Psychology Today: Booze Analysis

I like to drink alcohol almost as much as I enjoy analyzing human behavior. As I've continued in my growth from ego-maniacal, self-absorbed adolescent to somewhat ego-maniacal, self-absorbed spirits buyer, I've tried to document as much of it as possible; sometimes here on this blog. I always focus on myself first, which allows me to better understand the actions of others. I like to think I'm becoming a better person by doing so. Today, while unloading our groceries at the supermarket, my wife spotted the latest issue of Psychology Today titled Life Lessons: 5 Truths People Learn Too Late. We about fell over ourselves trying to pull it out of the newsstand because we'd been talking about this subject all weekend - about people we knew from high school who had never developed into healthy socializing adults. As with everything, I can always find a way to relate these lessons to alcohol, so I've come up with a revamped version of the article for your enjoyment. 

Here are the five lessons most drinkers learn too late when it comes to booze:

Lesson 1: You Can't Fix the Ones You Love, So Focus on Fixing Yourself. While we know that we all have our issues in life, there comes a point when you just can't help a person get over their problems. As much as it pains you to watch it happen, not everyone can appreciate life's many spirits the way true boozehounds do. The article states:

A healthy dose of ego often convinces us that our way of looking at things is right, but the truth is that trying to correct someone's flaws usually backfires. It implies that we're coming from a more enlightened place, that we have a deeper knowledge of what's best.

For that reason, there's no point in trying to bring a bottle of Benriach 20 over to your buddy's house in order to wean him off that bottle of cheap stuff. Don't try and preach to him the merit of single malt whisky or fine Four Roses Bourbon. Sometimes you just can't fix people and that's perfectly fine. You can still have a rewarding relationship with someone who doesn't like to drink the same things you do. Don't be a snob, don't be pedantic. You need to preserve your friend's autonomy. All you can do is continue to develop your own palate.

Lesson 2: It's More Harmful to Overparent than to Underparent. Overinvolvement in your child's life can be disastrous if you don't let them learn from their own mistakes. As the article calls them, "helicopter parents" are constantly hovering over their kids, hoping to save them from any issue they face on a daily basis.

There's a huge distrust in other parents and society's institutions that pushes parents to overparent. They overestimate the influence they themselves have on development, says Hara Estroff Marano, author of A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting.

At some point, your child is going to drink a bad bottle of tequila. They're going to throw up out the car window on I-5 while driving back to their dorm room from a wild night in Tijuana and that vomit is going to fly all over the other people in the car (or maybe that's just my own personal experience?). Bad alcohol choices are all a part of developing a palate for good alcohol. Like I've said many times: you can't know what's good unless you know what's bad. Parents who try and prevent their children from healthy experimentation with bad booze are going to contribute to our "nation of wimps." You can't always run into the party with a bottle of Oban 18 and expect to make everything OK.

Lesson 3: Seek a Mate Whose Values and Background Echo Your Own. They say that opposites attract, but that's not always the case. Sometimes the fact that you drink and she doesn't just isn't going to work. Or maybe it's the case that you want to open a bottle of Chablis and he spits it out in favor of some cheap, yet manly canned beer.

The more a couple shares a similar perspective, the less conflict there's likely to be in their relationship.

If you like whisky, you'd be better served with a whisky-loving partner. At the very least, someone who can stomach a whisky cocktail.

Lesson 4: The Strength of Your Friendships is as Critical for Your Health as the Lifestyle Choices You Make. According to the article, low levels of social interaction have the same effects as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day, with worse effects than being obese or not exercising. That's crazy! The lesson is: you can't sit around at home by yourself, sipping from your shiny new bottle of Ardbeg Galileo alone in your living room. Booze is social, so make it a social event by forming relationships with other people who also like to drink.

While cellphones and Facebook can help us to feel connected, it's worth the effort to build-up our in-person network as well.

