Friday, June 14, 2019

Attention Cynics. Most Whiskey Companies Aren't as Awful as You Think

Chuck Cowdery (left) and Fred Noe. Photo by Fred Minnick
Yesterday's happy news about Beam Suntory restoring the age statement on Knob Creek Bourbon was greeted by some with cynicism, specifically the part where I wrote, "Fred Noe and son Freddie have been agitating to bring it back."

Most people welcomed the news, but a few said something like this. "Is that story just more marketing? It's not like they have any actual say."

I get it. I can be as cynical as the next guy. In this case, the reality is different, though it's a nuanced difference. The marketers are involved, surely, but the master distillers who are the face of many brands are no mere mouthpieces. It varies from company to company. In some cases the roles are exaggerated for marketing effect, but in virtually all instances the companies recognize that these individuals, some like the Beams and Noes who have been deep in the industry for generations, are a unique asset.

Valuable as the embodiment of the brand, yes, but also for their knowledge and experience, their contacts, and their connection to customers. They may not always get their way, but their suggestions are always taken seriously.

I have been in and around this industry for more than 40 years. Decision-making is generally collaborative. The top decision makers are the C-suite executive types and those aren't the people you meet at tastings and whiskey festivals. But that doesn't mean the master distillers are spectators. The ones I know, and that's just about all of them, wouldn't stand for that.


Andy said...

My apologies up front for being cynical in this comment...
I am in Michigan where the minimum price of liquor is state mandated. As far as I can tell, Michigan uses the MSRP. I watched the NAS Knob Creek drop in price, which was nice even if some claim that the NAS was not as good as the 9 year. If there really is a difference, it was very subtle.
I have a feeling that the only way Fred and Freddie got the age statement back was with the marketing group seeing dollar signs. How much is the 9-year statement worth on the shelf? Will we see a bump of $10 beyond the current price? The age statement is not worth that much to me if the flavor shows little to no difference.

Anonymous said...

Nice post, Mr. Cowdery! I agree. I am generally a very skeptical person and even cynical in some situations. But I believe that there are 2 alter-egos to distilleries, whether it's American or Scotch, the big multi-nationals trying to milk for profits and the actual craftsmen. Now, let's be honest, if the craftsmen were so good at business, they wouldn't all end up in portfolios of mega-corps. But if the mega-corps didn't snap up the craftsmen, we'd all be drinking gin and vodka. There's a synergistic dimension to all this.

Personally I was really impressed by what I learned earlier from your posts about the Heaven Hill fire - how other distilleries stepped in to help with fresh distillate. I'd heard similar things about the Scotch industry - how despite competition they don't treat each other as industrial foes. I think that commands a lot of respect. Unlike some other industries where it's common to denigrate the competition.