Last orders for Hot Rum Cow

Publisher Fraser Allen reveals the story of our extraordinary adventure in the world of drinks

On 22 July 2017, on a warm and euphoric night at the Spirited Awards in New Orleans, our dearly beloved Hot Rum Cow was voted the best drinks publication in the world. Even though a friend collected the award on our behalf – it’s a long way from Leith to Louisiana – we were, to put it mildly, very chuffed. When we’d launched Hot Rum Cow five years previously, our plan was exactly that: to create the world’s best booze magazine. Job done.

Now, with a stack of beautiful issues and a string of other awards under our belt, we’ve decided to walk through the Hot Rum Cow saloon door for the last time and move on to a new, equally exciting project – all will be revealed in early 2018. It’s with more than a tinge of sadness that we end our boozy escapade in print, but we’ve achieved everything we ever hoped for with Hot Rum Cow and more.

The beginning of a boozy adventure

When we launched the project back in 2012, the aim was to change perceptions about White Light Media, the content marketing agency which is our main business. Being based in Edinburgh, much of our work in those days was in the public sector and financial services – probably the two worst areas to be working in when the global banking crisis took hold. To compound matters, our efforts to expand into other sectors were hampered by our portfolio. Potential consumer clients said they admired our work but it was very corporate – you don’t get to pitch for premium brands on the back of banking newsletters and NHS reports.

So we took the bold decision to stop pitching for public sector work – the procurement process in the UK had become insane by then anyway, particularly for smaller agencies. Instead, we invested that energy into launching a product of our own that would show just how creative we could be.

Encouraged by friends such as Danny Miller and Vince Medeiros, both then publishers of the London-based indie magazines, Little White Lies and Huck, I decided that we should launch an indie magazine of our own. And after much internal debate, my feeling was that booze was the way to go. While there were plenty of great food magazines on the shelf by 2012, there was very little in terms of drinks, other than slightly stuffy titles such as Decanter.

We chose a deliberately silly but evocative name – Hot Rum Cow is the name of an old-fashioned warm milk and rum cocktail that jumped from the index of Kingsley Amis’s Everyday Drinking. And I gave Editor Liz Longden and Creative Director Eric Campbell carte blanche to create a magazine that would be entertaining, fascinating and exciting.

We only printed 2,000 copies of issue one, having quickly discovered the challenges of launching an indie magazine on the news-stands. Nobody really wants to know about a launch from a new publisher. You have to pay to get into the likes of WH Smith, and while we had a small distribution deal with Comag, they were a nightmare to deal with.

We were really pleased with issue one, which had a big cover theme of gin. The writing was outstanding, the magazine looked great, with surprises lurking around every corner – and it was one of those rare publications that generates loads of those ‘Wow, I didn’t know that’ moments.

'Why on earth are you launching a magazine?'

However, it’s launch didn’t exactly take the world by storm. There was a ripple of interest on specialist magazine blogs such as MagCulture but, other than that, the most common response was ‘Why on earth are you launching a magazine? Everyone knows they’re doomed!’

There was one very significant event a couple of weeks later though. We received an email from the Museum of Modern Art in New York saying that they had seen issue one, they loved it and could they stock in their shop? You bet! For a small agency in Edinburgh, this was a massive morale-booster, giving us further confidence that we were doing the right thing.

We had initially hoped to publish Hot Rum Cow on a quarterly basis but the realities of producing a 100-page issue of such quality quickly hit home – we’ve since gone on to produce 13 issues on a roughly biannual basis.

Our editor Liz left to live in Sweden, but she was so good we retained her as Editor At Large. And we appointed a new Editorial Director at White Light, Simon Lyle, who has gone on to play an outstanding role in shaping the content and personality of Hot Rum Cow as Editor.

The Cow gathers pace

The magazine rapidly built momentum and grew in confidence. As the issues ticked by, we gathered a string of awards for design and editorial excellence – indeed Eric seemed to spend most of his evenings in November and December wearing a kilt, collecting a gong and kissing celebrities at glitzy awards dinners.

Distribution spread around the globe and, less than 18 months after launch, Hot Rum Cow was lauded by the US edition of Esquire as one of ‘80 things that define our world today’. The following year, we even launched our own limited edition beer, a rye pale ale, brewed in collaboration with Stewart Brewing, which packed a mighty punch at an ABV of 6.2%.

And there has been a lot of fun for the team. Simon got to wander around the bodegas of Jerez and scoop Sazeracs in New Orleans, and when young Malcolm Triggs joined the team, he couldn’t believe his luck when he found himself on the back of a French photographer’s motorbike as she tore around Paris smoking roll-ups and taking him to boozy street food pop-ups – all in a day’s work.