Did you read that? Posting pictures of your whiskey collection on a message board doesn't count! Leaving replies about what you drank last night also does not cut it. You need to meet with someone, face to face, and chat with them while you sip something alcoholic. Just don't drink so much that it ends up worse than smoking fifteen cigarettes. That would be counterproductive.

Lesson 5: Lust Diminishes, But Love Remains. We all know how exciting it is when you experience that first kiss.....uh...I mean, sip. The fireworks that explode, the passion that tingles your body, and the thoughts that pass through your mind as you stay awake in bed at night, dreaming about that next encounter. We've all had that experience with a whisky. A year later, however, that same bottle is not nearly as exciting as it once was. According to PT:

It's normal to experience a waning of desire once you've progressed past the giddy initial stages of a relationship. Arriving at such a point actually offers an opportunity to deepen your relationship in ways that would have been impossible from the outset.

You see? It's perfectly fine that you've lost that loving feeling for your Elijah Craig 18 or Weller Larue. Sometimes you have to spice things up to get the mood back, however. Try buying your bottle a beautiful, sexy red vermouth, throw in some ice cubes, and watch the sparks fly! A cocktail can be a great way to introduce new flavor into your relationship. Other positions.....whoops, I mean...ways of drinking your whiskey can also put your relationship into a different light. Be open minded and understand that it's perfectly fine to lose interest after a while.

These are the real lessons from Psychology Today. I've quoted them accurately and I think you can see how we drinkers can learn something from each one. Human relationships mimic our relationships to alcohol in strange ways. It's part of the reason I love my job. Everyday I learn more about whisky, other people, and most importantly myself.

-David Driscoll


Following the Rules

When I was in junior high Guess jeans were all the rage. They were expensive and my parents weren't all that keen on buying a twelve year old designer clothes to impress his friends. Nevertheless, all the cool kids at school had them and I wanted them - BADLY. That little triangle on the rear right-side pocket continued to call my name. Then one day while perusing the Macy's sale rack, I noticed a plethora of Guess jeans and shirts for fifty percent off. I almost fainted. I grabbed a handful of various pants and shirts, ran to tell my mom, and got final permission after making sure they fit. I was so pumped. I couldn't wait to go to school the next day in my new, head-to-toe Guess outfit.

There's a reason I still remember this day clearly. It was humiliating. I remember the looks on every person's face as we gathered in the courtyard before class - the snickering, the wide eyes, the scornful expressions. Just because I had on super trendy designer Guess clothing, didn't mean I looked good. There was a reason those clothes were half price. Instead of the acid-washed denim, I was sporting a tan colored fade. Instead of the blue and white striped T-shirt, I had a button-up green and orange pattern. I'm pretty sure I was the laughing stock of Somerset Middle School for the rest of the day. In my mind, I had just followed the rules for being cool. The cool kids wear Guess clothes, so by my logic, wearing Guess clothes would instantly make me cool too.  I was so caught up in the math, it never crossed my mind that looking good and being yourself were part of the equation. 

Label whoring is no less prominent today than it was in 1992. Plenty of women still fawn over the LV that's written all over their leather purse, but as Countess LuAnn will tell you, "Even Louis Vuitton makes mistakes." Buying designer clothes because they're expensive is like buying designer wine or whisky because it's expensive - just because it cost a lot of money, doesn't mean it's good. Good taste, on the other hand, never goes out of style. If you're looking for respect, you won't find it by following the rules. The only way to develop good taste when it comes to booze is to taste as many things as possible, not just the highly-rated ones. You can't know what's good unless you know what isn't good and you can't develop an opinion by simply following everyone else's. There are no rules to booze, despite what people say. Much like the junior high courtyard, there is no easy checklist for acceptance.

