I’d like to clarify something that sort of defies clarifying. In other words…this will likely be a useless post that accomplishes none of what it sets out to do. We refer to ‘the industry’ a lot. Here on ATW, in discussion in and in other forums and venues. It’s an easy catch-all term that speaks to the us and them mentality that so many of us feel, if not actually outwardly project. It’s easy to think of the industry as one big evil empire, a machine deriving its fuel from the soul of whisky-man (much like the Matrix), but the reality is different, of course. We like the ease of language the term affords, but it’s painting with a broad brush, and something I’d like to draw a bit of attention to.
Let’s talk first of local shopkeepers and sales folks. Those individuals who are the purveyors of the malts we love. They drive the local flavors by boosting or stalling certain sales, choosing the products that hit our shelves, arranging events and festivals, educating us when we visit and sharing their knowledge, secrets and tips. Of course in some monopoly-driven markets these roles may be somewhat curtailed, but much remains the same. These folks are the last stop. Do they fall under the blanket appellation of ‘industry’. Well, yes, but it’s a gray area. I don’t want to get too deep into the nuance, lest I cast shade, but typically there is a set margin to be applied to what rolls in from the local agents and voila! Robert’s your father’s brother. They hit the sales floor…you hit the sales floor. Ultimately hard to fault these good people (more often than not friends of ours after a few visits), unless of course, they are the ones responsible for setting margins and are playing loose with the numbers and being dodgy. Rarely the case, I would suggest.
Next up we have the local ambassadors and agents. Ultimately responsible for bringing in the goods from the big distributors behind the brands or distilleries. Here’s where things get a little harder to get a feel for. But let’s look at this in two pieces.
First off, we have the ambassadors. Charming (and usually good-looking) people on the frontlines, learning their stuff inside and out (we would hope), smiling and pouring you drinks at fests and shows (no matter how tedious…and trust me, it is, I’ve done it) and making the products known and approachable to as wide an audience as possible. Do they have an agenda? Of course. They work for a company that has a portfolio. It’s their job to sell that portfolio. But here’s the rub, guys and gals…these people are human shields. Really. Whisky geeks, by and large, are good people. But we’re all fiercely protective of the drink we love. When things go wrong we question the closest representative we can target. Do they set prices, determine allocations and such? Of course not. But guess who takes both barrels. Our only real gripe here is how much stock you can put in the words of the guy or gal selling you something. Caveat emptor. But, hey…I’ve done it. I’ve worked for brands that weren’t my heart and soul. There are a lot of creative words to verbally sex something up even when you don’t believe it the new Ardbeg ’77. Ultimately though…they are good and great people working in sales. The enemy? Hardly.
The other half of the this piece is the agencies. Hmmm…very little visibility or accountability here. I’m as in the dark as anybody. What sort of slice of the pie they are taking is anyone’s guess. And good luck finding out. Lemme give you an example. I recently found out that Aberlour a’bunadh is still retailing for just over £40 in many places. That’s $66.80 Canadian at the time of writing. So riddle me this: Why is it $136.99 on shelves locally? No matter how you spin it, it doesn’t make sense. The dollar is low. But so is the pound. Production costs haven’t changed drastically. Barrel prices are not much different than they were a few years ago. Shipping…not a big change. Anyway…time to start getting a little concerned we may be edging into that ‘enemy’ industry territory? Maybe. Tough to say. A lot of people I know are in these positions and making a living from it. They are good people. Truly good people. But I can’t speak to the finances.
Next up…the big companies. The brands behind the local importers and agencies. Entities like Diageo, Pernod, Edrington, etc. Now THIS, THIS, I believe is where most of the vitriol is pointed. Answerable to no one but owners, shareholders and the SWA and SWR (where applicable). Is this where our prices are set? Largely, I would imagine? And where decisions are made to launch more and more products that shrug the ‘shackles’ of age statements in favor of names and stories. Probably. This level also has a lot of hired guns doing face time. Love ’em or hate ’em, I won’t mention names here. I would argue that this is where your animosity should largely be directed. Not that I’m suggesting animosity is the recourse. Just saying, let’s send our barb to the people that can ultimately answer back to them.
And finally, we have the makers themselves. I don’t generally mean the Patersons and Dalgarnos and such. (I think those folks sit in the tier above). I mean the folks working at the homes of production. The ones running stills and mashes, visitor centers and tours. The ones working the maltings and warehouses and bottling floors and cafes. The ones pouring samples on site, building and repairing casks, doing grounds maintenance and polishing stills. The ones fixing boilers and spelling out washbacks and all the other heavy lifting that comes with it all. These folks are darlings of us all. Rightfully so, I’d say. They’re not setting prices or creating marketing blurbs. They’re making whisky and creating experiences.
Ultimately, no matter the level we look at, we’re talking about people. I’d bet anything that I’d get along with any one of them if we met along the wood at some small tavern and shared pints. Our agendas diverge, for obvious reasons, but none of us would be here if not for love of the game. Logic tells us to separate business and pleasure, but this is one case where that is entirely impossible. Having said that, we can still respect the man, if not the method, aye?
