With all the talk about Scottish independence today and the possible effect it could have on single malt whisky (I don't know anything about what the consequences will be for whisky drinkers if they secede, by the way), I thought it was a good moment to talk about the power of group mentality—especially when it comes to booze. Many of us like to think that we are independent thinkers, deciding for ourselves what we want and do not, but often that isn't the case. It definitely isn't the case for me when it comes to certain passions I exude for drinking. Like many of the Scottish voters participating in today's ballot, I'm easily swayed by the excitement exhibited by others. Let me explain:
I'm more than willing to pay extra cash for French Burgundy, even if there's a better pinot noir from California, Oregon, or New Zealand for less. Why? Because wine from California, Oregon, or New Zealand isn't Burgundy. I can't wholly explain why I'm so intrigued by the Cote d'Or, but it goes beyond simple flavor. If I was only concerned with flavor I would simply choose the best tasting wine for the price. But there's a mystique surrounding Burgundy and most of my curiosity with it stems from what I've read in books, magazines, and online forums. My desire to understand Burgundy, its complexity, and why its so coveted by collectors all over the world plays a large role in my enthusiasm. Simply put: sometimes I want to be part of the group. If there weren't so many other people out there apparently getting some huge satisfaction from drinking these incredibly-limited wines, I don't think I would be nearly as interested. I definitely wouldn't be spending that kind of cash were it not the case.
I spend half of my work day helping whisky drinkers find different/cheaper/interesting alternatives to the whiskies they already know and love. "If you like this, then you should try this." Customers interested solely in flavor are happy to receive this advice and are crucial to our independent barrel business. However, there are plenty of other drinkers who want the name as well as the flavor. It's not necessarily "cool" to be a brand name shopper when it comes to whisky, so no one likes to admit that. In my mind, though, desiring a particular brand over a "superior" flavor doesn't make someone a label whore entirely. I get why people want Pappy. Everyone's talking about it all the time! Doesn't that make you the least bit curious if you haven't had it? For many drinkers, the enjoyment of tasting and experiencing certain big name spirits is simply the satisfaction of entering into a larger group dynamic.
Let's look at this phenomenon through a different analogy. Let's say you show up to the office and everyone's talking about the latest episode of True Detective. You don't watch the show, so you're unable to offer your opinion about the previous night's events. You notice that everyone else, however, is enjoying the communal conversation. They're bonding over a shared experience. All of a sudden, you feel a desire to check out this show that everyone is talking about—both to see what all the fuss is, and to bond with the office group later that week (this is the case for me both with True Detective and red Burgundy). Jumping on board with the latest trend doesn't necessarily make you a band-wagoner or a poser (acting like you were there from the beginning does, however). True enjoyment isn't always about appreciating each element on the purest, most-unadulterated level possible; though some wine and whisky drinkers will tell you the opposite, that you should be drinking something less-coveted. It's like someone telling you, "Actually I watch Top of the Lake instead of True Detective because the writing's better, the acting's more believable, and it's pretty much the same show except it doesn't have all that ridiculous hype." In the end, it's all a superiority contest anyway.
So when I ask one of my colleagues if they've had any good Burgundy lately, and they say, "No, I haven't, but there's this great new vintage of Eyrie pinot noir from Oregon you should try," I don't get all that excited because I'm not always looking for a Burgundy substitute, or a cooler, less-cliched alternative. It's no different than when I try to steer a Bordeaux customer to Rioja, or a Bourbon drinker towards Armagnac. Some people are looking for a specific experience, rather than the best possible flavor—me included. That's not to say that I don't ever drink purely based on flavor and inherent quality. I drink a number of wines, spirits, and cocktails based solely on flavor. But sometimes, I admit, I do buy bottles of extremely expensive red Burgundy solely for the name, and the experience of drinking that name. That way I can speak somewhat confidently about Burgundy when I have a conversation with someone about it. You can't have an educated dialogue about something you've never experienced, can you?
I've read many opinions about the Scottish vote today. A few of them claim the "yes" advocates are making a naive choice based on the group fervor for independence, rather than carefully considering the possible consequences of economic sovereignty. I don't know enough about the situation to say either way. What I can say is that people don't always know what they want in life until others who exude a certain passion help to enlighten them. Going with the group isn't always the naive decision. I wasn't born with a thirst for Burgundy; it was nurtured slowly through my years working around other passionate thinkers. The same might be the case for Scottish independence.