Have you ever thought about starting a podcast? Love to have a chat about beer, wine, spirits, RTDs and the liquor industry? Or have you just listened to a few podcasts and wondered what the secret is to making them work?
Kaddy Community recently sat down with the king of Australian drinks podcasting, James Atkinson of Drinks Adventures, to discover what it's like to be a professional beverage podcaster.
Atkinson has quite a brag sheet, too - the inaugural prize winner for Best Wine Blog or Podcast at the Wine Communicator Awards (in 2021), was shortlisted for the IWSC Spirits Communicator Of The Year 2023 Trophy and is the only two-time winner of Best Media at the Australian International Beer Awards (2017 and 2021). More than just a podcaster wrote the Sydney Morning Herald's Smart Sipping column until its COVID demise in 2020 and is a Certified Cicerone® who has judged at the Sydney Royal Beer & Wine Show and the Independent Beer Awards since 2017.
For this interview in our Hits From The Trade series, Andrew Graham chatted with Atkinson in his Marrickville studio - which, conveniently, sits blocks away from a smorgasbord of breweries, including Hawke's, Batch, Philter, Sauce, Stockade, Wildflower & The Poor Tom's distillery.
This interview has been lightly edited for flow.
Kaddy Community: So let's have the James Atkinson origin story.
James Atkinson: Going right back, I studied Broadcast Journalism at uni, graduating in 99. And I didn't have a clear idea of what I wanted to do with that qualification. The first ten years or so that I did were very eclectic. I was very into music. I did a lot of freelance work and music writing for all sorts of different magazines because I was enjoying it - a lot of trade press stuff and other business publications along the way. Some more mainstream news, too - I worked on an internet portal for 2UE called ' My Talk'. You know, I've lived in the UK for a while, and I worked for Virgin Media on another internet portal. (People) used to call them portals, but I don't think anyone uses that word anymore - it feels like an early dot com sort of thing.
Oh yeah, they're still around. How did you get into (drinks) in the first place?
Well, I'd always enjoyed a nice beer travelling around Europe and appreciated what I was drinking was a lot better than what I would find on tap in Australia at the time. Then, I was looking for a job when I came back from London, and the editor of The Shout (theshout.com.au) came up, and it seemed like a perfect role because I had that business journalism background - it's sort of a business publication, and I enjoyed a tipple. Then, all of a sudden, I'm getting invited to all these amazing events in a very social, fun industry. I made a lot of good friends, had a great time, and just became quite interested in the business of the industry. And I went deeper on drinks and was exposed to the best of the best in every category. I've never been someone who just wants to say, 'okay, well, I'm just going to do beer; I'm just going to do wine'. I've kept myself across everything the whole way through.
That's been a double-edged sword in terms of the path that I've been on - in some ways, it's been harder because of that, but I'm (also) doing something different to everyone else. So my niche is that I don't have a niche!
(After) The Shout Matt Kirkegaard approached me, and I worked with him on Brews News for a few years and went deep into the beer and brewing industry. Plus, I was doing a lot of other freelance writing. After I left there, I was interested in the podcast base and thought, 'oh, there's not really anything there that's kind of covering the whole world of drinks'. There were a lot of brewing (and beer) podcasts, but most of them were just two guys with beards who wanted to talk about what they were drinking. Yes, there were some great beer podcasts as well, obviously, like Radio Brews News and a few others, but there's not much else out there on wine and spirits. And so I just thought, 'why don't I try and do something that just covers the whole world of drinks?' I mean, if someone said, ' I only like Chinese food, you know, for example, you would think that was weird'. I feel like it's the same when people say, 'I only like beer, or I'm only interested in wine'. I mean wine - I love taking the piss out of it, but I feel like people who are only into fine wine don't even know if there are any other beverages out there. It's like wine is just on this echelon above everything else. And there's, you know, there's no complexity or anything else worth exploring beneath wine.
So, that's the path I've been on, and now Drinks Adventures - five years now, 170 episodes or something like that. It's a bit of a labour of love and sometimes a love-hate relationship like any creative thing that you do.
Do you look back at those original podcasts and cringe now?
Yeah, I do because the audio was not great. But you know, it wasn't too bad compared to a lot of the stuff that people put out. The biggest thing with podcasting is that there are no barriers to entry, so anyone can record something on their phone and put it on the internet within a few hours and say they've got a podcast. It's very easy to do that, but to make a good one is a lot more difficult. Because I did have some radio experience and was a journalist, I feel like I had some idea about what I was doing, but the gear I had was shit. And it was cheap. And I didn't have an awareness of recording environments or where to record. (Looking back at that time), definitely the worst audio quality I've ever done - and it's such a great interview, so it's a shame - was with Janice McDonald.
