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The future of drinking with Zeenah Vilcassim

by Maja Bayyoud on

We sat down for a chat (over Zoom, naturally) with Zeenah Vilcassim, Global Brand Director for Dewar’s Whiskey at Bacardi. Pining over the days when we’d cram into a buzzing pub with friends and bracing for a return, we wanted to find out how to have fun, cocktail in hand, in a new way. With lockdown drawing to a partial end and pubs reopening, Zeenah let us in on her favourite lockdown moments, and how big beverage brands like Bacardi have adapted to a changed world. 

What does celebration look like post lockdown?

People will start planning gatherings, holidays and events. Planning and fantasizing about those moments is definitely there. We’re going to think about what it means to hug someone, or touch someone. As humans, we build empathy through touch. So how open will we be with each other now? There is going to be a new normal too. A friend in Bermuda told me she went to a ‘party’ of six people the other day. Definitely not a party by pre-lockdown standards. The reality could be very different to our fantasies, so it’ll be interesting to see how that unfolds. 

What’s the biggest challenge for the drinks industry?

It is that human connection. When you think about alcohol, you think about celebrating a moment with a bottle of champagne or connecting with friends over a cocktail. That is going to be really challenging to do in the foreseeable, in the way it was done before. At Bacardi, we’ve supported small businesses by helping them with their online potential. Home delivery and quasi-bar set-ups will become the new normal, and have been a lifeline throughout lockdown for small businesses. People will also be more educated around food and drink pairings, how to make their favourite cocktails themselves. 

Despite challenges, we’ve seen a lot of innovation in the industry. What has Dewar’s been doing? 

Our focus was helping those seriously affected by the crisis, like the hospitality industry which we work very closely with. We launched #RaiseYourSpirits, a global initiative to provide $3 million in financial aid and other relief to those in the bar and restaurant industry impacted by the COVID-19 shutdown. This has included partnerships and financial aid with non-profit organizations and other local groups in countries around the world, plus grassroots support to bars and bartenders across countries, cities, and neighbourhoods to provide meals and other necessities to partners in need. 

At our Distillery in Aberfeldy, Scotland, we have pivoted part of our production plan to produce hand sanitizer for the Scottish Ambulance Association among other community groups. This is part of the global effort by Bacardi Ltd brands to produce more than 1.1 million liters of hand sanitiser. 

On a light note we also also wanted to bring good quality drinks to people whilst in lockdown so we partnered with Deliveroo in London and Manchester so people can have freshly made cocktails batched and ready to serve straight to their door. We are trying to help as much as we can during these times and hopefully bring happiness to some people whilst doing so! 

The future can seem uncertain at the moment. What role can heritage brands play?

How we talk about heritage is just as important as talking about it. Are you using your heritage to shape your legacy? Doing so in an authentic and credible way matters more than ever, but resting on your laurels isn’t relevant whether it is a time of crisis or not. Understanding your past to better shape your future is the most important thing. 

Challenging the norms is very much in the spirit of Tommy Dewar who was a real pioneer. He was so progressive for his time, so we have the right to take his forward thinking nature and bring it into the present. That’s why we have new platforms and innovations that challenge the status quo - we’re taking that heritage and weaving it into the now. 

What’s been your least favourite lockdown moment?

There was a time where I let work bleed into my personal life. It’s so easy when you’re sitting in your flat to work from morning to night, then go to bed and do it all over again. I felt really overwhelmed, as though time didn’t exist. I didn’t think of the impact that going through the motions would have on my mental health. Not spending time with my partner or speaking to my friends made me feel trapped. I hadn’t been going outside. After about five days of this, I went out the house and ran about 10K without really realising how far I had gone. It was a breakthrough - I now set time aside for myself. You think everything is me-time in lockdown, but it’s really important to carve out that space.  

What’s been your favourite? 

My partner and I have created time for ourselves, and time together. We have a date night routine. We get dressed up and do the house up as though it was different parts of a real date - our patio becomes an outdoor bar, we order in a fancy dinner and set the table for a restaurant feel, then do a speakeasy-style set up and have a dance. 

I had a lockdown birthday, and despite dreading it I ended up having an amazing time. Friends and family sent flowers and cake, which was very sweet. I’m not a social media person, so it was great to have that connection (and for them to remember despite the lack of social media reminders). Ironically, this and other lockdown moments made me feel closer to my family than ever before. 

Any advice for a start-up brand like Motley in times of uncertainty? 

If you are a start up brand that believes in your purpose, times of crisis shouldn’t make you waver from it. You adapt. We always have to adapt to sensitivities and seasonalities. People tend to panic in crises and do things differently. True brands that can stand the test of time should have courage in their convictions and believe what they’ve always said. Stay the course, and double down in moments of fear or uncertainty. People won’t remember the generic stuff, they will remember you for being exactly who you are. 

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