Foreign Concepts

I was explaining to an Italian customer yesterday how our single barrel Scotch program works. She was visiting from Milan and wanted to get a nice bottle of whisky to bring home.

"We go to Scotland, drive around in a car for a week, and taste as many barrels as we possibly can."

"But where are you buying them from? Why does this Signatory company have all these different whiskies from different distilleries?" the customer asked.

"Well, for hundreds of years Scotch whisky has been about blending, not about individual single malt whiskies. The distilleries made the whisky, but they rarely sold it themselves. It was typically sold to blending companies who would mix the whiskies together and create a more polished product. Today, however, many of these old blending companies have found it more profitable to sell their stock as individual single casks, rather than as blends."

"Why is that?"

"Because there's a new focus on specifics. Consumers want to understand the individual elements of whisky rather than the blended results. The irony, however, is that the single casks are rarely as dynamic as the individual single malt expressions, which are a type of blend themselves. Even when you're buying Macallan 12, you're still tasting the result of many different barrels married together to achieve one harmonious flavor."

"Flavor is ultimately what's most important, right?"

"Well....," I laughed, "that depends on who you ask. I'd venture to say that flavor is secondary to information in today's market. Numbers are often more important."

"I want to drink it though, so I want it to taste good. I don't care about the numbers," the woman replied.

"That's a very un-American concept," I said, jokingly.


Two higher-ups from the Cognac world also visited me yesterday, wearing impeccable suits and speaking with suave French accents. We talked about the new whisky market, the current consumer trends, and how Cognac might fit into this movement.

"If you would have asked me two years ago what the answer was for Cognac, I would have told you it needed to be more like whisky: more age statements, more cask strength expressions, and more information. Today, I'm not so sure. We're tried all of those things and it hasn't sparked much of an interest," I said.

"Ultimately these things are against the very nature of Cognac. Cognac is not about the age or the producer, but rather about the harmony of the blend, and the beauty of this harmony," one of the men replied.

"I agree, but beauty is quickly losing its importance in the Bay Area. Have you guys walked around much since you arrived? Have you seen anyone else as dressed up as you are?"

"We definitely stand out," the other man replied.

"People here go out for $200 dinners in their exercise clothes. Everything is focused on comfort, being eco-friendly and functional, but not beauty," I answered. "It's all about data, not art. Cognac is like couture fashion in a world of yoga pants and flip flops."

"Consumers here don't appreciate the blend?" one of the men asked.

"I think many people appreciate flavor, but ultimately the purchase comes down to how much the bottle costs versus how old it is, or how many points it received from some publication. The numbers have to be crunched before the bottle can be sold," I replied.

"This is very un-Cognac," said one of the men.

"It's very un-French," I replied, "which is ironic because everyone here is obsessed with playing French. We like the food, the wine, and a picture of the Eifel Tower on our reusable shopping bags, but we don't really understand the concepts or the culture. It's ultimately about beauty, right?"

"Absolutely," the men replied.

"Yeah, we don't really understand what that means in America," I said.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll