How an interest in whiskey birthed a thriving media company
The Whiskey Wash capitalized on the rise of craft distilleries and is almost entirely funded through digital advertising.
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For much of the 20th century, there wasn’t a lot of variety to be found in liquor stores. Whether you were shopping for beer or spirits, you were limited to a small number of national brands that were often owned by massive, global conglomerates that had bought up most of their competition.
But starting in the mid-2000s, we saw a veritable explosion in craft breweries and distilleries, with many operating at the local or regional level. This birthed an entire consumer base of connoisseurs, many of whom were willing to travel thousands of miles to taste their favorite barrel aged stouts or limited-batch spirits.
About a decade ago, Nino Kilgore-Marchetti found himself swept up in this movement after discovering that he had a taste for whiskey. “I just started drinking whiskey in the late 2000s and found that I have a happy palette that could discern specific flavors,” he told me. He started visiting different distilleries, spending time in tasting rooms, and picking the brains of those who worked in the industry. “I enjoyed the experience of trying different things and getting suggestions. I also started talking to folks online about whiskey.”
Because the craft industry was so nascent, there weren’t many professional news websites dedicated to covering it, meaning that Kilgore-Marchetti mostly had to rely on hobbyist websites to get information. Given that he already had a background in media and journalism, he started to think about the different kinds of content that could be created around whiskey. “I thought there were a lot of stories that could be told,” he said. “My mind just started going, and that was how Whiskey Wash was born.”
Kilgore-Marchetti launched The Whiskey Wash in 2013, and though he was its sole contributor for the first few months, he eventually took on freelancers and expanded its coverage to news, reviews, features, and recipes. Today, the site employs around 14 regular freelancers and generates a full-time living for Kilgore-Marchetti.
In a recent interview, Kilgore-Marchetti explained how he found his initial audience, how he monetizes the site, and why he hasn’t yet made any major investments in podcasts or video. Let’s jump into my findings…
Transitioning from tech to media
Kilgore-Marchetti didn’t always consider himself to be a writer, and in fact his first few jobs were in tech. He was among the first 20 employees at Yahoo, working as one of its famed “web surfers” who were responsible for discovering websites to list within its directory. He then moved up within the company, eventually founding its customer care department.
He left Yahoo in 2000 and later got a job as a buying guide analyst at a platform called Active Decisions. Part of his role included researching and writing buying guides for consumers who were looking to make purchasing decisions in several product categories. “It kind of made me realize that I enjoyed writing online and that I wanted to make a move in that direction.”
From there, Kilgore-Marchetti transitioned into a career as a freelance writer, composing hundreds of articles for About.com and other sites. “I also figured, since I’m already doing all this online writing, that I might as well pursue a bit of journalism experience with it. So I enrolled in a community college in California and spent about a year and a half studying under this old grisly newsroom guy from back in the day.”
Kilgore-Marchetti’s first foray into media entrepreneurialism came in 2009 with the launch of a website called EarthTechling. “We were writing about environmental news from a consumer perspective. At that time, we were really early in the Obama years and there was this big buzz around green tech and cleantech.” The site covered the emerging products and services that came out of that industry. “I did that for almost five years. The challenge of writing a site like that is that it’s also very subject to the political trade winds of the time. People started souring on green tech for different reasons, and we just found that ad impressions were kind of dropping.” Eventually he told his co-founder that he was ready to throw in the towel. “I gave him the reins of the business and walked away from it.”
Transforming Whiskey Wash from a hobby into a business
By the time Kilgore-Marchetti left EarthTechling, he had already been running The Whiskey Wash as a side hobby, and so he decided to devote nearly all of his focus into growing the site. In the early days, he simply rewrote press releases and reviewed whiskey brands that he had in his own personal collection. But then he met some other local whiskey enthusiasts in Portland who agreed to write for him. “I figured, well, let me see if I can start making this a collective voice … and the audience started to resonate with that.”
The Whiskey Wash’s traffic really started to grow once it amassed a large library of whiskey reviews. “I would get into the habit of finding the contact information for the distillery and writing to the PR person or the manager. And I was like, hey, I’ve got this site, it’s got X number of readers, would you be willing to send us a review sample? And some of them were like ‘who are you?’ But others said sure, because at the time there was no one else really doing reviews.”
Most of its early traffic came in via Google searches from people who were in liquor stores mulling over whether to buy a particular brand of whiskey. While plenty of those were drive-by visitors, the site eventually amassed a loyal audience, and it now has over 100,000 followers across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn. “Surprisingly we get decent traffic from LinkedIn,” Kilgore-Marchetti said.
Given that many of the best distilleries are spread out all across the globe, I asked Kilgore-Marchetti whether The Whiskey Wash’s coverage was hindered by travel restrictions during the pandemic. “One of the things we’ve always done is use local freelancers in different markets to go to things if I can’t get to it,” he said. “A lot of stuff goes on in Kentucky and Scotland, so we’ve tended to use freelancers in those markets. We’ve also done a lot of Zoom tastings from distilleries who wanted us to see their wares.”
Kilgore-Marchetti didn’t start monetizing The Whiskey Wash until 2016, three years after its launch. “I wanted to spend several years just keeping it very low key and focusing on building readership and figuring out what kind of content mix to do,” he said. Eventually, he joined Google’s ad network and monetized primarily through programmatic display advertising. “Last year we finally broke ground and significantly improved revenue as our traffic increased.”
The Whiskey Wash now partners with a large ad network called Evolve Media to source its advertising. While the site is still heavily reliant on programmatic advertising, Kilgore-Marchetti said that it sometimes sells direct campaigns to larger brands. “We focus on what we like to call the ‘whiskey lifestyle.’ We’re not just writing about whiskey, but everything that goes with it, whether that’s travel or the accessories you buy.” That’s widened the pool of potential advertising partners.
Occasionally, The Whiskey Wash will collaborate with a distillery for what’s called a private barrel pick. Basically, Kilgore-Marchetti’s staff will sample and pick a special, limited batch of whiskey, and the site will then receive a percentage of the sales from that batch.
Kilgore-Marchetti also affixes affiliate links to many of the site’s reviews. For instance, this review of a cocktail shaker includes a link at the bottom to the retailer’s website. “The revenue from that has been decent, but I’d say that, comparable to the traditional ad revenue, it’s not nearly as strong.”
The Whiskey Wash’s success is further evidence that display advertising alone can support a digital publisher, as long as it stays lean. In fact, Kilgore-Marchetti and his wife are the only full-time employees of the site; everything else he outsources to freelancers. Of course, the bootstrapped approach has its limits. “I think the thing that’s hardest for us is not spreading ourselves too thin. We want to keep running this as a lean operation, and so we have to think about where to put our limited resources into developing revenue models.”
For instance, Kilgore-Marchetti said he’d like to get into producing podcasts and video, but couldn’t yet justify the investment. He also recognizes that his core competency is written content, and he purposely avoids straying too far outside of that competency. “As an entrepreneur, I’ve learned over the years that I’ll wear as many hats as I need to, but I won’t wear them to the point that I burn my business to the ground just because I think I know what I’m doing. At some point, I want to hand something off to someone else so I can focus more on what I know best. I’m a content guy. I’ve been a journalist for a long time, so I know how to write and manage and edit well, and as for everything else, I’d rather have someone else do it in my stead as resources allow for it.”
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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. For a full bio, go here.