Monday, September 26, 2016

Whiskey's Biggest Lie


Their whiskey wasn't very good.
"Don't read the comments" is good advice more often than not. For what is to follow you might want to make an exception and read the comments on the Knob Creek post from last Thursday. Then again, it is not really necessary as they are, for the most part, wholly predictable. They range from resignation to outrage. "This is so unfair to the consumers and fans," "Flavor/Taste profile is a joke to justify keeping the same price using younger juice," "What happens to all the awards and medals that the real Knob Creek won?"

When producers make changes, many drinkers balk reflexively. Why are we so unwilling to accept change? Because those very producers have told us for years that change is bad.

Back in 2005, when the company now known as Beam Suntory (the makers of Knob Creek) created its first major TV advertising campaign for its flagship Jim Beam Bourbon, the theme was �true to our original recipe for 209 years.�

Bulleit Bourbon, a product created within the lifetime of any person of legal drinking age, purports to be made from an ancient recipe passed down to Tom Bulleit from his great-great-grandfather, Augustus. Mr. Bulleit blushes when asked about this story. Like the Beams, he has no parchment to show you, just a �tradition� passed from father to son, and who can argue with that?

The problem with these and every other claim about an ancient, unchanged bourbon recipe is twofold. (1) Bourbon today is much better in every way than what they were drinking in 1795 or 1830, and (2) the claims are untrue, because whiskeys, like most products, are constantly changing.

Even 100 years ago, mashbills were pretty flexible. (In a multi-grain whiskey, the 'mashbill' describes what grains are used and in what proportions.) Ingredients varied based on cost and availability. Products were often made by combining whiskeys made from different recipes at different distilleries. Today there is much more consistency, but there are still variations. Different batches of grain can vary in significant ways. Changes to the stills make a difference. When energy is costly, distilleries will run a thicker mash to reduce energy costs. Wood characteristics vary from tree to tree. Every difference, however small, makes a difference.

Because there are so many variables producers don't rely on recipes, they rely on taste. Every distillery has a library of bottles that record in liquid form how different batches have tasted over the years. Every producer has a panel of tasters whose job is to compare each new batch to the standard for that product. If the new batch doesn't measure up adjustments are made, generally by adding whiskey that possesses the missing characteristic. They are limited in this effort by labeling rules. If a product is age-stated, '9-years-old' for example, no whiskey may be used that is less than 9-years-old even if the profile calls for it.

Virtually all whiskey producers strive for consistency, as do most manufacturers regardless of the product. At the same time there is a seemingly-contradictory impulse to constant improvement. This varies with product type. Technology products have to improve or die. With other products, such as whiskey, long-term consistency seems the higher value.

Twenty to thirty years ago, when America was awash with whiskey no one wanted, many producers routinely put 8- to 10-year-old whiskey into their standard NAS products. They didn't publicize it because they knew it was temporary and no law required disclosure. There were few complaints.

Today, rapid demand growth has outstripped the industry's supply side. Because whiskey has to be aged, you inevitably over-produce or under-produce. It is almost impossible to get it just right. The challenge today is to meet as much demand as you can with the inventory you have, and to do it as profitably as possible.

Because of the demand growth, everyone today is distilling as much whiskey as they can as fast as they can. All indicators say bourbon sales will continue to grow for years to come. All indicators have been wrong before. Nothing is certain.

Marketers of all kinds know a lot about consumer behavior. With whiskey, there are two sure ways to piss off your most loyal customers, raise the price or change the taste, and between those two changing the taste is worse. Everything else, including label changes, has a lower priority.

So producers will continue to like the "nothing changes" claim, but what you should hear is "we're doing everything we can to keep everything you care about the same." That may not be snappy, but it has the virtue of being true.

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