Following rules, however, is much easier than developing an understanding. Why do I need to learn more about wine? White with fish, red with steak. What more do you need to know?  Aside from fashion, no other interest bombards people with strict rules for proper enjoyment than alcohol.  You can't put ice in your Van Winkle, John!  For God's sake, NOOOOOOO! Much like my childhood obsession with Guess jeans, the people with the least amount of understanding are usually the most obsessive about following the rules and, worst of all, enforcing them. Back then, I was the first person to point out who did and didn't wear Guess because I was the most insecure. By citing off what you should and shouldn't do when consuming your liquor, people make themselves feel confident by telling you what you did wrong.

The booze world is a large and ever-expanding one. There are so many varietals of grapes to learn, vintages to understand, and whiskies to comprehend, that it makes complete sense to look for guidance. However, if you find yourself following rules, rather than your own interests, then stop and think about why you're doing it. You're not suppose to drink white with fish, it just happens to taste good. You're not suppose to like anything. There are plenty of great whiskies that people love and I just don't get - and vice versa.

I love fancy booze, but I sometimes hate fancy booze events. Why? Because that's where rules get enforced. It's a grown-up version of the junior high playground, but instead of Guess jeans it's trophy bottles and wine pedantry.

Label hunting and rules are about pedantry. Drinking is about pleasure.

-David Driscoll


Second Half Predictions: Market Trends for Bourbon

A vendor told me the other day he thinks I have an eye for the next hot thing.  I don't think that's true, but I do pay attention to my environment.  I never look at numbers.  I don't monitor most sales.  I have no idea how much whiskey we've sold this month.  I watch people.  I read blogs.  I talk to customers.  You can learn a lot about this business by listening to people (I think it was Thunderheart where Graham Greene tells Val Kilmer to "listen to the wind").  One thing I'm noticing right now is a downturn in limited edition enthusiasm.  Last year at this time the harder something was to get, the more people wanted it.  Now people are exhibiting more restraint.  We've sold a good amount of Ardbeg Galileo over the past few days, but not at the speed which we preciously sold the Rollercoaster and Alligator.  I still get a few emails here and there about the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, but it used to be five a day.  Last year, if you could find it at the store, it wasn't worth drinking. Now, people tend to be a bit less affected. 

I think we're witnessing a maturation of the Bourbon consumer as well as the Bourbon market.  With everyone racing around to collect every last bottle of Stitzel-Weller they could find, some people never got around to trying the fairly basic brand expressions.  One of my best customers just re-discovered Weller 12 Year Old recently.  He said he prefers drinking it over some of his more expensive or rare selections.  All that quality for $25.  Who would've thought?  Now that it's practically impossible to find some of the older, legendary bottles of American whiskey, people are starting to try the things they knew they could always drink, but never did.  It's like last week when I finally got around, 25 years later, to finishing the second half of Risky Business (my credibility as an 80's film geek is now completely shot).  Because I knew I could watch it whenever I wanted, I kept procrastinating!

So what does that mean for Bourbon right now?  With customers finding time for the standard, everyday bottles, they're going to gravitate toward consistency.  As I wrote in another article a few days back, people are getting sick of playing the can-you-find-it game.  They've been searching high and low for a bottle they can't get, or they've been taken by the romanticism of a new craft whiskey, only to realize they liked it half as much as their standard brand, yet paid twice as much.  The old and rare are unobtainable, the young and new too brash, so customers are returning to the basics.  The classics.  A black T-shirt and a pair of jeans - a style that never gets old.  The market is leading consumers back to Bourbon that's not sold out when they need it and continues to deliver quality time after time.  It's leading them to that Bourbon they've been meaning to try, but never did.  It's leading people to Four Roses.

Why now?  Four Roses has always been good.  The Yellow is a solid rocks choice.  The Small Batch, a fine sipper.  The Single Barrel, always intense.  The single casks we've selected for the store have consistently been the hottest deals around.  Over the three years I've spent as spirits buyer at K&L, I've never heard customers mourn the loss of a bottle like they have for our first Four Roses selection.  Yet, I've watched people pick over the Limited Edition selections repeatedly, looking for an older, more trendy Bourbon instead.  Four Roses has been playing young Winnie Cooper for the last few years, but now she's all grown up and she's smoking hot.  She's no longer the little girl next door you thought of as a friend.  The problem now is that other people are taking notice and you may have some competition.  That bottle of 2012 Limited Edition single barrel is gone from the shelf (thank you, John Hansell).  In fact, I've sold twenty-six bottles of the regular single barrel over the past few days because I don't think people knew the difference.

