A few weeks ago I was reading Chuck Cowdery’s Bourbon Strange when I hit the following passage:
“Whiskey marketers have had trouble wrapping their heads around the enthusiast phenomenon. They recognize it as an important market but they are still trying to figure out exactly what the enthusiast consumer really wants.”
My initial thought was “hey that’s a great idea for a TWJ article” which was quickly followed by “I’m sure there are plenty others out there who would love to add their opinion too”. Which is exactly what we have here. 48 whiskey enthusiasts weighing in on this subject to help the whiskey marketer wrap their head around the seemingly elusive whiskey enthusiast community. Sure we’re a diverse group, but as you read through you’ll see some common threads that tie most, if not all, of us together.
I’ll kick things off by saying that all I want is honesty. Drop all of the “This was JFK’s favorite whiskey and we engineered it off of a flask we found hidden in the library of congress” type of malarky. It’s not necessary and when the truth gets out things get ugly. Enthusiasts are the whiskey geeks of the internet and we will dig through TTB archives, or any other records we can get our hands on, and badger reps and spokespeople until we get answers to our questions.
From one marketing professional to another, just stop with the tall tales. Instead, first and foremost, focus on making or sourcing great whiskey; then, and only then, layer on some neat packaging and the tale that inspired you to create / source the whiskey. Or even better, tell the real human story behind it because 99% of the time that’s WAY more interesting. Boil it down and all we really want is good whiskey at a fair price and to know as much as possible about it.
Like I said, I’m far from the only whiskey enthusiast on the internet so let’s take a look at what a bunch of smart, and probably better looking, folks have to say about it.
“Enthusiasts want a couple things. They want a delicious liquid, they want true and detailed information about where and how it was made, and they want the true back story about the makers, the distillery, etc. They simply do not care about fantasies, no matter how cleverly they’re crafted. We’re not children, we don’t need or want fairy tales. This matters in this business because so many makers have genuine stories that are Fascinating and fun. What is not fun is sleuthing, trying to figure out who is lying and who is telling the truth. That’s a pain in the ass.
Enthusiasts also don’t want to adopt a brand for life. Whiskey-loving is not a monogamous pursuit. Yes, we want new things, lots of them, all the time. That’s not easy, but that’s what we want. Sorry about that.”
– Chuck Cowdery: The Chuck Cowdery Blog
“What do I want from whiskey companies? I think I want what most people want: great whiskey at a fair price. I honestly don’t care what the back story is, how old the recipe is, and whether you made it yourself or bought it from MGP. I don’t care about gimmicks, about the special water you use, weird finishing or whether the casks survived a hurricane. It is nice to have some variety. I like cask strength and single barrel options, so I can taste different variations. And I want information like age statements, where the whiskey was distilled and what the mashbill is. This tells me how the whiskey was made and can help me pinpoint certain elements I might prefer. Give me great whiskey and charge me appropriately. It doesn’t have to be a bargain, but I don’t want to pay for a fancy bottle or box, just for whiskey. That shouldn’t be too much to ask.”
– Sku: Sku’s Recent Eats
“Most Marketing firms or in-house Marketing Departments really have no clue. Maybe Heavan Hill and Four Roses for large companies have a better grasp than most. What most don’t get is that Whiskey Enthusiasts are like an Onion. Several layers each getting smaller. Sometimes it’s a Peach, firm or mushy then hard. Without getting too scientific I’ll shoot from the hip of what my experience tells me…” This is a long one, click here to read the rest”
– Lloyd Christmas: Bourbon Truth
“Whisk(e)y marketers already know what the enthusiast consumer really wants. However, filling a label up with age, distillation and bottling dates along with a bunch of text telling the consumer what it was aged in doesn’t grab the attention of the larger market (the important market). The companies are either trying to increase sales or break into the larger market, and unfortunately, it requires their marketing team discover creative ways of accomplishing this task. Great stories of a 6th generation whisky maker, a discovery of an old recipe, wild experiments or fantastic designs will, and are, overtaking the shelves, and the details the enthusiast consumer demands will just not be present. The enthusiast consumer just needs to grasp a realistic expectation of what he or she deserves, and I think it’s a bit much to expect the distiller always give full disclosure. Speak with your pocket book, and if the enthusiast consumer really makes a difference, this will be seen in sales, which is ultimately what makes change in a company.
As for a solution to satisfy whisk(e)y marketers and enthusiasts, I think it comes from both sides. Maybe the companies can slip in the details the enthusiast desires (possibly through a neck hang, insert or website product description), and the company can keep their fantastic stories in the forefront for the larger market to devour. Conversely, if the enthusiast can get his or her desired information through previously mentioned means, then let the company and marketing team have their fun with whatever they decide to spin. This doesn’t mean you can now complain that the marketing program budget is the reason for the price increase. 😉 Well, that’s another topic.”
