Picture it: K&L Redwood City on a Sunday afternoon. The store is relatively quiet, the sun is low on the horizon, the lighting is lazy, the clerks are steadily stocking the shelves, and an older gentleman walks in the front door. He strolls around the back to the liquor shelf and finds his way over to the gin. He stoically peruses the selection, making his way over to the tequila before realizing he's exhausted his options and moved too far. Back to the gin shelf. Staring. Searching. Looking left, and then right. "Sir, did you need some help?" I ask as I wander over to the area. "You guys don't carry Bombay Sapphire?" he asks with a hint of frustration. "Unfortunately no," I respond, "but we have some fantastic gins that I think you might also really like." The man replies not in words, but rather with a grunt as he makes his way out of the store. In his world, there are no other options, no other choices. He's a Bombay man, through and through.
For most of the post-Prohibition era, large liquor companies have spent countless sums in the effort to convert drinkers into loyal brand customers, proud consumers who identify with their liquor's image. This strategy didn't apply solely to booze, as any Lucky Strike smoker will tell you. The idea that a specific company deserved one's sole business was a natural way of living. It said something about a man. It spoke volumes to one's character, and advertising agencies made sure to re-enforce this principle (as any episode of Mad Men will certainly showcase). However, with the death of this now elderly generation comes the death of brand loyalty as a manifested philosophy. Blended whiskey companies are being hit hardest and recognize this trend as a serious threat to their continued profitability. In 2008, we carried Ballantine's in 1.75 L format. In 2009, we stopped because our one loyal Ballantine's customer passed away. Same thing with Crown Royal.
Today's spirits enthusiast is excited by selection. Many never buy the same thing twice. There are so many whiskies, and so little time! Speaking for myself, I certainly have my favorites among available brands, but there are so many new releases that I would quickly fall behind the times were I to repeatedly drink the same thing.
Bartenders are noticing the same phenomenon. Thirty, even twenty, years ago, a man would walk into a bar and order his brand without even perusing the menu. Today's cantinas however pride themselves on their diversity and their creativity, making cocktails that no one would think to mix at home. Drinkers are trusting the people who work with alcohol to guide them towards something new, rather than playing it safe with a trusted favorite. If anything, there is loyalty to a locale rather than a brand where customers abide by the establishments that continue to expand their horizons.
The death of brand loyalty is certainly not yet complete, and is likely more apparant in the Bay Area bubble than say in rural Kentucky. However, it has and will continue to shape the way that new liquor companies consider their finances. Just this week, I consulted with a new independent bottler about some marketing decisions and this weighed heavily into the discussion. Today's generation as a whole has an attention span of about 15-30 seconds before they're off to the next great attraction. It might make more sense to be an independent bottler in this day and age because you can start fresh with every batch.