It’s interesting in the booze business (and life in general) how sure the future can seem at times. When things are looking up it can be hard to imagine how they could ever take a turn for the worse. Whiskey has been on quite the run for the last decade and the future still looks bright for the category as a whole, but to assume it’s going to keep chugging along at the same clip, uninterrupted by competing markets and global affairs, might be perhaps a bit overconfident. More than a century of cycles—booms and busts—should be enough to remind most of us about the ever-fragile state of the whiskey market, not to mention changes to key legislation. There’s a small murmur of worry moving through the industry currently about potential America-first import tariffs or taxes from the Trump administration that would seriously hike up Scotch prices, let alone the vast quantities of French wine and spirits we bring in. While it looks like that proposed 20% border tax isn’t going to happen any time soon (and it looks like it wouldn’t apply to booze anyway), it only takes one little act of Congress to completely change all of our fortunes. Like the time in 1920 when they voted to make alcohol completely illegal throughout the United States; don’t forget about that. Not all markets are changed by fashion alone.
When Prohibition did come to America in the 1920s it completely gutted the Canadian whisky industry, which at that time—according to Davin de Kergommeaux—was the top selling whisky in the states. The spirit never quite regained the same momentum when the ban was ultimately lifted, despite the fact that bootlegging over the border was quite a regular thing. Detroit was actually one of the epicenters for booze smuggling given its close proximity not only to Canada, but also to one of Canada’s major distilleries: Hiram Walker. You may have to take a look at a map to understand the uniqueness of the relationship, but Windsor, Ontario—where the distillery is located—is actually south of Detroit, separated by the Detroit River that runs between Lake Erie and Lake Huron. There’s a peninsula that juts out to the southwest of Toronto and hovers above Lake Erie, flanked on the east end by Buffalo and on the west end by Detroit. Remember that it’s quite cold in both locations, to the point that rivers generally freeze and can be skated or walked upon. During the long, cold winters of Prohibition, late at night when the viability was low, it wasn’t uncommon for a few trucks to be driving directly upon the ice, packed with barrels of Canadian whisky for the dry and thirsty palates of American drinkers, and headed for the other side of the bank. It’s interesting to me that with all the hoopla and romanticism surrounding pre-Prohibition cocktails and drinking habits from the moonshining era, Canadian whisky never thought to jump on that marketing bandwagon. There's a lot there to chew on.
But considering how fleeting and fickle our fashionable tastes are here in America, taking the long road may have been the better move. This current iteration of whiskey's lore is temporary; it's not meant to last. The more I travel around the US, and the more I talk to regular bartenders and restaurateurs about their thoughts and feelings concerning our current drinking culture, the more it’s clear to me that a counter movement is underway—against the connoisseur-driven “sip it, don’t shoot it” mindset. Too much time has been spent analyzing whiskey and ranking its quality rather than drinking it, which is why you’re going to see a push towards consumption and enjoyment moving forward. It’s no different than the evolution we’ve seen with smart phones over the last few years, with more and more places asking consumers to politely show some manners and refrain from using them in various public places. We don’t always understand what the consequences are of cultural evolution until we’re presented with its annoying by-products. In the case of whiskey’s development, that consequence would be a social media sub-culture of collectors buying up and hoarding supplies to be used as cultural currency rather than actual consumption and enjoyment (kind of like people who record live rock concerts on their iPhones instead of actually watching them). The continued evolution of that subset has real drinkers and industry professionals alike scattering so as to separate themselves from that ilk. What’s the best way to prove you’re not one of these people? To drink something those guys would never drink. To find appreciation in simple consumption and enjoyment, the value of which will never be determined by exclusivity. To drink something delicious simply because it tastes good and not because it will impress anyone. Canadian whisky, anyone? Yes, Canada: your time is now.
I didn’t need to work in the booze industry to learn about fads. I’ve lived through decades of them. I remember when we all thought Guess Jeans would be cool forever. Same with Reebok Pumps. And Starter parkas. And baseball cards. And Vanilla Ice, too. In the end, everything bright must eventually burn out. In some cases, a popular fad dies because too many people jump on the bandwagon, watering down the potency of its power among the people who made it cool to begin with. Part of the reason fads start has to do with a feeling of newness or freshness, but that all goes away when you see your mom, grandmother, and next-door neighbor wearing Coldplay T-shirts. In other cases, there’s no substance beyond the initial offering, like a one-hit wonder who fizzles out when the second song fails to live up to expectations. If you ask me, American whiskey is in serious danger right now of succumbing to both pitfalls. Not only is the market overpopulated with overzealous consumers, the major distilleries themselves have run out of the very reasonably-priced aged whiskies that created the buzz in the first place and are now struggling to find a follow-up. You wanna know why Madonna is in her fourth decade of relevancy? Because she was able to reinvent herself time and time again, keeping us all on our toes and finding new generations of fans along the way. I don't know of any pop artist who has found lasting success by releasing a second album full of songs that were half as good as the first record, but for double the price. That being said, plenty of great artists over the years have fallen out of favor, off the charts, and off the radar, only to reemerge years later when the general public rediscovered and recognized their ability and charm once again. See Bruce Springsteen's "Streets of Philadelphia" or John Travolta in Pulp Fiction. Again, I ask: Canadian whisky, anyone? Is it time for another American rediscovery?
I’m on a plane to Detroit right now, typing this all up as I watch the flight tracker on the map in front of me. I know literally where I am right now and where I’m going, but I’m still not quite sure where we’re heading. I’m hoping for glimpse of the future on this trip.