Monday, July 10, 2023

Should Your Favorite Whiskey Always Taste the Same?


Big whiskey companies are serious about consistency.

John Lunn, before he took the position of master distiller at George Dickel, got to meet Ralph Dupps, who built the Tullahoma distillery for Schenley in the 1950s. "Don't change a damn thing," was Ralph's only advice.

There is nothing the biggest whiskey companies take more seriously than consistency.

For some craft distillers, consistency is anathema and good for them. They want to be consistent only up to a point, then they want each release to be its own experience. 

That isn't how the majors see it. Their best customers are the 20 percent of drinkers who consume 80 percent of volume, 'heavy users,' with all the implications of that descriptor. They are brand loyalists. They drink every day and always drink the same thing the same way. Bitter experience has taught the big companies that they change a whiskey's flavor at their peril. Those precious heavy users will notice and they will not approve. 

They won't write blog posts about it. They'll just find a new favorite whiskey. 

Changing how a whiskey tastes is an even worse sin than raising the price. Some insiders attributed the rapid demise of Old Crow Bourbon to a small, unintended flavor change that occurred because of a distillery expansion in the 1960s.

This respect for brand-loyal customers who prize consistency made it hard for many companies to learn how to appeal to a new generation of whiskey enthusiasts whose values are different.

How do big distilleries ensure consistency? This post from 2022 asked the question, "Are Basil Hayden and Old Grand-Dad the Same?" That led to an explanation of flavor profiles and the way producers maintain them to ensure product consistency. A long explanation is there, but the short version is this:

When barrels are dumped for bottling, often hundreds at a time, their contents are mixed together in a big tank. 

Enough room is left in the tank for additional barrels to be added if necessary to adjust the product's flavor.

Samples from this new batch are then compared to a standard, "what it tasted like last time." This is done by the distillery's tasting panel. The master distiller has final say. They will tweak the blend until it's right.

Many distilleries have rooms full of plain, glass flasks (typically 500ml) labeled as to contents and when each was filled, shelf after shelf of them, a liquid archive. Quality control personnel can compare a current batch to not only the most recent batch, but to just about any batch of any brand the company has ever produced.

How many craft distilleries do this or anything like it? 

Some do, some don't. Some, like the majors, save not just samples of bottling batches but also samples of new distillate, distillate after one year in wood, etc. Even if you preserve just one sample from every bottling batch, sample bottles can add up quickly. Many craft distilleries start out cramped for space. Do most even have room for a liquid archive? 

Even if you're not trying to exactly match a profile with every batch, there are good reasons to keep a liquid record. When a problem arises, the first thing distillers do is go back to their archive to see if they can tell when the trouble started.

So, the headline above asks, "Should your favorite whiskey always taste the same?" Should it? That's entirely up to you. If you value consistency, the majors have you covered. If you believe variety is the spice of life, that's all right there for you too.

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