If you listen to cheesy, melodramatic pop music like I do, you'll notice there's a lot of talk about "they." Who are they, you ask? Well, you know. Them. Those guys. "They're" trying to hold us down. "They're" trying to keep us apart. "They" think we can't do it. "They" don't believe in us. In the realm of youth culture (and now even in the adult contemporary genre) there's always a mystical, oppressive, and vindictive force at work, lurking in the background, doing its all to suppress our iconic singers. But these courageous and creative voices won't go down without a fight! They're going to push forward anyway, in spite of what "they" say. "They" aren't going to win. "They" will ultimately fall to the all-encompassing power of art and love. Hearing those words tends to invigorate us in turn. It reminds us of our own struggles and our own hurdles in life, when people tended to doubt our abilities or our desire. Pop music is often just one big Horatio Alger story. It's Rocky. It's Hoosiers. It's selling people the fantasy they crave. It's marketing.
Today when I listen to modern hip-hop, "they" is a less vague concept. There's little allusion or metaphor at work in pop music at the moment. Everything's pretty straightforward, but the idea hasn't changed. "Haters" gonna hate. "Bitches" ain't loyal. There's still a malicious bully out there standing in our hero's way, it's just that now we know a little bit more about who "they" are. Trolls on Instagram. A rival pop star. The ex-girlfriend of her man. Becky with the good hair. Someone. In the whiskey world, deep in the heart of the geekiest part of drinking culture, there's a similar concept at play. There's always an evil empire to fight against in the name of fine drinking. Ironically enough, it's usually the whiskey companies themselves. How can whiskey drinkers simultaneously love whiskey, yet hate the people who make it? It's easy. It happens whenever a whiskey company chooses to make a decision based on business rather than continue the myth of pure craftsmanship. What are "they" doing?! "They" want to ruin whiskey! "They're" just a bunch of greedy fatcats. But isn't that why these companies make whiskey? To make money? That depends on who you ask. If you ask the people who own the business, the answer is yes. If you ask the people who support the business by handing over their money in an exchange of goods and services, the answer can often be nebulous.
In short, no one likes feeling like they're a piece of capitalistic meat. That's why when a decision is made to raise the price of a popular product or change a treasured formula due to economics, there's often an outcry in response. Whiskey drinkers, much like professional wrestling fans, tend to feel like they're in on the game. They pride themselves on understanding the business—how whiskey is made, who made it, where it comes from—but when you get down to the actual business of making money, things can get contentious. You'd be surprised by the number of people out there who think spirits is a non-profit sport. I had a conversation with a guy in the store a few weeks back about our lack of available shochu. He asked me quite aggressively why we didn't carry more selections and I said to him: "It doesn't sell, unfortunately. I can't carry a bunch of products that no one here wants to buy. I'd be out of a job!" He scoffed, shook his head, and said to me: "Not everything is about money," and then walked out of the store. I stood there for a minute in a daze, thinking to myself: "Did I just get told?" Then I thought about it some more and I realized my faux pas: I had spoken about spirits in economic terms. I had revealed a decision about our purchasing that had been based on economics rather a commitment to fine curation. That's a big no-no today. You need to be all about the integrity of booze itself, or you're just another "them."
The continued death of big brand name spirits is rooted in this concept. Brands are seen by many as capitalistic forces dedicated to profit and corporate takeover rather than purveyors of inexpensive and drinkable alcohol. "They" are the oppressive force looking to ruin the experience of everyday whiskey drinkers who just want to drink something good. It's an odd situation to be in because, at the same time, "they" are the same people making all the "hand-crafted" spirits these whiskey-loving people adore. What's the difference, you ask? How can some for-profit whiskey companies be seen as righteous, while others are demonized for their avariciousness? It comes down to how you talk about what you do. We won't let "them" ruin whiskey! "They" want to raise their prices, but we're going fight on in the name of the everyday drinker! Ultimately, it's about separating yourself between "we" and "them". In reality, however?