How should Scotch counter the craft spirits challenge? Beat them? Join them? Or buy them?
It has to be said that William S Burroughs isn’t known as either a whisky lover (he preferred Tequila), or as a marketing guru, but when I came across this quote I couldn’t help but think of both.
‘Junk is the ultimate merchandise,’
wrote the great sage.
‘The junk merchant does not sell his product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to the product. He does not improve and simplify his merchandise, he degrades and simplifies the client.’
Great sage: William S Burroughs in 1977 (extreme right, with Carl Solomon, Patti Smith and Allen Ginsberg; photo: Marcelo Noah)
Now I also realise that it isn’t necessarily wise in these somewhat febrile times to appear to draw parallels between ‘junk’ and alcohol, so let it be clear from the outset that I’m not. I mean, it’s fairly obvious that Thomas de Quincey wasn’t talking about opium but whisky when he penned the following:
‘Happiness might now be bought for a penny, and carried in the waistcoat-pocket; portable ecstasies might be had corked up in a pint-bottle; and peace of mind could be sent down by the mail.’
It’s what is being outlined in Burroughs’ analysis that piqued my interest. It should be the case that anyone wishing to sell more whisky – and, my goodness, doesn’t everyone want to do that these days? – might simply wish to make their whisky better than the alternatives. In other words, to improve it. Is that happening?
We hear a lot about whiskies being more consistent these days than in the past, but that in itself only suggests that distillers have managed to successfully iron out issues which previously resulted in quality dropping on occasion. Aiming for consistency in an existing brand, while laudable, is one thing. Wishing to genuinely improve something is different. It should go hand-in-hand with creating consistency.
Is it being simplified? I wonder if it is. Those of you still reading this are dong so probably because you love whisky’s complexities, and this can be a fiendishly complicated spirit. At the same time, it is the over-emphasis on the arcane world that exists within whisky which puts many people off.
It’s like Game of Thrones. Only once you are fully committed can you understand what the hell is going on. It is tacitly understood that you need to make that extra effort. You are either in, or out. There is no middle ground.
That’s fine – it’s the way the modern world of TV operates. I like Boardwalk Empire, you don’t. Does the same apply to whisky, however? Is the lack of simplicity – in language, in education – potentially hampering its growth?
So, what of Burroughs’ second rule? Are we, as consumers, being degraded and simplified? In the latter case, maybe we are. The mass capture of data, the insidious growth of (anti-)social media and the number-crunching which goes with it have reduced us to ciphers.
We are ‘red’ or ‘blue’, grouped by likes and dislikes, targeted by algorithms – do you honestly think there is someone at Amazon who knows you well enough to suggest what you’ll like?
It’s the 21st century equivalent of astrology. It doesn’t allow for that thing called individuality, it denies the existence of free will – and that, my friends, degrades us all.
This new approach makes it easy – on paper at least – for brand owners to target effectively the right people with specific brands, but by simplifying consumers there is real danger that whisky itself loses its sense of difference.
It is choice which drives it, it is quirkiness, it is the weird unpredictability of a single cask, the fact that it, at its core, is not smooth and neutral, but a wondrously frustrating and enigmatic bundle of contradictions. It cannot afford to lose that.
Burroughs was a prophet, but prophecies do not always come true. They don’t… do they?
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