Answers to the Facebook "The Story of Whiskey" quiz: August 10, 2017

1. What group was most responsible for the promulgation of distilling throughout Europe in the Middle Ages?  The religious class (Christian monks, priests, some nuns) along with the outcast Jews were responsible for dissemination of knowledge in the Dark and Middle Ages up until the Renaissance.  As the only class of society that were literate, they were the first to transform the ancient and mystical properties of brewing from fermentation and apply it to distillation, learned from the invading Islamic caliphates from Northern Africa in the 8th and 9th centuries.  They are considered to be the first alchemists, and in their quest to turn base materials into something more refined, they put fermented alcoholic beverages made from fruit or grains into crude stills, refined it, increased the alcohol volume and created "aqua vitae" - the "water of life".  Everything from brandies, eau di vies, liqueurs and whiskies were developed as the result of their experimentation to develop more potent restoratives, unguents, poultices and medicines of their day.

2. By the end of the 20th Century, how many Irish distilleries were producing whiskey?  By the 1980s, the thousands of farm distilleries throughout Ireland of the 17th and 18th centuries were reduced to 3: the long running Midleton distillery in Cork, home of Jameson's, Redbreast, Powers, Paddy, the world's largest pot still and is currently owned by Pernod-Ricard; Bushmills, in Antrim, Northern Ireland, now owned by Casa Cuervo (after a baffling sale by Diageo).  It produces the eponymous Bushmills range. And the Cooley Distillery, the only "independent" distillery at the the time, opened in 1985 with private investment and headed by John Teeling, located in County Louth.  Cooley was a contract distiller that produced a number of popular brands: Connemara, Kilbeggen, Tyrconnell and Greenore.  In 2011, it was purchased by Beam International which was in turn purchased by Suntory Holdings in 2014.  Currently, there are plans to have at least 25 distilleries up and running in Ireland by 2025.

3. What is Rita Taketsuru's real name?  When whisky apprentice Masataka Taketsuru was sent from Japan by his employer Kitaro Iwai to Scotland to learn the secrets of Scotch whisky distilling, he was faced with the daunting prospect of finding lodging in a strange land.  He was recommended to visit the house of a Mrs. Cowan, whose husband had recently died and had opened her Victorian mansion to boarders to stay solvent.  The rest of the story is unclear as to when he and her daughter Jessie Roberta fell in love: was it when she opened the door when he initially applied for lodging; or as a result of him ingratiating himself to the family by teaching her young brother martial arts; or perhaps when he and Jessie Roberta, also called Rita, shared a toast and the duet of "Auld Lang Syne" one New Year's Eve.  But Masataka and Rita Taketsuru returned married to Japan and began the long road to becoming the honored ancestors of Japanese whisky making. 

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The Power of the Narrative

A bunch of kids don't care about facts, they want to be part of something....

A bunch of kids don't care about facts, they want to be part of something....

We find our lives in 2017 awash in a world of facts. We fool ourselves that we live in the "Information Age" as if some divine law of electrons and silicon can elevate us to a Promethean perch in the sky offering us transcendence. But in reality we throw facts at each other as if they were cheap trinkets out of a dollar store as we arrive late to the birthday party. Our electronic devices and smartphones are active enablers of our addiction to facts, constantly pumping them into our cortex accompanied by a mild dopamine buzz on delivery, a feeling of pleasure as each arrives. And as we've seen, the promulgation of facts spurs "alternative facts", in as much as Marvel Comics engenders competition from DC, offering another view of the universe through their own carefully crafted set of facts. We drink a drunkard's flagon of fun facts, factoids, life hacks and listicles hoping to raise our consciousness, but instead are weighted down with their heavy carbo-load of complacency, secure only in the false feeling that the more we have the better we'll feel. We ignore the reality that there is no inherent truth in them devoid of context and circumstance, and refuse to acknowledge that facts move no one to take an action: not to fall in love, or to move mountains, to declare war on injustice or to advance a cause. Only stories can.

Yet here in the competitive world of small spirit brands, we rely on facts as if they can push us above the clouds and catapult us into space, high above the shelf space that our lowly competitors must fight every inch for. "If people just knew the facts - my processes, my farm, my grain, my still, my fermentation, my packaging, my location - then they would seek me out, buy my product, use it in their drinks, put in in their bars and shops and make me an easy Casamigos Billion".

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But no one buys from facts, or should I say facts alone. Frederich Nietzsche declared "there are no facts, only interpretations" and interpretations are individual and subjective, delving into imagination and desire. People purchase from the lower order of their psychological pyramid, closer to the reptilian brain that seeks security away from fear and hunger; an area that has evolved to include stigmatization, being ostracized, feeling embarrassed and even FOMO. Security gives us a sense of well-being that "I've made the right decision, that others will view me in a brighter light, that I will be elevated among my peers".

