Monday, June 24, 2013

In Praise of Consistency


Emerson famously wrote, "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." He was talking about liberating yourself from conformity or, said more prosaically, advising you to "think for yourself."

The quote is often repeated without the word "foolish," which changes its meaning completely. Consistency is not always bad. It is often very good, in whiskey-making for example.

Many people today are talking about Reid Mitenbuler's Slate article "Craft Whiskey Isn't Necessarily Better." It's a familiar litany of the young movement's sins, with a caution to consumers. Just because that bottle of whiskey you've never seen before has a cool name and bottle, and a local address, doesn't necessarily mean it's worth your $40. Not only might it not taste good, it might not even be what it appears to be.

One of the people talking about Mitenbuler's piece today is Scott Spolverino, who blogs as 'In With Bacchus.'

Here he explains why, to the chagrin of his friends, he likes Budweiser. "I like Bud because...no matter where you go in the country, in the continent, hell, in the world...you order a Bud and you get a Bud. You don't get something that tastes sorta like Bud. You get a Bud. It may not be the best out there but it is consistent. And being consistent is much, much, MUCH harder than anyone gives it credit for. To be able to reach for a bottle of Booker's or Old Granddad or Redbreast and have it taste exactly the same is not only impressive from a distillers point of view...but it's comforting from a consumer's point of view. Sometimes I want to try something new, different, exciting and I'm willing to pay for it. But I don't want to try something new, different, and exciting EVERY time. The craft distilling movement has major troubles with consistency." (Emphasis mine.)

The major whiskey producers go to great lengths to ensure consistency. They take samples from every stage of production, up to and including the product as it is released. They do this every day and keep those samples for years. The sample archives are an amazing sight, row upon row of identical bottles with plain white labels on the front. Want to know what Jim Beam white label tasted like on March 6, 1973? There's a bottle for that.

Every master distiller at every major distillery has a story wherein his predecessor gives him a simple piece of advice: "Don't change a damn thing."

They do change things, of course. Parts wear out, production needs to increase, costs need to be controlled, governmental regulations (environmental and the like) need to be conformed to, new technology needs to be applied, but unlike with most businesses the quest isn't to constantly improve the product. It is to make the necessary changes without altering the product itself in any material way.

People often are surprised to learn that most major whiskey producers make very few different products. They may have many different labels, but only a couple of different distillates. Buffalo Trace, for instance, which makes dozens of different labels, uses just four whiskey recipes. Same with Heaven Hill. Jim Beam makes three. And so on.

The reason for this is because in each case, that company believes they are making the best whiskey it is possible for them to make. Wild Turkey makes one bourbon and one rye. The only reason some make more is because they acquired a company that was making the best whiskey it knew how to make and they kept it going. This is even more common in Scotland than here.

Today's new, small distilleries don't necessarily have to do everything the way the majors do. There would be no fun in that. But if they ignore the lessons the majors have learned they do so at their peril. The worst hubris to come from this young movement has been its claims that, on day one, they were beating the majors at their own game. They weren't. And they still have a long way to go.

4 comments:

Joshua Feldman said...

Much of the voodoo mojo claims focus on maturation tricks. I don't think anyone is ragging on the big guys for consistency. If anything I'd argue there is a clear and somewhat justified sense that many expressions have gone downhill - both in the Scotch and Bourbon worlds. Barreling proofs have gone up and mashing periods have gone down. GMO corn has replaced a more heterogeneous set of strains. In Scotch drum maltings have replaced floor maltings, steam fired stills have replaced direct fired ones, strains of barley have changed and are higher yield, more homogenous, and less fully flavored. This has produced a mania for dusties on both sides of the pond - not just for nostalgia, but also for a lost richness in the flavor signature. Some craft distillers promise wild originality, and some promise to do things the old ways to get those lost qualities back.

Pepcycle said...

I'll say the same thing I always say........................

Troy Kooper said...

A blogger, using his enjoyment of a cheap, watered down beer due to its cheap, watered down consistency, as a way to knock craft whiskey distilleries.

Makes my brain cry.

Reid Mitenbuler said...

Nice post, Chuck. These discussions about consistency are my favorites to come up. As I'm sure you know, Lew Bryson wrote a great article about consistency in the most recent issue of Whisky Advocate.

After reading Scott's post, I was reminded how often I read interviews with microbrewmasters in Beer Advocate where they cite Budweiser brewmasters as inspiration. They don't necessarily want to mimic Bud (or even like its taste), but they respect their knowledge of the craft, and stand in awe of them reaching the holy grail of consistency. Bryson points out that some microdistilleries have pointed to inconsistency as a feature ("every bottle is unique," etc.). I've always found that interesting, and a little confusing.

And, for the record, I'm really excited about the craft movement, although that doesn't seem obvious from my article. I hope that these kind of intelligent, honest conversations help them perfect their craft.