– Tim Puett: The Ardbeg Project
“I want transparency. I want as much information as possible about what I am drinking. It is as simple as that. I, like most of the enthusiasts that I cohort with, am just looking to increase my knowledge about whisk(e)y as I enjoy it. I don’t mind contract whiskies nor do I mind young whiskies, and I think that if more information was made available from the producer to the consumer, some of the prejudices against those whiskies would dissipate. It would be great to see how different bottlers went about getting their house style even if they didn’t make the whisky. It could come from the blending of barrels, proofing methods, and other nerdy information that would be fun to discuss as we sit around enjoying a drink. Enthusiasts are here to spread the gospel of how great whisky is. Hopefully producers will see that and help us on the crusade. Oh and cask strength… I’d really like to see more cask strength options to taste and try the difference on my own.”
– Chris Uhde: Co-Founder of the Souther California Whiskey Club
“I don’t know that whisky marketers owe whisky enthusiasts anything or that they should worry about us as a market–there really aren’t that many of us relative to the large number of people buying whisky as a whole. But they should try to not talk out of both sides of their mouths about us. When whisky enthusiasts help with the marketing line (most of the time) they’re/we’re part of a community, the people who really get what whisky is about; when (some of) us are critical of (some aspects of) the industry then we’re out of touch elitists, smug and friendless and/or naive about the realities of business. You can’t have it both ways. As a corollary, whisky enthusiasts (especially those with blogs) should acknowledge that whisky marketers (and I include here retailers as well as producers) are mostly interested in us only insofar as we can help move product or whatever story they’re selling”
– My Annoying Opinions
“I think to sell anything, but maybe more so with whiskey today, the customers need to trust the name on the bottle. The best way to build that trust with customers is to respect the customers. Those with storied old plants and warehouses have some built in trust because people can see where it’s made. Their parents or grand parents may have even drank the brand. Others may have to work a little harder to build that trust. But in the end, it’s not only about quality, it’s also about trust.
So, whether you’ve got century old warehouses or you’re a curator bottling fine barrels for your customers, it’s all good to me long as you don’t disrespect your customers. For the later group it’s particularly important because all you really have is your name and what’s in the bottle. Obfuscation only damages that relationship with customers. With social networks we’re going to find out sooner or later, so my advice is to simply focus on quality and respect your customers. If we like your whiskey, we’ll like you no matter how it gets in the bottle. And then we’ll become your biggest advocates.”
– Mike Flamino:Whiskey Lately
“While I love a good back story as much as the next guy, at the end of the day, the story doesn’t matter all that much and it’s ultimately about what’s in my glass. Just tell me about what I’m drinking, and let me decide how good the whisky is.
And another thing…
If you happen to be one of those “distilleries” that doesn’t actually distill anything, stop lying to us and just tell us where your whisky comes from. There’s no shame in being a company that can buy barrels of whisky from different distillers and meld them together to create a delicious blended whisky. Compass Box doesn’t distill a thing, and their stuff is fantastic. Same goes for much of what High West and several other companies are doing.”
-G-Lo: It’s Just The Booze Dancing
“I would rather see more of an investment in the product than in the story. Don’t get me wrong, I truly love packaging and might retell the story but it is the liquid gold that will keep the bottle on my table (if it is worth sharing) or in my cabinet (if it is even better).”
-LimpD: It’s Just The Booze Dancing
“The community of whisky aficionados (i.e. geeks) is growing all of the time and that’s a very good thing for the industry. Whether it’s sabermetricians in baseball or policy wonks in Washington, the fringes always become the middle as new fringes grow, and the definition of mainstream changes. This makes it imperative for the Industry to closely monitor and realize what a valuable segment these groups are to their product’s life cycle. They become These groups look at things differently and try to keep the powers-that-be on their toes. It’s foolish for any industry to ignore the enthusiasts (i.e. geeks) that love their product, and furthermore ignore social media where those enthusiast live today, It’s also foolish for any industry to mis-market their product whether it’s whisky, movies, baseball teams or widgets. The enthusiasts are a powerful segment in the marketing cycle yet the whisky industry hasn’t completely embraced them yet. Sadly, this has and will continue to bite them in then collective butt as the voices get louder and the numbers grow.
Of course, we want truth (not truthiness) in advertising, marketing and labeling. We want it from the car makers and cereal makers and banks too. It’s an ongoing discussion and when one battle is won (see: Dewars pulling their misogynistic ads through the efforts of blogger of Johanne McInnis and others) another surely will pop up. But the bottom line is that we buy the product. We are dedicated consumers who want great product at reasonable prices. And I like a good story with a great package too. It’s part of the product but not the entire product. If we walked into a spirits store and found all of the choices in exactly the same bottles with no labeling or packaging, the industry would be dead. Like anything else, the sum is greater than the parts but the parts are important. No doubt the most important part is the whisky inside; and the greatest story on the box or a bottle shaped like Al Capone’s shoe or a Celtic cross won’t make a bad whisky taste better. And the enthusiasts will tell the world in a heartbeats.
