Drinking Diageo – Part IV: A Life in Letters
Remember when people would write each other letters? Like in old history books where we learned about important figures of the past through their correspondence with other famous names? This is definitely not one of those conversations, but I do appreciate that type of format as a means to educate, so I've decided to post a series of emails from earlier today between myself and Nathan Keeney, writer of the blog Scotch Noob, and a dedicated whisky enthusiast. Nathan shops frequently at K&L, but also overseas where he seeks to increase his exposure to the vast selection of malts unavailable stateside. I like hearing from Nathan because he's a very good writer, makes inquisitive points, and he always keeps me honest, but with a wink and a smile, rather than a sarcastic quip. Here's a snippet from our email conversation today concerning Diageo and NAS whiskies:
You know whenever you mention the age vs quality issue on the blog, you're going to get a bunch of emails like this, right? ;)
I think the oft-discussed NAS issue comes down to this simple fact: When you remove the age statement (whether to cheapen the blend and satisfy your shareholders, or to make a blending masterpiece (like Beal's wilted flower perked up by water), you remove the last vestige of factual credibility that you have with your (generally jaded) informed customers. (The uninformed customers don't matter to the discussion, most of them probably didn't know JW Gold was 18 years old, or that Maker's is supposed to be 45% ABV))
My frustration with the "but I can make it better by blending in younger components" argument is that you can solve your credibility issue by providing MORE information on the label, but nobody does it. My guess is that if you tell people that your new blend contains 66% 18 year-old Clynelish, 25% 18 year-old Cameronbridge, 5% 4 year-old Caol Ila, and 4% other stuff, then informed customers will buy it in droves, especially if you tell them WHY you chose that blend. As you always say - tell a story and your customers will connect with the product... as long as they feel they can trust you.
However, if you just drop the age statement (especially in the current market climate), nobody is going to believe your claims that it's to improve the whisky's quality. Nobody. Until people can walk into a liquor store and slap down $5 for a few sample pours, the whole "quality vs age statement" debate isn't going to end. In lieu of first-hand experience, information is the key, but these bureaucrats and the small distillery execs who are trying to emulate them think that giving customers information is like giving them the key to your front door.
To which I replied:
I agree with you 100%. But what if they were transparent and told you that they did use younger whisky? Would you really approach that whisky with an open mind, even if it did indeed taste better? That's what I think the larger companies are afraid of and their jobs are on the line.
The more I work in this business, the more I realize that many customers care only about age statements and not about flavor. It’s really, really frustrating sometimes. I can see why some bigger companies just don’t want to risk it. When the majority of people use a number to frame their purchasing decisions, it come sometimes be the safer bet to not include one -- regardless of the goodwill it might generate.
To which Nathan replied:
I can't say whether I would be objectively open to a product that disclosed its proportion of younger whisky, but I can say this: I would rather buy a product that disclosed its proportions (young and old) than an equivalent product that simply *dropped* a previously-declared age statement. Macallan, for example: I might be willing to go for "Amber" (or whatever) if I knew what was in it. Without that knowledge, I have to fall back on my assumption that they're doing it to stretch stock. Without buying something, I know what a $50 12 year-old sherry-finished scotch should taste like (quality-wise). I don't know what "Amber" should taste like, or if it will be worth $50.
There are so many people that get caught up in this whisky frenzy and lose their sense of proportion. If Pappy had never been allocated, it probably never would have become so popular (or at least not to this degree).
People *should* take personal taste above anything, but I can count on two hands the number of bottles I've bought because I tasted it (somewhere) first and enjoyed it. The vast majority of (my) purchases come via recommendation. When your average customer doesn't have a trusted source for recommendations, and doesn't have a reliable and well-stocked tasting avenue, he must fall back on age, points, or word of mouth, none of which are particularly reliable. Take age statements out of that equation and what do you have?
To which I replied:
Take age statements out of that equation and what do you have?
But what do you have with an age statement? You know that it’s old. But maybe it’s old and it doesn’t taste good and you just paid $150 because it was old (i.e. some newer Bourbon releases). What’s happening now is that some producers are using age statements against consumers – putting mediocre whiskey in a bottle with a "21" on it and adding $100 to the price.
I think no matter what happens – points, reviews, age statements – you’re always going to fall back on a recommendation. That’s all you can do, as you say.
You also wrote:
However, if you just drop the age statement (especially in the current market climate), nobody is going to believe your claims that it's to improve the whisky's quality. Nobody.
