Diffusing the Artisanal Fantasy
I read an article recently about "post-racial" America in which the author discussed how the election of Obama seemed to imply we had moved beyond bigotry as a country, making it difficult to acknowledge or come to terms with the racism that continued during and after his two terms. I won't go into the nitty gritty of it all, but it did make me think about the spirits industry (and really the food industry as a whole) and how its current obsession with artisanal products has blinded many folks from a glaring reality. I think living in a "post-branded" booze industry, in which consumers no longer form loyalties or personal associations with any one particular product, has somehow implied that the philosophy of spirits production itself has changed as well. Artisanal goods are instantly given the benefit of the doubt, from pretzels and popcorn to IPAs and spirits—the smaller it looks, the better it must be. Artisanal terms are plastered on everything from "small batch" whiskey to "handcrafted" meats and cheeses. Find me an oatmeal today that doesn't highlight its "steel cut oats." I challenge you!
Many consumers today, believing that these new artisanal or "craft" labels are providing a higher quality spirit, are more than willing to pay more for better product. However, when you explain to them that the $40 bottle of "craft" rye they just purchased is the exact same whiskey that's in the $20 branded bottle they turned up their nose at, things can get uncomfortable (like explaining to some Amercians that racism is very much alive and well in the "post-racial" era). There's a reason Amazon just paid more than thirteen billion dollars to acquire Whole Foods and it goes well beyond simple brick and mortar strategy. The plain truth is: if you can make a product with big brand efficiency, but sell it for a craft brand price, you can make a lot of money. Just don't tell that to those people living in post-branded America.
While it's easy to point at "craft" producers in Iowa, Vermont, and elsewhere selling their "hand-crafted" whiskies that were actually contracted from a large distillery in Indiana, they're probably the least egregious examples I can think of in terms of today's misleading marketing. In the case of MGP, the distillery that actually makes the whiskies you find in High West, Whistle Pig, Templeton, Bulleit, and numerous other rye products on the market, at least the consumer is getting a high quality product. The distillery formerly known as LDI makes delicious juice. It's when you start to look at "craft" vodkas or gins, however, that it becomes hard to know what you're paying for. The same goes for the large majority of Cognacs out there that are often more caramel and sugar than actual brandy. But the worst offender, by far, is the tequila industry whose ever-growing reliance on the diffuser is perhaps the dirtiest secret in the entire drinks business. There are plenty of other articles that go into detail about how this process works, but I'll give you the simple breakdown of why distillers in Mexico use diffusers here:
1) With the agave shortage in full swing, producers want to get the most potential alcohol from every single piña harvested.
2) Tradtionally in tequila production, the piñas are cooked, crushed, and pressed to extract the sugary agave juice eventually fermented, much like with winemaking (although without the subsequent distillation). In both cases, the process requires healthy produce with ripeness and flavor because one needs sugar to start a healthy fermentation. I've always said that tequila and mezcal are much more like wine than whiskey for that reason.
3) With the invention of the agave diffuser, the need to cook and crush the agave has been completely eliminated from the process. Instead, the uncooked agave is fed into a shredder and the resulting chunks are moved onto a conveyor belt into the diffuser.
4) The diffuser sprays the agave pieces with hot water that extracts the starch from the pulpy plant and collects it in a tank. Now rather than having to cook the actual agave to create the sugars, the distilleries can instead boil the starch water and add an enzyme to convert that starch into sugar much like whiskey is made (and not at all like wine).
5) While the diffuser results in a more efficient use of manpower and potential alcohol, it results in an inferior product. But, much like with processed food, all that "agave" flavor can be re-added later on the back end (kind of like boise in Cognac).
6) Because the resulting diffuser tequila is still entirely a product of agave, the labels continue to tout their "100% agave" classification and market the liquid as a top quality tequila, rather than a mixto or blended agave product.
As many people before me have asked: what's the point of even using agave as a base material for distillation if you're not going to cook and extract the actual flavor of the plant itself? Why not just make tequila from raw grains and do the same flavor enhancements with a cheaper and more plentiful foundation?
Because then it wouldn't be "artisanal." You can't market corn-based, artificially-flavored tequila to true tequila aficionados! They won't hear of such an abomination. Instead, you have to sell them industrially-produced, artificially-flavored tequila made from 100% agave and call it "craft". That way they feel better about their purchase. Better yet, put it in a traditional bottle, talk about heritage, and charge them double. In the end, how many tequila customers really care about or understand what a diffuser is anyway?
I can tell you: not many. We sell boatloads of diffuser brands at K&L. They fly off the shelf faster than I can often reorder them. If I even try to explain to a customer why they might prefer a non-diffuser brand, or why they might want to pay more for a truly artisanal tequila, they generally look at me with distrust and disdain. Over my decade in the retail spirits industry, I've found that the perception of quality is often more important than the reality of it—even (and especially) in post-branded America.