We are the what Car & Driver is to Detroit, what the fantasy football blog is to the NFL. Fringe-y but very worth listening to.”
– Aaron Krouse: It’s Just The Booze Dancing
Not all whisk(e)y enthusiasts have a blog, site or platform that they use to keep track of their tasting notes and publish their sometimes expletive laden opinions. A far greater number of enthusiasts hang out in online forums like Bourbon Enthusiast, Straight Bourbon, Whisky Whisky Whsky, the Whisky Magazine Forum and Reddit. Tens of thousands of passionate whiskey enthusiasts converge on these sites daily and I would be remiss to not include them as well.
However, it’s near impossible to be an active member in all of these and on most I’m nothing more than your common lurker. Reading posts, gathering ideas and challenging my own opinions through reading what others have to say, but I am very active on one forum which is actually a combination of a many forums… Reddit.
I posed the exact same question to both the /r/Bourbon and /r/Scotch sub-Reddits, picked my favorite from each and posted below. The link after each Redditor’s name will take you the complete threads for each which contain dozens of great and insightful responses. I HIGHLY recommend you take a look
“Honesty in all dealings
Straightforward labeling that gives clear (AND HONEST) information
Details on: mashbill, age, warehouse location, etc.
Experimentation: Lots of wine barrel and other such finishes that I’d really like to see explored
Video content from distilleries: I’d love to see some more modern short documentaries about the inner dealings of a whiskey distillery from grain to bottle. Well produced youtube videos can do a lot to spread trust and interest
Another thing I think more distilleries should be doing is openly communicating with us. At the moment I’m writing this we’re a 20,066 member strong community and I think it’d be awesome if we could get some distillery reps actively posting and discussing their products. Now as a member of the mod team I’ll definitely say this will never be an advertising platform for any distilleries, but I think some people with the proper knowledge and the ability to convey it to us could really do a lot to popularize a brand, product, and this community even further. I don’t care if it’s through reddit, facebook, google+, myspace…whatever…just engage the enthusiast market and get more involved with the conversations that are always going on.”
– EMoneySC2: /r/Bourbon
“Clearly state on the label, not in fine print: – Minimum Age Statements – Unchillfiltered – Natural Color – Type of cask maturation (first fill/refill bourbon, oloroso sherry, px sherry, etc) – Type of cask finishing – % abv – phenol ppm – double/triple distillation
Pretty much just leave the mystery out of it. I want to know what I’m buying and how these attributes contribute to the resulting flavors. I want to learn what I like, and what to look for to satisfy my taste buds, and this data will help me make the most consistently satisfying purchases.
Maybe the box the bottle comes in could have a nutrition-style panel on one face with this type of data, leaving the remaining 3 faces for the branding and marketing narratives. While the mystery around each distillery’s “secret recipe” certainly adds some romance, the enthusiast community seems more interested in using data and community consensus to inform purchasing decisions.”
– gildedrain: /r/Scotch
Before I wrap this shindig up I think it’s worth mentioning that I don’t think any of us want there to be an us vs them mentality. That’s never productive. Most, if not all, would love to be on the side of the brand and become their super nerdy advocates and champions, but the only way to do that is to be honest and give us the straight story and as much detail as possible about the product. That way we’re confident in what we’re drinking, talking about and recommending to our friends, family and readers.
That doesn’t mean you have to abandon the fun packaging and story that pulls in the wider consumer audience. Just make it easy for those of us who care to find the info we want. Take a page out of High West’s book and make the bottles and marketing fun, but then give the geeks all the info they want on your site. It’s a simple, and cost effective, way to appease both sides.
It also seems to be a general consensus that we like experimentation and innovation. We love special editions and experimentations, that are reasonably priced, but again we want to know exactly what you did and why it’s worth us opening our wallets. We have wandering palates and we want to try it all. The enthusiast isn’t now, nor will they ever be, your traditional brand loyalist.
Sure we have our “go-tos”, but when we walk down the whiskey aisle at the local bottle shop, liquor store or even grocery store our heads are on a swivel. We’re looking at everything around us with an eye to try. As Chuck said, this is not a monogamous relationship, but we do love to talk about our trysts and that is where the true value of the enthusiast market lies. Our ability, and proclivity, to make a lot of noise about the whiskey we love… and the whiskey we hate.
Thanks for reading and if you’d like to add your own voice to this post I’d be delighted to have you add it to the comments below.