With Four Roses finally blooming for the market to see, I'm predicting one small craft distiller will emerge victorious from the rest of the pack, mainly because they're not releasing their own craft-distilled product.  High West continues to impress the hell out of me, releasing two new whiskies over the past two months that are totally unique, yet consistent with their house style and flavor.  The Campfire and the American Prairie Reserve are both fantastic whiskies with a special graininess that I'm beginning to associate with their Wild West image.  Their packaging is terrific and they've really carved out their own niche in the market.  The new whiskies actually taste like what I imagine cowboys drank at a campfire out on the prairie!  David Perkins is slowly becoming the John Glaser of the American whiskey industry, yet he's also distilling, bunkering his whiskey away until it's actually ready to drink.  Like I've written before, there's a small backlash brewing against young, expensive craft whiskies, so having the patience and ability to wait is paramount to success right now.  It's getting to the point where I'm as excited about a new High West product as I am any major American distillery release.  That's a serious thing to say.

What Four Roses and High West have in common (besides the fact that Jim Rutledge taught David Perkins how to distill) is their drinkablilty.  Their mainstay selections are not over-proofed and the flavors are complex yet inclusive.  The whiskies don't punch you in the mouth, nor do they stand out as the loudest in the room.  They're high-quality, polished products that deliver every time you drink them and are always on the shelf at a reasonable price.  It's this direction that I think the market is gravitating.  Affordable, delicious Bourbon that's available.  It sounds crazy, I know.  What a ridiculous business plan.  However, in the booze business, where nothing is ever obvious, image plays a big role.  Buffalo Trace has been the "cool" distillery in the class for three years running, but I think they're about to get some competition.

Only time will tell.  Let's see what happens.

-David Driscoll


Last Call to Join the Gang

Tomorrow is the last day for all you domestic producers to enter this year's Good Food Awards competition.  So far we've received ninety entries from all over the country, much more than we were planning on!  I know there are still a few people on the fence, so check out the above photo for an idea of who else has already signed on.  Competition is going to be stiff this year, which is why winning would be an even bigger accomplishment!  If you are a distiller and you source your base materials responsibly from eco-friendly farms, then we need to hear from you!  Enter this year's Good Food Awards by visiting the website and filling out the form.  We don't need the samples yet, just a commitment to the cause!

I'm counting on tasting some good booze come October.  Hopefully your product is among the final entrants.

-David Driscoll


Customer Feedback

One thing I love about Wednesday evenings in the Redwood City store is the amount of loyal K&L customers that we get roaming the spirits aisle during tasting hour.  I love shooting the shit with all the hardcore whisk(e)y fans and talking booze with people who love drinking booze.  Today, I was discussing the Smooth Ambler/Pappy 15 comparison with Nick Kiest, a K&L customer with an affinity for rye - particularly his bottle of Sazerac 18. He picked up a bottle of the Very Old Scout today and, to him, the high rye content of the Bourbon reminded him of the Sazerac. The richness of the mature casks, married with the peppery rye flavor, didn't at all remind him of Pappy Van Winkle, but rather another legend of the Buffalo Trace Distillery.  Nick's also a big fan of Four Roses and he thought the Smooth Ambler was more similar to their high-rye recipe than anything wheated.

I found that fascinating.  I never would have compared the two, but it's been a while since I've tasted the Sazerac 18.  That's why I love Wednesday nights.  I love talking booze with people and hearing from customers with their own personal experience and perspective.  Come join us one of these Wednesday nights and talk shop with us.

-David Driscoll