Two years ago when I spent a month in London attending the local branch of EBS (European Bartending School), I discovered Hot Rum Cow, a UK drinks magazine focusing on the stories and people of the beverage industry. In the middle of glossy publications dedicated to alcoholic beverages, Hot Rum Cow stood out with its colorfully illustrated cover and thick matte paper. There were two different issues available in Victoria Station’ WHSmith shop: one about Scotland, the other about Future Booze. I bought both and was caught up with the publications’ witty tone and by the quirky, yet informative facts and the beautiful illustrations it contained. Since then, I’ve made it a point to get my hands on every new issue, including having my sister mail me one to Switzerland.
A few weeks ago, I took the opportunity of a trip to Edinburgh to meet with Simon Lyle, the editor of Hot Rum Cow, to learn about the origins and publishing process of the magazine.
We are a writers and designers’ agency called White Light Media. We started doing contract publishing for clients, like magazines, and now we also do content marketing with branding work, social media, etc. In 2012, we decided to launch our own magazine, partly to help marketing our agency. We wanted to showcase what we could do when given free reign. In doing that we were hoping to win business in different areas, such as lifestyle or food and beverages.
We wanted to make a magazine that could work on its own and that we’d be proud of, a creative outlet for our ideas. We wanted to start a magazine first and foremost and then brainstormed about what kind of magazine it would be. It’s then we realized there was a niche in the market for a magazine about drinking culture and the people that make it.
We’re not experts in the area so the magazine was always intended for people like us who like to drink, care about what they drink and would like to learn more about it. We wanted to write about the weird and wonderful stories, share quirky facts and not be prescriptive. Everything has to have an interesting tale to it.
We publish twice a year. We don’t write about punctual events. Our aim is for Hot Rum Cow to be timeless so you can go back to previous issues and their content is not outdated. We print on heavy paper so the magazine looks more like a book than like a magazine.
We commission a lot of illustrators and also have our in house designers working on each issue. We use photographers as well. We sometimes commission writers as well but the writing is mostly done in house. Our first editor now lives in Sweden but she’s still involved in every issue as our editor at large.
It all has to fit around the clients. We’re aiming for two Hot Rum Cow issues a year so we try to find a balance with our other projects, like World Whisky Day. Through Hot Rum Cow, we met Blair Bowman, the founder of World Whisky Day, and took over the running of the event in 2014. It was a natural extension of Hot Rum Cow. We do their social media and content. We try to bring as many people as possible to the event, not only experts from the industry.
We start with a theme. All issues are themed. The early issues were all themed to a certain drink. For issue #6 we introduced a broader theme of ‘The Future’ and later introduced some geographical themes (Scotland and America, so far). The most recent issue is about bubbles which is open to a fairly wide interpretation and applies to all bubbly drinks. Despite some issues being dedicated to one specific spirit, we try to talk about all drink categories in each issue to make it as wide interest as possible.
There is usually one history piece in every issue. The cover depicts the theme and not one specific feature. Then there are our regular sections: Liquid Lunch, Find your style, etc.
I speak with Liz Longden, our editor at large to set the theme and she writes the cover feature. We are four editors here in Leith. We cover recurring features and small pieces. We throw around ideas for other articles. We then have sessions with the designers to run through editorial ideas. They give us ideas on how to treat some features graphically to find the right balance between illustrations and photographs. After these sessions I write a flat plan of how to fill a hundred pages knowing some features will expand, others will get smaller, some will change, some will disappear and new ones will come up. Then I know if we have the right balance, the right mix of articles within and without the theme, as well as the right mix of illustrations and photographs. Sometimes, a few weeks before we’re due to send the magazine to print, there are still a few blank pages left but that changes quickly. Some pages are sold for advertising which fills the gaps or some editorials will stretch.
We do have a very collaborative kind of approach. Everyone pulls together for each issue. It’s a good thing we’re based in the same place. It makes for better interactions to treat stories. It’s a very exciting stage for everyone to receive the commissioned illustrations. Seeing how people interpret a brief is always full of surprises.
Eric Campbell, the creative director, and I start talking about the cover. It will either illustrate one feature or sum up the whole magazine. It all goes around which message we want to convey. We go through a few concepts and images. The team is involved as well and asked about their preferences.
Then come the final stages: proofing, checking facts, printing… Once we receive the final printed copy, I flip through it once and then I move on.
We then promote the new issue on social media. We’re all involved in the distribution and send packages to subscribers ourselves. It’s nice to feel you’re involved in the whole process from start to finish.
We ask advice from experts in the field and then make our own tastings and experiments. For the rum issue, we featured producers recommended by Global Rum Ambassador Ian Burrell. Again, we’re not experts. So, our tastings are made and described by and for lay people like us. Hot Rum Cow‘s next issue which will be launched in August will feature mezcal. This spirit is quite polarizing. We had a tasting in our meeting room. Some liked it, others didn’t.
We’re a small team with a small budget. We have to make trips pay, say get the material for at least four articles, to justify costs. I went to Spain for the sherry issue and to the States for the America issue. It felt like we couldn’t do the themes justice without going there.
For the America issue I knew I wanted to write about Lost Spirits (note: a creative and innovative design house, laboratory and distillery producing fast aged rums and whiskies). I contacted them to arrange a visit to their lab in Charleston. They told me to meet them at Tales of the Cocktail first and then I followed them back to Charleston. I got the material for several articles this way.
We’re a small magazine. We print 8,000 copies of each issue so it’s not a mass market thing for brands to feature in. But what we do is position Hot Rum Cow as a really nice magazine to be in. We get people involved because they like the publication and know we’re taking a different approach than other magazines. The magazine sells itself. I generally go to people, ask if they’ve heard about Hot Rum Cow, send them a copy if they haven’t, and tell them we’d like to write a feature about them.
There is space for everyone in Hot Rum Cow, whether they’re big players – we had a feature about Guinness – or small ones (usually that’s where the stories are). It’s often good news for small producers because it gives them visibility and they have nice human stories to share.
Thank you, Simon, for sharing Hot Rum Cow‘s story. I’m looking forward to the next issue.