She came back on the show only recently, no?
Yeah! (In the original interview) I was trying to find a place to do it, and we did it at Staves (Staves Brewery in Glebe) with her, and they had their glycol system running, so there's just this whir in the background! It was deafening! You can still hear everything we're saying; it's completely audible. But still, I've always been quite particular about audio, even when I didn't have the equipment to help me. I figure that if something is so bad that I have to apologise to my listeners about it, then it's probably something that I just shouldn't put to air!
So talk us through your setup. You are often trying to record on location or otherwise here in the studio, and then the production afterwards as well?
It's kind of funny how the whole thing evolved because prior to COVID, every interview I did was (face to face) - I don't think I did anything online at all. And that was almost a standard that I wanted to keep to differentiate myself versus a lot of the crappy Skype quality audio that you hear on some podcasts. That was back in the 'before times', before I had a baby, and before COVID when I was travelling around a lot. I was going overseas, and I was out there doing stuff to get access to awesome people on the podcast. And then COVID happened, and very quickly, it was like, 'Ah, okay, well, if I'm going to be trying to do interviews face to face, then this is not really gonna work anymore!'. So I just had to very quickly upskill myself with how to record online. Now, I'd say 90% of the interviews that I do are recorded online because I don't have the time to be running around and travelling like I used to. You know, you can just get access to much better people now! That was the other thing during COVID. I started thinking, 'Well, I can probably ask anyone to be on the podcast now, and they're probably going to be at home'. I was thinking, 'Sam was Neill was isolating in Sydney, I'll get him on the show! Maynard Keenan from Tool, he's not touring at the moment!'. I started getting some great interviews that probably helped, and things have just snowballed.
Occasionally. I have interviews (face-to-face) in here. It's a bit of a makeshift studio - I've got a good microphone, and that lapel mic you've got on is a high-quality microphone. But this is not a proper studio. It's just been cobbled together a little bit, and that's good enough to get fantastic audio for a podcast. But one day, if I'm more solvent, I'd love to sort of fit out a studio properly so that you can just walk into it, and it sounded absolutely amazing. And I'm not kind of constantly moving shit around and having this as a desk as well as a studio!
How do you make this work financially, because that's always the biggest challenge? There are lots of people, as you pointed out, who are at the amateur level, where it's a bunch of dudes having a conversation. But to take it to the next level and to make it a livelihood, how do you do that?
Well, there are no rules. Everyone's monetising their podcasts in different ways. For me, before COVID, it started as a sideline to freelance writing and copywriting as well. The first season that I made it completely off my own back, and I remember by the end of that year, I was like, 'shit, I'm going to try and make some money because I'm actually kind of broke because I've just spent so much time on it'. In that first season, I did three documentary-style episodes with a lot of interviews and production work involved. I was over-ambitious because I just had creative things that I was interested in doing. I'm glad I did (now), but it was too much time to spend on something that wasn't revenue-generating. By the next year (things changed). I spoke to the guys at Bintani, who supply ingredients to the brewing and distilling industries. I knew they'd really expanded their business to cater for the distilling industry, and there really wasn't any other publication out there in distilling reaching that audience. From day one, I've had a good trade audience of producers among distillers and brewers. Bintani came on board with a basic sponsorship package, and Fever Tree came on soon after that. They're both a great fit for what I'm doing (especially) as I wouldn't want to have a whiskey brand or a gin brand sponsor the show because it would just be kind of tainted for all the other brands. And Fever Tree is obviously perfect because it's a great platform for them to reach people who are gin or whiskey or rum, or whatever enthusiasts. And so I had two sponsors. And then, when COVID happened, I flipped everything. I lost a lot of work, and I was on Jobkeer, like a lot of people, for about a year. So I thought, 'Okay, well, I might put a newsletter out and start focusing on commercialising this' because if publishers can turn around to me and sort of say, 'Oh, well, sorry, we've got no more work for you' then if I'm my own boss, then at least I know what situation I am in.
