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.

17 comments:

Tommy tom said...

That focus on the liquid leaves packaging as the primary target for cost shaving etc. There is always work you can do but the low fruit has been picked there a long time ago. Example, empty liquor boxes used to be convenient for re-use at the package store when you were buying more than a 375 ml vodka. Nowadays you should carefully hold the used box by the bottom.

Cranecreek said...

I know that the recent development with Knob Creek is not a business decision that was based on loyalty to the brand. Otherwise it would never have gone down this way. It is a change based on sales. Knob Creek has been very successful and future sales will not be affected within the large majority of customers. It is only the aficionados such as myself that will be lost. It was a no brain decision to purchase Knob creek or recommend it to others as a bourbon that provided a bridge to top shelf choices. At 100 proof and quite complex and then being age stated at 9 years, one could not go wrong. But with this change the producer does now include itself in the realm of other bourbons with no age statements. It would be foolish to destroy the brand with a large amount of 4 year old whiskies in the mix,but the door is open to include as much as possible and still stay within the "straight Bourbon" laws. As to providing a "flavor profile" that is something I expect from a Cola drink company or a pizza vendor but not from my producer of bourbon. But as talked about in this article there is a bigger picture involved here than just myself or others of the same persuasion enjoying and contemplating an age stated glass of whiskey. Thankfully, in this time of "the Bourbon bubble" there are other choices available and in the not so distant past that was not the case.

Andrew P. Giles said...

Knob Creek is damn good. But the more important question to me is how will this effect the KC 120 proof single barrel expression? Because personally that's the Knob Creek I'm in love with.

Cary Dice said...

As far as taste profiles goes, when I worked on the Budweiser ad business, I got to sit-in on the Friday tasting sessions where they had approx. 12 people who tasted Bud samples from the 12 breweries to make sure they all had the correct Bud profile and no off-tastes. Then they did the same with the brands that owe their lineage to Bud - Bud Light, Michelob, Busch, etc. They would taste each, then a Bud, because each profile had a specific relationship to the Bud profile. It was fascinating. (Please, no piss-water cracks).

Anonymous said...

Instinctively I feel that you are incorrect about NAS being a poor realm to be in. There are many great bourbons that have long left the Age Statement behind and continue to be held in high regard, Four Roses comes to mind particularly. So many people I feel get caught up with the superfluous and don't focus on the spirit itself. Age can certainly be an attribute towards the quality of the spirit, but it's only a small factor. Much like with wine, I personally feel you put your trust in blenders, the people behind the curtain, that are making the product.

The Age and the Price of bourbon are in no way an indication of quality.

I mean, it's not like they are just dumping the barrels into bottles...

Crown Point Marc said...

How about panther piss? (My Dad's favorite pejorative).

Anonymous said...

As a diatiller I will tell you that the NAS is almost a necessity for the mega producers who continue to pump out so much product, some of which is not sold in its "expected window." Keep in mind how the law works. If distiller X has a specific flavor profile that they have achieved by just using 9 year old, they then have a problem if they don't sell everything they have made by year 9. if the 10 year old is mixed with the youngest (9year old) the flavor may well not hit the representative sample. Whereas if you have a lot of 9 year old, 10, 11,12,etc, and you want to hit that "younger" 9 year old profile, you can only do it by adding some 4,5,etc...

The problem isn't that they are "running short" of older whiskey, it is quite the opposite. They have plenty of unsold old whiskey, that they need to blend with newer whiskey, to hit the flavor profile.

Wnsnearly said...

I think the demand will only go up. No matter who the next president is, the rate of whiskey consumption is certain to rise!!
Sigh.

Erik Fish said...

"The problem isn't that they are "running short" of older whiskey, it is quite the opposite. They have plenty of unsold old whiskey, that they need to blend with newer whiskey, to hit the flavor profile."

While that has an inherent logic in a vacuum, it flies in the face of everything we've seen and heard over the last several years. So I simply don't buy it. If you do have proof of a vast conspiracy involving distillers, employees, journalists, bloggers and everybody else who knows the industry, all of whom are trying to keep this a secret except apparently you, I'd like to see it.

Anonymous said...

As long as a whiskey label is not lying to me, I will try it if the price is right.
I will buy it again if the price point is at or under what my mouth finds its quality to be.
I could care less about an age statement. I like the 9 year old Knob Creek.
I buy it when its on sale ($28 here in Milwaukee).
For $28 its a great bourbon in my opinion.
If the flavor profile suffers due to adding younger whiskey, my calculus will change and $28 may no longer be worth it.
Beam is not lying to me. They are telling me the blending of this bourbon will change. It is up to my mouth to try to tell the difference. If it can't, then that age statement was not needed.

Brian (AKA The Dean) said...

Anonymous, you're right on the money here. Beam is letting us know about the change. The only way to know if they are keeping the same profile is to taste it, and make the judgement for yourself. Well, that is unless you are self-described "aficionado" who makes definitive judgements by the age printed on the label.

Cranecreek said...

Greetings Brian,
No it is not a definitive judgment it is a marker of quality. Much the same as "straight bourbon" has to be 4 years old. Any younger than that would need an age statement to the youngest whiskey in the bottle. If you and others maintain that the age of a bourbon is unimportant to the production of quality bourbon than I guess we will just have to have different views on that Cheers!

Travis Reese said...

This doesn't make any sense to give the distiller the benefit of the doubt. You can take whatever quote you want from Mr. Noe. The reality is these are billion dollar companies that want to grow. They don't just need to make enough bourbon to sell out each year. They have institutional and publicly traded money relying on them to grow like crazy. Of course the quality will go down. Sazerac Rye isn't as good as it used to be when it had an age statement, Elijah Craig isn't as good and Knob Creek will continue on that path.
Wish our brands weren't so short-sighted and treated this recent bubble like scotch brands do. Print the Age Statement. Sell out. Raise prices. Keep quality high. That's the only thing that matters.

Cranecreek said...

I agree with Travis 100% in his post. You have to look hard to find a single malt scotch without an age statement. They learned.

Erik Fish said...

"Cranecreek said...
I agree with Travis 100% in his post. You have to look hard to find a single malt scotch without an age statement. They learned."

With all due respect, you really have no idea what you are talking about. And you apparently have not been following the developments in the scotch industry. For the last several years, talk in the scotch scene has almost been dominated by the fact that new scotch expressions without age statements have been popping up like mushrooms after a heavy rain. Even the most venerable single malt labels like The Macallan, Oban, and Mortlach are not immune and have added NAS expressions to their permanent lines.

Cranecreek said...

Always willing to "eat some crow" in exchange for knowledge. My comment was based on my own experience as I looked to find an affordable single malt scotch. When one such as I gets a "little" knowledge combined with a passion and a keyboard than sometimes that can lead to posting words you wished you would not have.
I am out of my league here in this blog and will in the future just read.

William Roefer said...

NAS is not necessary. Producers should simply tell us precisely what is in the blend. If they don't it's because they don't want the consumer to know. Anything less than full disclosure is unacceptable. That said, NAS can still taste good.