A Reminder of the Microcosm
It's easy to get wrapped up in the issues of the most vocal, and even easier to believe that the most vocal represent the majority of opinion; simply because they're so vocal. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, they say. But I watched Ted Turner's WCW wrestling promotion cater to internet "smarks" (smart fans) in the late 90's and crumble into bankruptcy after scripting their show to please a vocal, yet relatively small base of loyalists. I've also worked at several establishments that completely changed their operations due to one or two negative Yelp reviews, to the chagrin of the silent majority. That didn't end well either. When you read something online, or see a certain point-of-view repeated in print, you can't help but think to yourself: "This is what people think, eh?" But to get caught in that trap is to fall victim to a skewed sense of reality.
I think one of the most difficult aspects of the liquor business for whisky superfans to understand is how relatively tiny our influence is: both our vocal influence and our economic influence. Even more important is how little others care for the amount of passion we all exude. For those of us who communicate with the online community, we tend to look around at other blogs, message boards, and chat sites to see what people are thinking. What are they talking about? What are people excited about? What are they upset about? We sometimes think these vocal enthusiasts -- those writing and commenting -- are a representation of whiskey drinkers as a whole; at least I do. But everytime I think that way I realize quickly how wrong I am.
Let's look at some of the pet peeves of the online whisky world as an example:
Misleading Labeling/Packaging: Do you want to know how many times I've ever had a customer come back in anger when they found out that Whistle Pig rye was made in Canada, and not Vermont? Never. It's never happened.
Do you want to know what happens when I tell people that Whistle Pig is Canadian whiskey? Nothing. They might say, "Oh.....is it still good?" and then buy a bottle anyway. While provenance is a hot-button issue online, it means next to nothing in the day-to-day conversations of the K&L retail stores: and we're a store that actually caters to people who care about this!!! We tell people all the time about misleading label information and often they respond with, "Ok, are you done talking yet? I need to buy this and go."
Shortages/Price Increases: There's a very sarcastic and rather sardonic attitude online about what's really going on in the booze industry. Many people believe the idea of a whisky shortage is a marketing tool used to increase sales. Regardless of how true the information we're hearing is, there is one very simple motivator when it comes to retail capitalism: can you get something when you want it for the price it should normally cost?
We can write articles about how there's no real shortage, we can complain about rising prices due to these distribution blackouts, but in the end people don't rely on internet writers to tell them what is or isn't going on with their whisky. 99.999% of whisky consumers go to the store and buy what they want. If the bottles they want are not there when they want them, they get upset. If obtaining their whisky of choice becomes a hassle, they buy more the next time around so that they don't have to deal with the hassle in the future. You can call that a shortage, or you can call that poor distribution, but it really doesn't matter what we call it because it doesn't change the reality of the situation. People will figure out what's true and what isn't when they go back to the store and either find what they're looking for, or see a gaping hole where their favorite whiskey used to be.
The Lack of an Age Statement: See my experience with customers concerning misleading labeling and packaging.
I used to be very passionate about all three of these issues when it came to my writing because there wasn't much information out there when I started this blog (plus, these were new problems at the time). When it comes to my personal drinking, I still am. I want to know where my whiskey is made and who made it, for sure. It's what I enjoy about drinking and the research that I do. But, while it's important to many of us, don't assume that it's important to everyone. In fact, assume that it isn't (because really it isn't). It's not that people are idiots, it's that they don't care as much as we do. And there's nothing wrong with that. We can care about our issues all we want, but we shouldn't get mad when people ignore our explanations and continue to buy what they like.
As one blogger wrote me in an email a while back:
We should treat our readers like they're smart whisky lovers not dolts we're trying to save from burning themselves.
I couldn't agree more.