But of course, the main objective was to show potential clients what we were capable of, and a number of new clients came to us directly as a result of seeing Hot Rum Cow, wanting us to apply a bit of our magic to their projects. When a director of one Britain’s largest retail groups commissioned us purely on the basis of seeing Hot Rum Cow on a magazine shelf in Soho, we knew we were onto a good thing. We’ve won a lot of other work under similar circumstances, and not always to clients with an obvious booze connection.

We were also keen to use Hot Rum Cow as a case study that our clients could borrow from. So, important as it was for a us to produce a beautiful and compelling magazine, it was also essential to support that with a well-planned website, email and social media strategy.

What we couldn’t do – and didn’t try to do – was turn Hot Rum Cow into a mass-market magazine. We had to remember our expertise is as a content marketing agency rather than a magazine publisher and, despite getting the magazine into WH Smith and Barnes & Noble in North America, we made little effort to build circulation or subscription sales. Somebody else might well have great success in these areas but we had other priorities with our agency work.

On the plus side though, ad revenue picked up significantly when we started working with International Media Sales in Glasgow. They regularly generated up to £20k per issue, which meant that Hot Rum Cow never really cost us much money, but it did take up a lot of time and energy. So after 13 amazing issues, and nobody in any doubt about the team’s creative talents, we want to direct that time and energy differently.

The next round

In 2015, we acquired World Whisky Day from young whisky enthusiast Blair Bowman. That’s another story but, suffice to say that, on World Whisky Day 2017, we achieved a global reach of 54 million people on Twitter and Instagram alone. We want to spend more time developing the massive potential of this project – this video will show you why.

And more than ever, we want to show the world what we can do as a content marketing agency. That’s what our new project is about and we’re very excited about it. And that’s not all. We’ve also committed ourselves to pro bono work supporting the amazing efforts of Social Bite in tackling Scotland’s homelessness crisis.

In the meantime, it’s time to dab our eyes and say farewell to Hot Rum Cow. We have a few things to do. All outstanding subscribers will be refunded, and the website will remain open for people wanting to buy back copies. We’ll also still put out Hot Rum Cow posts on social media, so keep following us.

And maybe this is the beginning not the end. Inevitably, we have drawn attention from third parties (publishers and drinks brands) interested in acquiring Hot Rum Cow – although it would have to go to a very good home. If that sounds like you, do get in touch – who knows … 

Either way, all that remains is for me to say a big thank you to those who have worked at White Light over the past five years – each of you made Hot Rum Cow that little bit more special. So let’s hear it for Eric Campbell, Simon Lyle, Liz Longden, Christina McPherson, Ross Russell, Matt McArthur, Islay Brown, Malcolm Triggs, Robin Gillie, Ewen Hosie, Adam Wilson, Lauren Lee, Chiara Pannozzo, Nikki Simpson, Jenny Proudfoot, Helen Berry, Jo Allen and honorary team members David Riddell, Sam Bradley, David Anderson and Eliza Wright. Plus all you lovely freelance writers and photographers.

Time for a drink now I think. Cheers!

Fraser

10 Things we have learnt from Hot Rum Cow

1 It’s a bit of a cliché, but it’s extraordinary what you can do if you believe in yourself
A small group of people can make a global impact if they have a great idea and a determination to make it happen.

2 Don’t be put off by the nay-sayers
More than a few people suggested we were mad for pulling out of the public sector and launching a magazine. Fortunately, we ignored them.

3 If you write about booze, people will send you really weird shit
Just take a look at our drinks cabinet. Sheep dung whisky anyone? We love it!

4 Content is crucial
Hot Rum Cow is a really good read. That’s what we do with our print and digital client campaigns. Make it genuinely interesting – rather than the 80% of branded content out there that is deservedly ignored.

5 Never underestimate the importance of beautiful design
In the digital era, design is often talked about more in terms of functionality rather than beauty. But if you make stuff look amazing, people will want to take a look.

6 Veteran porn star Ron Jeremy likes to play the harmonica when he’s being interviewed on the phone
And that’s not a metaphor.

7 The indie magazine renaissance hasn’t fulfilled its potential
The surge in indie publishing, encouraged by the sterling work of MagCulture and Stack, offers potential for reviving the overall magazine sector. However, many indie mags are art projects without business plans. That’s fine if the publication is a hobby, but there are wasted opportunities out there.

8 Mainstream magazine publishers haven’t learnt from indie mags
At the same time, there’s a wealth of innovation, passion and interesting ideas to be found among the stars of the indie sector. Why are so many of the bigger players still taking a publishing-by-numbers approach when there is so much to learn from – and opportunities to collaborate?

9 The magazine distribution system is nuts – and getting worse
It’s almost as if the biggest magazine distributors want the magazine industry to collapse. We did enjoy working with MMS and Select though. 

10 Putting red wine in a Sodastream dispenser is a bad idea
Unless you want to redecorate your walls.

Hear Fraser talk about Hot Rum Cow on the Stack Podcast.