.”
“So when you tell us what you think about a couple wines and beers, our algorithms will start looking at patterns and trends in the clinical compounds of what you’ve been drinking,” he adds. “They will pick out 10 compounds that are important to you and recommend or avoid bottles that have similar compounds.”
Next Glass is also programmed to take educated leaps and suggest something more unusual that users might enjoy. This works in part by mirroring users with similar preferences who have deviated from their typical tastes but then reported a positive experience. “It’s no fun drinking the same thing every time,” says.
The idea behind Next Glass came from an experience with which many can empathize. About two years ago, Taylor and his father were out for dinner. “A waiter saw us looking puzzled at the restaurant’s novel-length wine list,” Taylor recalls. “He asked us questions about what we did and did not like, and recommended us a wine. We tried it, and it was not for us.”
“That’s when I realized that there was no universal language for taste,” Taylor continues. “I set out to fix that.”
After all, an informed suggestion can go a long way.
“Studies show that most customers walk around liquor stores for five to seven minutes, unsure of what to buy,” Taylor explains. They look at labels and price and then take a guess. Apps can help them make more educated decisions.”
The Social Scene
Social networks like Facebook and Twitter are the foundation of the modern web. So it’s no surprise that new alcohol apps have similar setups.
Allowing users to see what drinks each other enjoy, BarEye is as much a social lubricant as it is a social network
The app Club 83 — recently launched by the French beverage-syrup manufacturer 1833 Maison Routin — bills itself as the first global digital network solely for bartenders and baristas. Available in French and English, Club 83 allows users to follow one another, discuss industry trends, swap recipes and ideas, create groups and events, and read tips and tutorials.
Distiller also taps into the social aspect. The concept of showing tasting notes from both users and experts is similar to how other sites rank products on a professional and personal level. (For example, RottenTomatoes.com does this for movies.)
“Users may have completely different opinions on a whiskey than the pros,” says Mossberg. “Some users only care about the opinions of other users, while some put more stock in the pros.”
“We wanted to make Distiller a place where everyone could learn more,” Mossberg adds. “Certain communities are all connoisseurs, which can be intimidating for regular people. We think of our pros as being Sherpas, leading the way, but not having the only opinions there. We wanted to make Distiller a group experience, an online tasting room.”
The future appears bright for web-based platforms in the alcohol industry. As more of our daily commerce and communication moves onto digital devices, apps will take on larger roles within our lives. But to suggest that consumers are largely familiar with these and other apps remains a stretch — for the time being.
“E-commerce is maybe the single biggest tech movement since the internet,” Rellas says. “It’s taking an every-day process and adding convenience. We’re saying that we have a new way of doing something. That means changing consumer behavior, and for that we have to educate them.”
“To this day there’s still a huge disconnect between what a user reads about and recommends, and the retail experience,” Mossberg says. “The huge thing is for apps to be present at the point of purchase in the brick-and-mortar store or bar. As that happens, you’re going to see a lot more brands perk up and try to become present in this space. Because it’s influencing what users want to buy.”