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Wednesday
Apr122017

Outside Perspective

The nice part about traveling with other booze industry professionals is that it gives you the chance to hear about what’s happening in other markets, to share ideas, and cross reference your observations. Last night at Wright & Co. in downtown Detroit I had dinner with a number of other reps and suppliers who work in large markets and we chatted about everything from whisky to cocktail culture to bar experiences and beyond. I wasn’t alone in my earlier prediction; there are other people out there who feel the end of alcohol’s cultivated and over-complicated connoisseurship is near. We've gone a bit too far towards one side of the spectrum. “It’s going to swing back over to dive bars again,” one guy told me, “but this time around you’ll be able to get more than shitty draft beer or a vodka tonic.” That made total sense to me. The only reason I ever left the dive bar in the first place was because I discovered more interesting and flavorful drinks outside its comfortable confines. If you told me I could get a Four Pillars gin and tonic, a Lot 40 Sazerac, or a pint of Stiegl all while keeping my rock and roll jukebox, pool table, and diverse group of drinkers, I’d be there in a heartbeat. The problem is that you usually have to trade quality for comfort, or vice versa.

“We’ve seen the same thing with food trucks, haven’t we?” I responded in agreement. “I think the best restaurant on the SF peninsula right now is a Mexican food truck called Los Carnalitos, and other people obviously agree because there’s a line every single day.” In the case of food, the market is already proving there's a trend back toward simplicity, but with an elevated quality and a sense of what’s trending elsewhere. This isn’t the same as the ironic or contrarian culture we’ve seen over the last decade, mind you, where hipsters drink PBR or wear ridiculous trucker hats simply because it's so ridiculous. The examples I’m seeing constitute a serious quality and a genuine enthusiasm, just via a medium that used to be a sign of bulk or mass-market mediocrity. More examples? How about good, affordable, and clean white wine in a box? How about really good IPAs in a can? How about wine in a can? How about fresh sushi at the Giants game? Aren’t beer cans and ballgames typically reserved for Budweiser and hot dogs? Not anymore. Times are changing again and we’re evolving out of those old stereotypes. Hotel bars went from the epicenters of fine drinking, to shitty corporate lounges, to cool curators of local cocktail culture once again. Airports? The same thing. The more I travel, the less I mind getting to my terminal early. San Francisco’s Virgin America terminal has a better breakfast spot than my own neighborhood and the bread is fresher in the early mornings. For the last few decades we’ve been stuck between two worlds—one of necessity and one of quality—but now those two worlds are fusing. We’re seeing the market respond to a new consumer demand, one that better accommodates convenience.

Since we’re now able to find good espresso at the mall and a well-balanced cocktail at the chain steakhouse, you know what people are no longer going to settle for? Attitude. The only reason anyone puts up with condescending bartenders or sommeliers in the first place is because we want to eat and drink at their establishments. Kind of like putting up with your asshole friend because he has a good wine collection, or marrying a jerk because he’s rich and at least you’ll be comfortable. Those of us in search of quality will typically put up with a certain amount of inconvenience in order to experience new and exciting taste sensations. When you have a monopoly on anything—quality, knowledge, ability—you can usually get away with being a dick, but not when there are other options. Especially not when those options are both cheaper and nicer! “You can’t get away with being an asshole anymore as a bartender,” one of the guys at the table last night said; “Especially now that there’s a push towards hospitality and customer service in the better places.” I’ve seen and heard the same from my friends who are bar managers or restaurant owners. Even at K&L we’d rather hire people today with less experience, but better attitudes and a desire to actually help customers. Like I wrote in my article from a few days ago, we’re still learning from the by-products of cultural evolution. We’ve created a more serious drinking culture over the last decade, but we also ended up with a serious set of douchebags that we didn’t necessarily plan upon. Now as an industry we’re going back and trying to eliminate those side effects. To paraphrase Office Space: we’re fixing the glitch. 

-David Driscoll