Drinking to Drink - Part II

Popularity, fame, and success can be blessings in life. They can also be curses.

I was watching VH1 last night while they were re-airing an old series called The Top 100 Songs of the 1990s, marveling at some of the names and faces I had forgotten. When they finally made it to "Jeremy" by Pearl Jam, the subject turned to the band's aversion from fame during the mid-1990s – how they shunned the limelight, stopped making music videos, turned away from commercial labels and tour sponsors, and managed to keep making music together as a result. Pearl Jam wanted to make sure they didn't burn out prematurely.

Contrast that story with the eventual number one artist: Nirvana with "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Kurt Cobain became so famous that his punk rock band became "too mainstream" for most punks, losing any type of street cred whatsoever. He had trouble dealing with the newly-found stardom and the importance society placed upon his every lyric. We all know how that story ended.

Recognizing one's own over-exposure is critical to maintaining a longstanding career – just ask Vanilla Ice or almost any other one-hit wonder on the VH1 countdown. Pop culture phenomena always begin as an exciting burst of light and energy, before dulling down into repetitive drivel for commercial jingles. Once everyone jumps on board the gravy train it's no longer cool (I touched on this briefly a few weeks back), and there are few things more important in life than self-perception. That's why fashion and lifestyle magazines exist: to keep us up to date with what's hip and what isn't.

The irony here, however, is that once something becomes popular enough for the mainstream to finally discover it, it loses all of that mojo. As I once heard one of my students say, "Facebook stopped being cool once your parents joined." Now, granted, there are plenty of people out there who don't follow trends and stay true to what they like. But, as we all know, there are even more people who don't. Otherwise you'd still be able to get a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle whenever you wanted one.

Working in a retail store all day, I interact with quite a few people. In doing so I make observations. What I've noticed lately fits right into what I witnessed as a high-school music fan in the mid-90s. I fear there's a backlash coming.

FLASHBACK: Beyer High School. Modesto, CA. 1994. David notices a student he dislikes wearing a Nirvana T-shirt to school and listening to Green Day on his Discman. David instantly becomes annoyed and rolls his eyes. "That guy likes Nirvana now?" he thinks to himself, immediately deciding he no longer likes Nirvana and instead will tell people his favorite band is the lesser-appreciated, more-artistic Sonic Youth.

Yesterday in the Redwood City store I was asked by a few older gentlemen if we had any Pappy Van Winkle for sale. I politely answered that we wouldn't get any until November and that, even still, getting a bottle was next to impossible (as SKU can attest, I am always nice about it). While I did this, however, I noticed two younger customers hovering in the liquor aisle look at each other and shake their heads. What did that disdainful turn of the neck mean? I think we know, right? It means that asking for Pappy is super uncool in some circles. Maybe not drinking it, but definitely asking for it. Asking for Pappy means you don't know what's going on with American whiskey right now, about how hard it is to land a bottle of old Bourbon. If you don't know what's going on, you're outdated and uncool. It's like walking into a famous New York restaurant without a reservation and expecting to get a table.

That's just an example of the type of thing I'll see on a weekly basis. Yet, there are plenty of more straightforward examples. Many of my most passionate customers are moving away from the prestige collectables because of how they feel it makes them look. They're long time fans who want to make sure I'm not confusing them with the Pappy-chasing newcomers. Drinking "the best" whiskies used to be fun for these guys because it was just a matter of tasting them, rather than finding them. Nowadays it may still be fun, but it's almost completely uncool.

The injection of new blood into the whisk(e)y industry is beginning to frustrate more and more customers, however.  When the people who know what good whiskey is have to compete with people who know nothing about whiskey it takes the fun right out of it. With the current shortage of older American expressions available, the road to new and interesting bottles has become quite crowded and these normally divergent paths have merged into one crowded superhighway. Pappy became the most sought-after Bourbon because it was the coolest whiskey around, as well as one of the best. Having a bottle kind of implied that you understood a bit about whiskey and could recognize what good Bourbon was. But what happens when buying a bottle of Pappy marks you as the guy who doesn't know anything about Bourbon and is just looking to impress your friends? Or does the eye-rolling and head-shaking of my young customers already mean that day has come?

Popularity via association is nothing new for booze. Jack Daniels grew largely during the 1950s thanks to its association with the Rat Pack as its drink of choice. If perception can help to build a brand, it can definitely help to destroy it. The Van Winkles are benefiting from their family's own hard work and dedication to quality. The whiskey deserves the attention, yet, like anything, the more we idolize something, the more cool it becomes to tear it down. Since prestige bottles are becoming undrinkable trophies, it means the backlash will focus on utility – buying something inexpensive and quality-oriented simply to drink (the entire hipster movement is built on irony). Drinking a $20 bottle of something decent will mean you really know about whiskey because you've had the Staggs, the Pappys, the Parkers, and the Willetts, yet you still chose the Yellow label. What's cooler than being able to spend more, but choosing not to? "Yeah, I mean, I've had all that stuff man, but, you know, I'm just over it. It's not worth all that effort anymore. I just wanna drink and enjoy it, man. Ya know?"

If that sounds like a Gen-X caricature, it is. But, at the same time, it's actually pretty close to what I hear regularly on the sales floor. It's no different than the grunge era rockers distancing themselves from the hair bands of the 80s - We're about the actual music, man, not flashy costumes. I'm noticing a new movement among whisk(e)y drinkers that's focused on affordable, classic, big-brand quality, rather than pricey, collectable, limited-edition status. It's definitely a reaction to what's happening in the "scene." I get a lot of feedback from people all over the country who take the time to share with me what's on their mind. Most of it seems to point towards a disassociation with the status quo. The irony here, however, is that the Van Winkle bottles were never marketed as luxury goods. Like Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, their success is simply the result of organic pop culture hysteria.

Like the first Nirvana groupies, true whisk(e)y fans do not want to be lumped in with the growing legions of Pappy-seeking newbies. I'm not the one saying that, however. The twenty emails in my "inbox" are saying that. Literally. In response to Part I of this article I got more than a few messages from readers who felt that I needed to make a distinction between the people who drink whisk(e)y to be cool and the people who actually enjoy it. The problem, however, is that there is no distinction anymore, at least not unless you speak up about it. You'll never know for certain who's buying Pappy to actually drink it and who's buying it to show off at a business meeting. That's why most requests these days are usually predicated with some sort of explanation, as in I actually plan on drinking it, rather than flipping it, so that we know they're not one of the "other guys."

And that's why pop-culture backlashes start. Because people get so sick of having to explain themselves or defend their actions in the face of public scrutiny that they finally just give up and move on. "You don't understand! I liked them BEFORE it was cool! I'm not one of those guys!" Of course, if you have to explain yourself you look even worse. "I'm sure you're not one of those guys, sir" (smiles smugly). It's easy to simply say, "drink what you like," but what if what you like has become associated with something you dislike? What if your brand becomes the preferred choice of white supremacists or neo-nazis?

Kurt Cobain had trouble with his own issues when he found out that two Nirvana fans were singing one of his songs while raping a woman. He wrote, "I have a hard time carrying on knowing there are plankton like that in our audience." That's obviously an extreme example, but it speaks to a larger issue. When you put something out into the world for consumption you have little control over who consumes it. Your biggest fans may be your biggest embarrassment. I'm sure there are still rockstars in the world that shudder at the idea of their music gracing the latest collection of Jock Rock.

But that's the price of success.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll