Tuesday, July 28, 2015

What is Value? - Novelty

One of the main forces in the modern spirits industry has been the hunger for novelty. I've seen this phenomenon noted by David Driscoll, a man who would know about it, of occasions. And it's hard to miss if one pays attention at all to spirits news, with releases coming thick and fast every single week. But caution is necessary when trying to decide how to scratch that itch.

This is a major shift for the industry. For decades distillers relied primarily on dedicated customers who would keep purchasing the same expressions over and over again, which made them prize consistency. More recent converts to the world of spirits frequently seek new experiences rater than finding a favorite and sticking with it. This has led distillers to release a mind-boggling array of new expressions over the last 10-15 years in an attempt to appease those desires, even though their business is still largely based on their long-standing core expressions. Many of the new expressions have been introduced at higher price points than their traditional offerings as a way to get the distillers out of a bind - they want to reap the benefits of new customers who are willing to pay higher prices, but don't want to drive their long-standing customers away by raising price of their core expressions too much. So while drinkers may complain about rising prices on their favorite standbys, most of the inflation has been on the high end. This is even more true in the American whiskey world where many excellent bourbons and ryes have remained steadfastly in the $20-30 range despite rising demand. At the same time, American whiskey has seen the higher end become much more crowded, with new expressions entering the $40-100 bracket and an increasing number reaching the heights that used to be the nearly exclusive domain of scotch above $100.

Unsurprisingly, many of these new expressions have been lack-luster because the goal has been to get something out the door as quickly as possible, rather than crafting a product with an internal logic. The growing emphasis on casks within the whisky industry is a solid example - a wild array of new casks seasoned with fortified and unfortified wines plus a number of different spirits have been used to finish otherwise standard whiskies, while new types of wood have also expanded the field. These finishes are frequently carried out for relatively short periods of time - a few months to a few years - to quickly impart new layers of flavor. There are also obviously exceptions - for instance, Arran used their early cask finishes as experiments to test the waters, then pared down their offerings to the small number that they thought worked best. But the emphasis has mostly been on quick novelty. The travel retail sector has also been a large driver of novelty for the sake of novelty, where distillers simultaneously try to maintain shelf space by maintain frequent new releases while keeping production costs as low as possible because of the razor thin margins afforded by the retailers.

Many new independent bottlers have sprung up, capitalizing on the desire for novelty, by repackaging the work of large distillers. This is most apparent within the American whiskey market, where non-distiller producers (NDPs) were much more rare before the recent boom. This has gone hand in hand with the growth of microdistilleries, with many blurring the lines between the two. Unlike Scotland, there is not a tradition in America of NDPs being explicit about their sources, preferring to hide behind fanciful stories. This has allowed them to fulfill the growing desire for novelty despite the relatively small number of major distilleries within the country. Significant amounts of copy has been produced about recipes handed down from generations past, the exquisite quality of local water, and the care and attention paid to produce 'small batch' spirits. This is despite the fact that the vast majority of these new expressions come from a single source, Midwest Grain Products, formerly known as Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana. While not selling any of its products under its own labels, the distillery has explicitly turned itself into a one-stop shop for NDPs, producing both on a contract distilling basis and selling bulk spirits. This means that many of the new expressions that have cropped up over the last five years or so are all from the same source and, despite efforts to pick barrels with unique character, has largely resulted in a bunch of whiskies that all taste very similar, in no small part due to their youth. So what appears to be an explosion of diversity masks a great amount of similarity - drinkers need to be careful about what they're buying and question the stories that NDPs are telling about their products.

At the same time a host of new distilleries have cropped up, all claiming to offer something new. While there has been much more willingness to experiment within the microdistilling world, the value of those experiments is often questionable and, even when they're good, the retail prices are often sky-high. The most recent brought to my attention is Chichibu The Peated 2015, a 3 year old whisky that is going for $250 a bottle at the two California retailers currently carrying it. Even less expensive craft whiskeys often sell for $50-100 per bottle, which is understandable given their higher production costs, but that also makes it difficult for them to be values in comparison to more established distilleries. If customers are usually paying more for younger spirits, what are they getting instead? Generally, novelty, both in terms of the product itself and the novelty of buying from a smaller producer. The microdistilling industry has co-evolved with the renewed interest in 'craft' production that places an emphasis on small producers. The tenets of this movement suggest that a smaller number of dedicated craftspeople will provide more care and attention to detail than large corporations, resulting in better products, albeit usually at higher prices. So much of what new distillers are selling is their story as much as the product itself. And it is undeniable that stories can be very powerful.

Taking a page from the craft brewing industry, many new distillers argued that the big, long established distillers were producing bland products whereas their own efforts were fresh and exciting. While the slights aimed at the big distillers were largely questionable, it is true that many new distillers were exploring infrequently trod territory. New grains, new mash bills, new types of fermentation, new infusions, new types of stills, new types of aging. During the early phase of the craft cocktail movement, new distillers were operating in tandem with the desire to create new types of drinks by bringing out a host of new gins that went beyond the traditional London dry style, opening up new flavor profiles. Innovation has also come in the form of reviving old spirits, such as real peach brandy. Even the distillers that are sticking to traditional processes have brought in elements such as local sourcing.

There have always been two major limitations. First, that there are very few ways for new distillers to gain experience without diving in head first. Only a small handful of countries allow hobby distilling, unlike hobby brewing, which has proved to be a major catalyst for that industry. Working for a major distiller will not always provide experiences that translate, as the the processes of each scale are very different. This means that many new distillers are forced to learn as they go. This leads to the second point, which is that very few new distillers have sufficient capital to let them wait until their products are good before coming to market, which leads to a significant pressure to move products out the door to create cash flow, whatever their quality. In the case of white spirits, this may simply be a matter of having enough time to fine-tune their recipes and processes. This problem is much more surmountable, but has still led to plenty of half-baked products hitting the market. In the case of aged spirits, the problem is compounded by having to wait until products are mature. This has led to any number of experiments in 'accelerated' aging, from smaller casks, wood chips, or movement by ship or sound that increase the rate of wood extraction to reactors that blast spirit with oxygen, heat, and other forces to increase the rate of chemical reactions. While the claims that spirits aged in small barrels are better than those aged in standard barrels seem to have faded since their heyday 3-5 years ago, the chemical reactors are getting significant amounts of new press. While it is certainly possible to find those praising the quality of spirits produced through 'accelerated' aging, I have seen few independent reviews that consider them to be anything but a hot mess with dubious science behind their claims. The more honest tack is that these spirits are a different category from those aged using traditional methods and are difficult to compare to each other.

Ultimately there are a number of ways to fulfill a desire for novelty without paying inflated prices, though much of that will depend on how expansive your palate is. If you're going to focus on one type of spirit, then life is going to be tough. Distillers and NDPs know that many drinkers have strong preferences for a single type of spirit and will capitalize on the desire for circumscribed novelty. But there are many more attractive options if you're willing to explore. Like old bourbon but can't afford the exponentially rising prices? Look into armagnac - you can still get spirits that are decades old for a song and many are wood-driven in ways that are similar to bourbon. Enjoy the complexity of single malt whisky? Try rhum agricole - made from sugar cane juice it has depth and complexity without the bombastic molasses of other rums. If you want smoke, but can't swallow the price of the latest Islay special release, why not explore the world of mezcal? If you don't want to buy more bottles, why not try making your own blends at home? Or maybe find some friends who you can split bottles or trade samples with. Get creative instead of automatically jumping on the newest release. Your bank account will thank you.

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