I don’t think anyone is pretending anymore that they’re dropping the age statement to improve quality. We all know why it's happening now. The problem is that the insider crowd feels this is exploitative when it’s really just a business necessity – no one has the supply anymore to keep up with current demand. The only reason we have older whiskies in the first place is because supply was far greater than demand, so it all just sat there. Now that whisky’s popular again people are outraged. Why can’t you just keep making more whisky at the same age for the same price? Because people are buying it too quickly, that's why. Therefore, the whisky companies are trying to adapt and come up with a new solution that works for them, but some people are so hung up on their age statements that they won’t listen (and maybe sometimes it is bullshit). They want their old booze back at the old price and they feel like anything less than that is unacceptable. But those days are over. Long gone. And they’re not coming back. I think it’s important to taste each NAS whisky on its own merit now and see what it’s really bringing to the party. We can’t lump everything into the same pile, even if they reveal the blend components or not.
Back in the day they were dumping older stocks of Lagavulin into the standard 16, but they didn’t tell you that either.
To which Nathan replied:
I've made this argument before, so I apologize for the repetition. I think the situation we're in is a factor of the type of product we're talking about. If Coke puts out a new product that's made from cheap ingredients and tastes like ass, everyone can buy it for $1.99, discover it tastes like ass, and the product fails. Conversely, a whisky producer can put crap back-of-the-warehouse leftover "old" whisky in a bottle and sell it for a premium OR dump barely-legal young malt from a fifth-fill cask into the vatting of "Macallan Marigold" and sell it for 20% more than the 12 year-old to cover "branding costs". The first product will sell because it's rare (and probably most of it won't even be opened), and the second product will either be dumped over ice in Holiday Inn hotel bars, or sold to people who heard somewhere that Macallan is good. Whereas "Coke Cheap" will fail in a matter of weeks, enough people will be duped into buying "Macallan Marigold" that it will never fail, even if nobody becomes a repeat customer -- all because whisky is booming and most people can't taste before they buy. It's as if everyone had to buy a car without test-driving it and lacked the ability to return or resell it. Sure, you could read reviews, maybe find a friend who has one you can try, but in the end of a lot of crap cars are going to get sold, because people can't "vote with their wallets" until it's too late.
Corryvreckan convinced me that NAS whisky can be (really) good, even with very young stock in it, but only because I had an opportunity to try it first. I think everyone (including me) would love to taste each NAS on the market and determine for themselves whether the price justifies the quality... but nobody has that opportunity. You lay down your $50 (soon $75?) and you take what you get. Or if you're like me, you order a giant box of Master of Malt 30ml miniatures from the UK and pray they get through customs. ;)
To which I replied:
I think those are all fair and valid points. I think what I’m looking for is a certain open-mindedness regarding the situation rather than a knee-jerk opposition that searches for outrage when there may not be any needed. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with tasting something first. That’s what you should do. If you miss out on something by waiting, then so be it -- there's always something else! I don’t think anyone is asking consumers to take the risk on their product outright, but just to listen to what they have to say. If you don’t like it, then you don’t like it. The majority of whiskies I've tasted that are taking “back of the warehouse” crap whiskey and putting it into bottles are either from independent bottlers (who ironically do tell you exactly what’s in the bottle), or a handful of smaller craft producers who are trying to sell you their story over their quality. The guys who are being the most secretive and the most closed-door about their cepage are usually the guys bringing decent whisky to the table. At least from my tasting experience. That’s why I feel the need to share that.
We always suspect the quiet ones first, but it's usually the loudest people you have to watch out for. Like me. :)
To which Nathan replied:
Agreed. Closed-mindedness goes hand-in-hand with the trend-following and one-upsmanship endemic of some whisky consumers today. I guess I believe a lot of the under-handed producer behavior would be harder to get away with if tasting were more feasible. With most independent bottlers, most special releases, ALL limited or allocated releases, and most everything over the age of 21 (or so), it is downright impossible for a consumer to try before buying. Since the laws aren't likely to change, I think we're stuck with the situation we're in. The best most of us can hope for is to find someone who knows what they're talking about (like you), and learn to trust their recommendations. It's certainly worked out well for me, but not everyone has a K&L within driving distance. ;)
I'll let you get back to work.
I doubt this conversation will go down in the history books, but I thought there were some interesting things to think about in that correspondence -- both for myself, other customers, and the producers, too.