So, yeah, it's all just been kind of organically the way that it's kind of evolved. I never said, 'I want to start podcasting'. It's just evolved. And, I've got to be honest, it's been incredibly challenging. Now, the big revenue driver is the sponsored episodes, which I produce the same way that I do everything else. It's just that the production costs and my time are supported by the company that I'm partnering with to make the content. I think I manage to do them in such a way that it's not just advertorial. It's still great content. I've never had someone say, 'oh, there's too much sponsored content', and I make sure that I balance it with stuff that isn't (commercial) as well. But ultimately, the thing doesn't exist if it's not commercially viable. And I think that in those sponsored episodes, I still managed to ask some pretty difficult questions. And I think that smart brand marketing managers understand the benefit of the authenticity of a real interview with a journalist who is not just going to give them a free ride. I've (also) never gone I haven't gone down the Patreon route, which a lot of podcasters do. But it's only really viable if you're massive. I'm an Arsenal Football fan - or a lapsed one, but getting more interested in this season - and there is an Arsenal podcast where they make hundreds of 1000s of pounds of Patreon revenue every year. The fan base for Arsenal Football Club is enormous, they've got the best sort of fan podcast, and there's so much passion around a football team. That's where Patreon can work. But for something niche like what I'm doing - albeit it is the leading podcast in the country for drinks - it is a long way off where the Patreon thing would be worth the trouble. Plus, I think with Patreon, you have these benefits and extra content for people. My nightmare would be having to create all this new content for just 50 people!
Do you have a hit list of drinks people you'd like to interview?
Yeah, and I've kind of nailed a lot of them down, to be honest. Dan Aykroyd was one I wanted to get for a while. Maynard, Sam Neill. I have Daniel Riccardo (that has just come out). I never want to take it down the direction of just being a gimmicky celebrity thing - there's got to be a little bit more depth. And I think in those cases that I've just mentioned, we're talking about people who actually own the brand, and some of them even get their hands dirty and can speak intimately about the liquid in the bottle. You know, there are different levels to that - Daniel, he's much more involved than just putting his name on it. And Ricky Ponting he's a partner in the business. That's the benchmark I want to keep. I've got lots of people I'd like to speak with, but it's a matter of keeping that balance across all the different categories. Some of the best conversations that I've had has been with people like yourself who are writers, and maybe they've got a book out, and we talk about that book or people who've got opinions and can speak authoritatively on their chosen subjects. (The podcast) has also evolved into something that's much more international than when I started, and the international audience is growing in the US and the UK quite as they're much bigger markets. So, if I'm talking to a whisky distiller or a Champagne chef de cave, then why wouldn't they want to listen to it if they're interested in that? It doesn't really matter that it's an Australian title.
I haven't really committed the list to paper because everything just seems to just happen. Plus, I've of switched to batch producing, where I'll have a couple of weeks where I'll just do a lot of interviews and have almost six months worth of content. Because that's more efficient than just constantly chasing your tail each week and not knowing who you know, having to find a guest on a weekly basis.
How do you keep those conversations interesting? As opposed to evolving into something rambling - how do you keep that tight?
It can be hard, depending on the guest, but so there are two sides to that. One is, you know, I'm just a naturally curious and sort of nosy person. I like looking under the hood and seeing how things work and asking questions. And I am pretty selective about the guests that I have on - I try and generally know whether they're going to be articulate and what sort journalists call 'good talent'. But you still end up doing a lot of interviews that can end up quite waffly. Part of the discipline with podcasting is knowing what not to put in the episode, and it's not uncommon for me to take an episode that's 45-50 minutes long and cut it down to 20 minutes. Often it might mean moving questions around and restructuring the interview. And, you know, if you need to, you can drop in a bit of narrative like dropping a bit of voiceover here to here and there to kind of, that's something that I didn't do very early on.
So here's a question, besides your small child, what gets you up in the morning?
Her every morning!
What motivates you, though? There are lots of stories to be told. But what actually gets you excited?
I think it's just exciting knowing when you have great content and getting excited about putting that together and sharing it with people. I mean, I spend a lot of my time doing admin, sending emails, putting together sponsorship and advertising packages and stuff like that. And it's definitely just the actual craft of making content that I enjoy the most.
I've got another episode that's coming out very soon about the Clare Valley screwcap initiative, and it's episodes like that which involve a lot of different voices - it's a real craft on how you arrange it all, soundtracking with music. That's the sort of stuff that I enjoy doing the most, but it's also the stuff that's just the most painstakingly difficult and time-consuming to do! It doesn't make financial sense for me to be always making that content, but it's something you do because you enjoy doing it.
Thinking back now, is there something you would have done differently in your career?
I probably would have started (podcasting) a couple of years earlier!