But nothing gives us more of a sense of security, nothing else walks into our private theatre of interpretations and leads us out gently by the hand, than being wrapped in the warmth of a powerful narrative. The narrative brings us closer to the fire of our fellow cave dwellers, driving out the dark while at the same time binding us together in the feeling of shared experience. It makes us feel as if we're part of something, something primal, something communal, something that envelops us and has our back.

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For over twenty-five thousand years, we've been so shaped as a species by our need for narrative that one can argue it is imprinted in our DNA, something Joseph Campbell described as "the power of the myth". If we are homo sapiens, the "wise man", we achieved that wisdom not from the spark of an extra-planetary piece of dust, but from our innate need to tell and receive the stories of our creation, our existence and our future. Narratives move us and when we are moved, we take action.

The right narrative moves us to action

The right narrative moves us to action

On tastings...

There are few things that irritate me more than getting tasting notes from an exhibitor while I'm tasting their product. This, for me, is one of the cardinal sins of the alcohol industry and I believe that it turns away more people than it is supposed to attract. In my classes and at the tables, we taste in silence and then I provoke answers with questions; if still reluctant, I'll throw one note out there to seed the crowd. When someone says "sweet" I'll ask "sweet like what?" and take them down the path to their own discovery. This is called respecting the consumer.

Now, I'm industry and I get what's behind this: some people are hired on a contract basis to man a table and want to show that they're "doing" something to show their worth. Just stop it right now, please. Some people who are in love with their "knowledge" and "passion" are more than willing to pour that out without a slow-pourer: restrain yourself. Some people are following orders from someone from the brand standing next to them. To that brand person, either revamp your approach to the consumer or stay in the office. Some people are new and are being instructed incorrectly: here's your turning point. Some people think they need to "sell" and my response is "you know nothing about selling". And some people just really don't care because its not their own "brand". For them: please, spare me, stay home.

As industry, I'll sometimes ask someone not to speak while I'm tasting their product, especially if I've never experienced the brand before. Interestingly, that will sometimes provoke a different discussion in the way that provides more value. But for the ordinary consumer, they register it in a different way, and here's what's key to that: you've just intimated them. They may smile and thank you, they may agree with the descriptors and be surprised by it, but you've planted something in their brain that says to them "I don't know anything about this because I'm not a connoisseur and I don't want to look stupid, especially to a stranger" and you've lost them.

This industry is not about you. Its not really about the brand. Its about the end consumer and they're smarter than we'd like to give them credit for. Begin with the end in mind.

The Story of Whisk(e)y - Schedule

In this hybrid one-man show and whiskey tasting, whiskey educator and consultant Robin Robinson takes us through the entire story of whiskey in one rapid-fire, crazy narrative that brings in the history of distillation, the role of the monks and alchemists, farmers and taxmen, Scottish lords and Appalachian hillbillies.  From grains to glasses, Ireland to Scotland, Japan to Kentucky to Ohio and over to Europe again, whiskey is more than the sum of its parts and Robinson dares you to come along for the ride of your life.  Hold on to your (gl)asses!

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Thanks to my brand sponsors:

  • Heaven Hill, Elijah Craig: Bourbon
  • Pernod Ricard, Abelour: Scotch
  • Compass Box, Spice Tree: Blending
  • Pernod Ricard, Lot 40: Canadian
  • Glass Revolution, Amrut: World (Indian)
  • Castle Brands, Knappogue Castle: Irish
  • Tokai Imports, Iwai: Japanese

Dates:

April 2, 2017: Whiskey on Ice, Minneapolis, MN

June 10, 2017: WhiskeyLive, Louisville, KY

Houston: Whiskies of the World, September 14  https://www.xorbia.com/e/whiskiesoftheworld/houston/?promocode=THESTORY

Austin: Whiskies of the World, September 16  https://www.xorbia.com/e/whiskiesoftheworld/austin2017/?promocode=THESTORY

Atlanta: Whiskies of the World, November 4  https://www.xorbia.com/e/whiskiesoftheworld/whiskies-of-the-world-atlanta/?promocode=THESTORY

October 4, 2017: WhiskeyLive, Los Angeles, CA


The strategy and tactics of tastings

Tastings are critical but expensive to do so a small brand needs to be choosy and strategic in committing resources.  From a priority level, you should look at tastings in

  1. Older off-premise sites that have supported you over the long term.

  2. Newer off-premise accounts that have taken a minimum of a case in.

  3. On-premise accounts with the same priority as above (older first then newer). 

The rationale is simple: you're looking to build brand loyalty, not just hit and runs.  With few resources in the marketplace, concentration and focus affects pull-through, which is the name of your game.  With that, your distributor has a better chance of getting re-orders, and re-orders have always been the weak-spot of small brands, as they typically get overlooked.  With one bottle or an empty slot appearing on a shelf, you're vulnerable to being replaced.  In reality, most retailers have little empathy with a brand's plight, they'll just as easily replace it with something else: someone newer, fancier, more in-tune with their buying habits, etc.

On premise is where you build the brand, off-premise is where you sell volume.