Whisky Challenge Coins. What are they?
Perhaps you just spotted folk carrying them? Maybe a social media share? Perhaps you already own one? Regardless, here’s an overview describing the culture of whisky challenge coins. But I’ll also share what I think they actually are…
Let’s start with the Scotch Test Dummies. Hailing from Wichita, Kansas, they share their whisky via YouTube. I started watching Scott and Bart back in late 2015. It was right around the time they switched from their kitchen setting to their basement studio/bar. I binge watched older content and immediately fell in love with their endearing attitude towards whisky. They were clearly smitten, and it was infectious.
After watching for a while and looking forward to (at that time) their weekly release, I realised I started to feel in some way connected with their life as is was presented on YouTube. More than that, names and commenters became familiar to me, and curious references became in-jokes. There was a culture building, but it was utterly inclusive. It was community. This! This is what I was looking for in whisky!
I think it was around early 2017 they released their first Challenge Coins. The concept was familiar to them as they both have military backgrounds. They applied it to whisky as a form of “merch”. The original “Cask 1” release was very limited and now quite sought after. It bore images of the Dummies in their cartoon form on both sides as well as some of their best known tag-lines and slogans. I bought one with a random number and it became “my number”. I carried it, dropped it, accidentally washed it, shared it and used it as a prompt as I spread the news about what these guys were doing to share whisky experiences through video. And then it dawned on me. It was way more than “merch”.
Yes, the relatively low cost of these means that indeed, they are a great way to recover or generate funds to keep a channel going and they certainly don’t cost too much to own. Yet, they seem to be treasured by their keepers in a way that immediately transcends the cost of ownership.
I’ve tried to think about why I like them so much. I own every one of the Dummies coins to date and almost every other channel’s releases. I’ve also tried to understand what other people like about them. I’ll share what I think I’ve discovered.
A Mark of Membership
I have a battered and worn SMWS membership card. Being of the credit card format, I carry it in my wallet. I’m required to present it to participate in the exclusive areas of the SMWS venues here in Edinburgh. Beyond that, it does nothing more.
The coins are not required for access to anything. While each is unique, they’re not really intended to be in any way exclusive. Yet they remain a mark of membership, of something you have come to understand and choose to carry as something you enjoy and believe in. Yet, unlike the plastic card, they are much more durable, there’s no annual renewal fee to keep it and they have a number of practical or fun applications too. Permit me to share…
In time, and at the encouragement of the Dummies, other channels – including mine – followed their lead and released their own versions of the coin in the same 49mm ceramic format. It’s become a very identifiable thing in whisky YouTube or WhiskyTube. The designs and variation in some ways further added to the idea of collectability; that you can secure coins from your favourite channels or creators and curate your own “sets” of coins.
Something quite interesting here is that channels will often hold back certain numbers or ranges, allowing them to raise future support for the channel or charity. Releasing them as sets, they can raise much needed funds, as demonstrated by the emotional fundraiser held recently on the Scotch Test Dummies’ channel for a family in need. When a friend and colleague of Scott & Bart was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer, they held a livestream in support. The coin sets were popular in the live auctions and a chance for some to get their hands on a rare Cask 1 Dummy coin.
Fidgets, flippers and toppers
While they’re portable and small enough to slip into a jeans coin pocket, there’s a good heft to them and their surface has a feel that remains illusively neither textured nor smooth. This encourages a playfulness that can see the owners flipping them or rolling them between fingers, generally fidgeting while in conversation or concentration. At times I often have them on standby to top a glass of whisky as it rests, and indeed the Dummies famously sell them as “whisky hats”. I now have more than enough to cover a full flight!
“Which pub next?” “Which dram next?” Just two of the decisions I’ve used my whisky coin to answer for me, especially if there’s a small group with slightly differing suggestions. It adds a little serendipity into the proceedings and removes the responsibility sometimes placed on a single person to steer the ship. If the coin chooses – everyone accepts the outcome.
In the true spirit of the concept, they’re often used as a genuine challenge coin. This is one of my favourite things. I love hearing stories or witnessing a challenger win himself or herself a drink through producing a coin. The rules here are straightforward; you meet the known coin carrier and you can choose to challenge them. If they’ve forgotten their coin – the round is on them. If, however, they produce a coin – it’s on you! In a group, the round falls on those who have forgotten.
The coins don’t need to match, they can be a coin form any whisky creator channel. As an example, through Twitter both @Ardbaggie and @TheDramBusters Gus have fallen foul. The nice part here is they have been able to trip each other up. First Andy was caught short, while a future event found Gus with the red face. This additional dynamic brings depth and takes the idea of collaboration and community even further. It can also make for a memorable ice-breaker.
The portability of the coin means that wherever whisky folk go, they can have their chosen coin at hand to place in a souvenir picture while visiting tourist spots, distilleries, tastings, club meet ups – whatever. With a well-chosen tag or hashtag it’ll reach the attention of the channel too, and I can’t enthuse enough about how cool it is to see these coins travel to so many sights, distilleries, pubs, homes and literally every corner of the globe.
When I send them out I often marvel at their destination and consider where they might go on from there. The miles they can cover is considerable. Take my batch one coins. After being made in the US, Scott and Bart carried them from Kansas to Texas for me. I met them there and carried them home (the story of the airport interview where I was questioned for trying to smuggle “currency” out of the US is for another time!), by the time I got them home to Glasgow they were already well travelled, but coins 105 and 175 had barely started. Purchased by Raimund (WhiskyBiker) in the Netherlands, I shipped them out as part of a bulk drop. Somehow, the package ended up in the wrong lot and was shipped, en-masse, to Canada. Some time passed and eventually they were returned to the correct address with all sorts of cool stamps and markings on the package testifying to their epic adventure, before being matched up with some Glenfarclas bottlings for a the very cool photo op you see here. Quite amazing!
If you’re after my attention tag #aqvavitae or #whiskyevangelists – I follow those! Also great to tag me @Aqvavitae_sco on Twitter or @Aqvavitae on Instagram. For further inspiration check out Scott and Bart’s coins around the globe as part of their #travellingdummies campaign. The contributors also earn themselves shout-outs on shows and livestreams, further deepening the sense of accessibility and connectedness.
And yet, what they really are
All of this is great fun and while some of it will appeal to some folk, some will not really see the point. I get it. However, no one is required to buy these. It’s an optional “add-in” to the WhsikyTube scene and while not all channels have them, I know of more joining the fun soon.
Truthfully, there are never enough of them made for everyone to have one anyway, not yet. They remain 100% optional and not a requirement to participate in anything. Even the tags above can be used for anything – a coin is simply not needed. They are small circles of ceramic, rendered unique by a serial number and printed with artwork representing small circles of digital channels sharing whisky, mostly through video.
Yet what they have become, through the inspiration of their creators and the effort and imagination of their bearers, is a token of community. That’s what they actually are.
Perhaps, as we carry them, gift them and share them, we’ll be reminded how, as a community, simply none are heard, seen or encountered as awesomely as our growing whisky community is. We are generous, helpful, friendly, warm and wholly inclusive. We are placed in situations where our politics, religion, race, gender or geography is barely noted and our common interest in whisky permits us to become better versions of ourselves, enjoying a shared experience. Perhaps these little coins have become, in a small way, a token of that ideal.
[Edit: for those asking how to get their hands on these; they cost £10 each plus £2.50 UK / £5 EU & EEA / £7.50 USA or international. Delete this shipping charge of you’re buying along with the Glencairn glasses. Send payment to paypal.me/aqvavitae or email me with any queries.]