Friday, February 26, 2016

The Double Edged Sword of Information

There is simultaneously more and less information available to customers in the spirits world than ever before. Many distillers release meticulously detailed information about their history, production processes, and the provenance of various releases. Spirits blogs have proliferated over the last couple of decades, providing a wealth of (nominally) independent information. But this is a very new state of affairs.

Until recently there hasn't been a lot of readily available information for customers to understand what goes into the spirits they're drinking. This is unsurprising since there were very few people who cared all that much. If it tasted good and didn't poison you, then all well and good. That's not to say that the information didn't exist - distillers have been studying and refining their process over hundreds of years. While much of it remained hidden as trade secrets, a significant amount was published in trade journals, but this was difficult for drinkers with only a cursory interest to access.

The regrowth of the spirits industry has coincided with the growth of the internet, which is both coincidental and a case of cause and effect. The coincidence is that in the late-1990s and early-2000s the industry was at a nadir, with an accompanying increase in aged stocks. The proliferation of high quality, inexpensive spirits happened at the same time that the internet made it possible to cheaply publish and access information about those spirits, which led to a growing number of people discovering those same spirits.

For most of its history, public discussion of spirits centered around advertising. These are more often than not about secondary elements, such as lifestyle associations and sex appeal, rather than the nuts and bolts of how spirits were created. Advertising about production processes tends to rely on vague elements like water, time, and history. This meant that as spirits became fashionable once again, the distillers and brands were in a position of being used to controlling their message, which led to a tense situation as more channels have opened up.

As with any subject that people are passionate about, spirit are an increasingly hot topic of conversation. The Usenet forums and weblogs of the 1990s have given rise to a growing number of spirits-oriented spaces on the internet where people can discuss the merits of various products. Anyone can now express their opinion, good or bad, about a particular product and have it hosted in a place that is likely to be viewed by other people. The rise of social media has contributed significantly, providing even more venues for discussion. This means more nominally independent voices giving their opinions, which provides new sources of information, but also makes the situation far more confusing and complicated for someone just becoming interested in spirits.

The issue for consumers is clear but difficult: who to believe? The people who make, sell, and market spirits have an obvious goal of getting more people to buy their products. That's not an indictment, just the way of the world. Some will provide lots of detailed information about their products because that is the angle they're using to bring people into the brand. Others rely on hazier information, selling stories about their products that may or may not be true and may or may not matter. There are professional spirits reviewers who may or may not have direct ties to the industry, but are inherently dependent on the health of the industry, as their livelihood depends on the broader interest of the public. They are often quite knowledgeable and have a lot to contribute, but come with their own sets of biases and interests. Last, but not least, are the growing number of people who talk about spirits and are not getting paid for it. While they're often quite enthusiastic, their knowledge may or may not be right as they are usually not specialists and are sorting through questionable information just like everyone else. Most will give their opinions as they see them, though those are subject to just as many biases. Bloggers with semi-permenant perches are sometimes influenced by the offer of free samples of spirits or other enticements by the industry, which will obviously distort their perspective. So there is no one source that new drinkers can turn to for unvarnished truth.

Even worse is the proliferation of obfuscation and outright lying. From hiding the sources of spirits to manipulating the terms 'single barrel' and 'single cask', disinformation has grown as quickly as information has become available. This makes it increasingly difficult to take even clear statements at face value as consumers become more skeptical. But it's also complicated by the fact that many customers value those stories a lot.

To cite one example, there are arguments, in no small part coming from those pushing the NAS trend, that there are lots of young casks in warehouses that are just as good as old ones, but have been ignored because of their age. But without being able to personally go into their warehouses and sample a statistically significant portion of those young casks, it's hard to know how much truth there is to the claim. There are clearly some stand-outs that support this position - Aberlour A’Bunadh has been an NAS single malt from its inception and has consistently received rave reviews. Sub ten year old whiskies are sometimes very, very good, whether they’re from newer distilleries like Kilchoman, Arran, or Glengyle that were designed to be good at a young age or single casks from long-established distilleries that happen to have hit the mark early. Independent bottlers as well as a few distilleries are also choosing to release younger whiskies with age statements, sometimes out of necessity but also to showcase the different ways that whiskies can develop.

However, the industry as a whole puts out a very mixed message. It was only five years ago that Chivas launched their Age Matters campaign, which explicitly attempted to equate age with quality. And now they're dropping one of their core single malts, Glenlivet 12 Year, from a number of markets in favor of a NAS replacement. Far more preposterous was Glenlivet Alpha, a whisky that consumers were asked to swallow on blind faith or, in marketing speak, "[challenging] consumers to develop their own perceptions of the whisky without being influenced by age, colour or cask". Just as duplicitously, Macallan simultaneously tells customers that their new 1824 lineup composed of NAS whiskies should be judged by color while retaining age statements for whiskies that are 18 years old and up. And don't get me started about releases like Rare Casks. A cynical consumer might conclude that the big companies are intentionally speaking out of both sides of their mouths in an effort to muddy the waters.

Unfortunately I can't offer any easy solutions. The only way to sift the wheat from the chaff is by putting in work. That comes in two parts. First, know what you like. It's important to have a baseline so that you can evaluate other people's taste to see how it fits with your own. The greatest reviewer in the world isn't going to be much help if they have radically different preferences. Aggregate scores are almost useless because there's no way to know the underlying preferences or the metrics by which they're measuring spirits to give out those scores. They might be able to suss out stinkers from good spirits, but if you have more uncommon tastes even those may not be any help. So it's up to you to do the legwork to find useful information - relying on 'authorities' is likely only to lead you into buying spirits you don't actually enjoy but try to convince yourself were worth it because someone else says they were good. Outsourcing is always fraught. Do for self.

No comments:

Post a Comment