I was reading a book this morning entitled The 50 Funniest American Writers by Andy Borowitz, in which he writes,
Whenever you come out with a 'best of' list, you're bound to irritate people....They start bad-mouthing it, which forces people like me (me, and my many internet aliases) to defend it. If you're lucky, the controversy goes viral and lots of people start arguing about who deserves to be on this list and who doesn't. And all that talk 'moves a shitload of units,' to borrow a phrase from Edith Wharton.
Andy Borowitz is mocking his own book with a certain sense of self-awareness that I find refreshing. His point is entirely true, which is why you've probably noticed that news sites have become nothing more than "Top Ten" lists and anthologies of crap. People read that stuff, forward the link to their friends, the views add up and those hits turn into advertising money. If reporting the news doesn't pay the bills anymore, then why not just create another quick and easy list to generate more comments in the comments field? That's the business of reporting these days and it extends conveniently to the world of booze. Wine Spectator's Top 100 issue is always the most read of the yearly editions, so how can they work that magic into every other issue as well? How can we get people to read what we write? Make more lists. How can wine and whisk(e)y producers sell more units? Get on those lists.
Shortly after reading the above quotation I went for a long run. I had downloaded some NPR Talk of the Nation episodes and mid-way through my jaunt there was a piece about the science in AMC's Breaking Bad (my absolute favorite TV show ever). It turns out that creator Vince Gilligan worked with a University of Oklahoma professor to make sure the organic chemistry of the show was accurate (if you live outside of pop culture, Breaking Bad is about a science teacher who cooks meth). The host of NPR went on to say that accurate science was becoming quite popular in film and television this year, meaning that producers were taking the time to make sure that different processes were explained. Other crime shows like CSI also made sure their science was sound because the audience was always ready to point out when it wasn't. The shows that took more time to focus on those details were succeeding. That really resonated with me.
There are at least ten customers at K&L everyday with a list printed out from say Gourmet Magazine called the "Ten Best Wines for Ceviche" or something along those lines. They read the list, they search for the bottles. Interestingly enough, there are also at least ten customers who know way more than I do about whisky or they'll want to know way more than I can tell them. "How big are the washbacks at Bunnahabhain?" "Do you know how many first-fill sherry barrels go into the Ardbeg Uigeadail?" It's the dichotomy between those who couldn't care less about where their booze came from and those who obsess over it. The more information that becomes available, the more people want to know. Regardless of whether it's the current fad, there's still a real precedent being set - basically, some people aren't going to just take things at face value anymore. You can't have a show now about something like professional bomb defusers where they just say stuff like "cut the blue wire." You're going to have to get real about details. Wine and whisk(e)y enthusiasts are beginning to expect the same level of respect for their intelligence.
In 2011, we saw a demand for limited-edition whiskies, for hand-crafted beers, and for locally-made wines like we've never before witnessed. Part of this phenomenon is due to education and part of it is due to Top Ten lists. On one hand, there were likely thousands of people searching online for things like "Best Bourbon" or "Top 10 Bourbons." What do you think they read over and over?
1. Pappy Van Winkle
2. George T. Stagg
The hunt for Brown October began. On the other hand, we also had people obsessing about where the latest Van Winkle Bourbons were being sourced from, how many bottles were being manufactured, and would the quality of Buffalo Trace match that of Stitzel-Weller. I had more than 2,000 people download my podcast with Preston Van Winkle in two weeks - more than double the amount of any other episode to date. People wanted more information and more insight into what they were purchasing. That access to information led more customers to K&L than ever before.
As we head into 2012, I'm predicting that education will continue to play a larger role. There's a funny Portlandia sketch where a couple leaves the resturant they're at to visit the farm where the chicken on the menu is being sourced from. They can't decide on the dish until they know more about how that chicken was treated. It's a funny parody because it's true! If you could only see the amount of emails I receive, inquiring about details and specs of certain single malts. There's more than a trend going on here. I don't believe that whisky drinkers will ever go back to blended brands again because they already know too much. There's something satisfying about knowing where your booze came from, just like there's something entertaining about watching Walter White talk chemistry on Breaking Bad. It's no longer a larger than life drama. There's reality going on. You can't just fool people with fancy packaging anymore.
At the same time, however, Old Pulteney 21 is still impossible to find. I guess being the "Number One Whisky in the World" has its advantages, too.