There have been a few podcast experts recently that have said that the best way to start a successful podcast is to start in 2016 because it was a lot easier. I'm lucky I started when I did - I mean, in the second season, I got some pretty amazing promotion from Apple podcasts where they put me Drinks Adventures on the front of Apple podcasts. And, you know, it was there for like weeks or months! I've had all of these different bits of PR, all the awards that I've won. All these things where you go, 'I'm gonna make the big time now - this is really gonna take off!'. They're just all little blips where you get a few new listeners here and there, never anything big. It's just incremental - just little things. I remember speaking to one of my friends who's got a craft drinks brand, and he was saying, 'you know, nothing is ever exponential. It's only ever small incremental gains and one step forward, two steps back'.
I look back to then when Apple was still supporting and promoting independent podcasters then, and I remember that was just pouring fuel on the fire in terms of the new listeners, and I didn't really know how good I had at getting that promotion then. If I got that now, it would have been so much better because I've got so many more episodes. I've got much better content. I would have had a much better chance of people staying on, I think, than I would have back then.
(Otherwise) I guess I would have got better gear, but I didn't really have any money to get better gear! I'm pretty happy with sort of the trajectory, but it's just been way harder than I thought it was.
Okay, and more broadly, a bit of crystal ball stuff - what do you think the big drinks trends will be this year?
If I knew that, I'd probably be able to make a nice living in consulting!
At this time of year, it's a good question, though - what do you think is going to be big this year?
I definitely think that the weirdness and craziness that we saw in craft beer is being dialled back a little bit, and some of those breweries may be struggling to find a market for beers that are really out there. And everything has to be new all the time! During COVID, obviously, everyone was putting everything in cans, and it was kind of fun to have some one-off beers in cans that you can drink at home because you couldn't go out and drink them in bars. Whereas I think now, with pressure on financially, it's becoming important to have a really good session beer that people can drink by the six-pack and by the case at a reasonable price point and always fresh. I think everything just got crazy with lactose and pastry stouts and oat cream and extreme beers. There's always going to be that stuff out there, but I don't know that you can run a business making just those beers nowadays, and I think the breweries that were sort of relying on that have been found out a little bit.
What about spirits? What do you think will be big in spirits this year?
It's a really exciting time in whisky at the moment, with a lot of new whiskies coming onto the market that have finally come of age. A big story in the last week was that Tarac - the longtime supplier of grape alcohol for wineries and more recently for neutral grape spirit to gin distillers - have announced that they're now producing grain spirit for single malt whisky as well. There's a few companies that are going to be doing that, including Greenbanks in Tasmania. Tim Salt, who used to be the Managing Director of Diageo Australia, is one of the people involved in that. They're sort of a white-label distillery that's going to have its own brands as well. So there's going to be a proliferation of new brands coming onto the market and there's going to be a lot of debate around issues of transparency and things like that.
I think also, with new sources of new make and so forth, that we're going see some more blended whiskies on the market, which we haven't had in Australia. I mean, Starward Twofold about the only one that's really done that. And we're definitely going to see more when Tarac have their column distilled malt whiskey already and they're going to be working with other grains as well. There's going to be a lot of potential for blends.
Some of the trends people have been talking about for years just never quite happened, like the rum revival. Is that going to happen? I hope so. Because rum can be pretty interesting. You know, and gin.
I hear vodka is coming back?
I think vodka is coming back a little bit because there's just a place for just the cleanness of vodka and the versatility in cocktails. And who doesn't like an Espresso Martini or a Bloody Mary? Drinks like that are not going anywhere. So yeah, I think vodka is having a bit of a moment. I'm still waiting for the brandy revolution to happen.
You could be waiting forever for that...
It shouldn't be, it can be really good!
What about you? What's going to happen for you this year?
I'm trying to turn Drinks Adventures into a sustainable business. The dream would be to have more help than I currently do, as I outsource some editing and things like that to other people, but I essentially I do a lot more of the grunt work than I should be doing. There would easily be some extra production flair that I just don't have the bandwidth to be able to even consider doing at the moment just because I'm focused on just getting it out. I think with the podcast; there are no real limitations. I mean, there's lots of things you can do with merch or whatever as well.
I'm starting to get to a point now where I've actually got a pretty decent archive of content and every episode has had at least a few listens every month, so you sort of get that compound interest effect. The longer that you've been going, and the bigger you get, then when people discover you, they just kind of go back to the beginning. And the bigger the archive, the more listeners you're getting! So I feel like it's at a point now where I'm getting that level of traction that I haven't had previously. I mean, the day I launched back this year was the biggest traffic day I've had and probably double anything before. It's quite encouraging.
When is the (Drinks Adventure) stubby holder coming?