Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Wherein I Talk to Bloomberg About NDPs

I did this interview last summer. I recall it was a hot day and we had to turn off the AC at Scofflaw (3201 W Armitage) because it was too noisy. Bloomberg posted the finished five-minute video today with a story headlined "Bourbon Bait and Switch. What's Really in Your Glass?" I don't know if the video has seen the light of day before now, but this is the first time I've seen it. I should lose some weight.

Be sure to read the short article too. It's a little more up-to-date, noting that Four Roses stopped making Bulleit Bourbon at the beginning of last year. Bloomberg did a good job with both the article and video.

Between articles like this one, and excerpts and reviews of Reid Mitenbuler's new book, Bourbon Empire, the popular press is once again all abuzz with shocking news about non-distiller producers (NDPs) and the misleading tales they tell. Of course, none of this is news to regular readers of this blog, my newsletter, or my books, particularly my most recent one, Bourbon, Strange, which was published in September of 2014. The media likes to hype as 'unknown' information that is well known, just not widely known. You know better.

Despite the publicity, there are more Potemkin Distilleries today than ever. Why? Because stories sell and making them up is cheap, certainly cheaper than actually building a distillery and making whiskey yourself. I don't favor more regulation of labels, although the regulators need to do a much better job applying and enforcing the rules they already have. Many Potemkins break with impunity the rules about identifying the state where the whiskey was distilled, and about how old the whiskey really is if it is less than four years old.

For other things, consumer education is the best solution. If the consumer knows Templeton Rye is made in Indiana, not Iowa, and buys it anyway, no one is harmed.

But getting true information to the people who need it is hard. When you're not spending money making whiskey, you have a lot more to spend on marketing and most whiskey consumers get most of their information from the marketers, either directly or indirectly through bars and liquor stores.

If consumers are to be educated, they have to play their part too. Much would be solved if more people were just a little more curious about where the products they buy really come from, although I'm sure many of us are afraid to know. In today's multiple-channel media universe, multiple-channel messaging is the only way to reach a large number of people. Accurate information about American whiskey is available here and elsewhere if people bother to look for it, but an outlet like Bloomberg can put it in front of many more whiskey buyers than I can. In this case, both the story and video are original reporting too, not just a rehash of other published media reports like most of what you read today online.

Enthusiast publications such as WHISKY Magazine and Whisky Advocate do a good job, even though they are supported by whiskey advertising. The people who write for them as well as their many very knowledgeable readers won't stand for any whitewashing. Whether it is them or the fat guy in the red shirt, all any of us has is our credibility. If you want to know the truth about what you are drinking, your best bet is to get your information from a variety of sources and stay at least a little bit skeptical about all of them.


Erik Fish said...

Very well done.
Both content and visuals got the point across. Of course such reports never can go far beyond soundbites from their interviews, but the producers picked the right ones, and weaving in some quotes from some of the master distillers was a nice touch, too. The little stunt with asking for the Bulleit distillery at the sheriff's dept. was cute.

As you say, it all comes down to education. In a country where a lot of people are surprised to find out that Uncle Ben, Aunt Jemima and Mr. Clean weren't real people, that work will never be done.

MadMex said...

Excellent piece. I'm of the opinion, who cares what's in the bottle. If the label don't fly, I don't buy.

Anonymous said...

Nicely done!

Reid Mitenbuler said...

Hi Chuck, great video.

You know, as the author of Bourbon Empire, I'm pleased at how positive the initial reviews have been, but also a little surprised at the parts getting the most attention. Folks have really seized on the issue of NDPs -- an issue well known to geeks but not to most. I don't give it that much page space, and I was very careful not to carry a tone of malice or scorn, pointing out that sourcing and myth-making are both age old practices and not necessarily bad things. As we've discussed in the past,the book is meant to bridge casual drinkers with some of the bigger pillars of whiskey geekery (I'm pleased as punch at reviewers like Fred Minnick, whiskey geeks who get the finer points).

Nevertheless, these issues (NDPs, DBA, etc.) punctures the illusion of what most customers want to believe about brands, and always manages to kick up some dust. As you've pointed out a million times, media loves to run these kinds of stories with a salacious tone engineered to grab eyeballs and clicks. A couple of articles have cherry picked these parts from Bourbon Empire to create this narrative, to turn it into an "exposé" of the whiskey industry rather than an "exploration."

Of course, I have to chuckle (what other response is there?). In the book, I specifically criticize certain media outlets' tendency to chase approved narratives with their whiskey stories, and use a great quote from you to nail down the point. Now, with some of the reviews, I'm sort of subject to it, caught up in the same warp and whoof.

Of course, I suppose this is all part of the big picture -- one of my favorite aspects of whiskey history is all the ironies and contradictions it presents, and what those tell us about the spirit, the industry, and the people who make and drink it.

billyhacker said...

After reading this blog for a while, I found that I was enjoying my whiskeys more, so I finally sprung for the newsletter. Thanks for keeping this blog so interesting. Great interview, by the way.

TG Molitor said...

> If consumers are to be educated, they have to play their part too. <

I think this is happening, Chuck. I was at a tasting last week in which a New Mexico spirits company presented its eight year old whiskey even thought company is two years old. Taos Lightening is a MGP of Indiana product, and when the source question was brought up, the distiller confirmed MGP. It was good whiskey, but if a company is going to make a huge deal out of the "story behind the whiskey," then it leaves itself open to scrutiny. Kind of like when Hillary Clinton said her mother named her after Sir Edmund Hillary, the first person to scale Mt.Everest, even though Sir Edmund did not become an American household name until six years after Hillary Clinton was born.