Yes, yes, this is a gross simplification, but the point wasn’t to draft pages of essay-like rigidity and dryness. It was an attempt at humanizing something that gets distorted to the point of dystopianism sometimes. I struggle with it myself from time to time. As you’ve seen.
(Note: This little musing was triggered by a recent conversation with a friend of mine who works in the ‘industry’ and by a recent post the Sponge put up).
“Ultimately, no matter the level we look at, we’re talking about people. I’d bet anything that I’d get along with any one of them if we met along the wood at some small tavern and shared pints. Our agendas diverge, for obvious reasons…”
I complain about what goes on in the whisky “industry” the same way people that work in said industry complain about what goes on in the industry I work in.
The complete reverse is true: I’m very sympathetic of things that go wrong in my (service) industry, whereas, other people would flip out and complain to manager/customer service …
Its human nature to complain about price – or any number – of other things they are interested in buying but often forget they are guilty of same behaviour in the industry they earn their living in.
I don’t know, Portwood. I guess the “industry” I’m in works very differently from the Spirits industry. I think I would be very critical of things I see as being done poorly, and with whisky, I can just vote with (with-holding) my wallet.
I get that these people are “human” like the rest of us, but I think you have to be wary of someone who is out to get you to spend more and more of your money on their product. Don’t drug dealers start really friendly too, until you’re hooked?
What I mean is that when you have an uneven relationship it’s hard to be equals. I have a friend who is a politician, but he knows I won’t vote for him (I ran against him) and we don’t talk politics generally.
It’s ok to have a friendly releationship with your liquor broker, but you have to acknowledge the inherent conflict of interest. “I have a few things in you might like…”. Let me ask you – do you buy more booze when you know the store owner well? Just a question.
I think there was a major player missing from the discussion. Government. Yes, NAS and aged statements are more expensive than they should be, but (outside of truly premium bottling) that has to do with markup and taxes more than anything. Highland Park 18, something I mentioned in an earlier post is $119 in the United States and $214 in Ontario. That’s not an exchange issue. That’s the LCBO bumping up the price they are paying so the percentage they pull equals more money. The LCBO is the largest liquor buyer in the planet. Literally. Yet, their prices are into the stratosphere in order to generate greater revenue. That’s the part of the industry that sickens me. Does that revenue support infrastructure? Of course. Do I already pay a significant amount of my salary in taxes? Yessir. That doesn’t stop both the federal and provincial governments from hammering us in taxes. If I buy a $50 bottle of scotch across the border the duty I pay is about $45. That’s a huge part of the industry that none of the groups mentioned above can control.
It’s not just taxes, or exchange. Some other weird stuff is going on. Previous audits of the LCBO show that while the world’s largest single buyer, it does not effectively get good bulk prices, except for some wines (I know a few that are more expensive in Calgary). But for spirits, there are so many examples of over pricing.
What really confuses is the Alberta phenomenon. Just a year ago, even after the new government raised taxes, stuff like A’Bunadh was cheaper than here. Yet prices have jumped 30% while they only went up by 5% here. And then, if you find some older expressions, like the last Nadurra Curt reviewed (a friend and I snagged 2 in December – SCORE!) and a Longrow Burgundy, they are are pre-inflationary prices.
So I am baffled by this. My response has been to buy only what I really want and only if it’s reasonable, and I’m not budging on my threshold. Will I miss out on some stuff? Yes. Will I regret it? At some level. Will my pocketbook thank me? Yes.
Again, I think the main problem with the LCBO is mandated percentage mark-up based on landed price. It’s not as if the LCBO CAN negotiate to bring Glenlivet 12 in at $10 a bottle less, keep $5 for itself and pass a $5 savings on to its customers; lower landed prices, negotiated or not, only mean lower total mark-up and a loss of LCBO revenue, and the LCBO has no real competition it has to undersell anyway. Your tax dollars at work. I do agree with the related point being made, however: that the funhouse mirror distortions created by the set up of the LCBO adds further insult to existing injury for current whisky consumers.
I think it’s a very good point to acknowledge that the industry, however defined, is made up of people, not monsters or killer robots – people who pay their bills, are probably very kind to their kids and walk their dogs regularly (or vice versa). More power to them; I have no more ill will for them on a personal level than they have for me (and, sometimes, maybe less).
I think it’s an even better point to acknowledge that there are various levels of responsibility within the industry “machine” as to agenda setting, how interests are defined, and the ways those agendas/interests are pursued. I don’t really have a problem with ANY industry representative/employee, at any level, until they lie about what they’re doing in order to sell me something; then, yeah, I have a problem with it, regardless of their bills, children or dogs – and if a good part of their entire job is to lie to sell me something, they might want to get another one if they don’t like criticism. This criteria leaves most “industry” people admittedly out of the spotlight – I’ve got no problem with the secretaries, stillmen or truck drivers, for example – but, yes, it leaves a few key figures, and their proxies, smouldering IN that spotlight.
If possible, I think it’s an even better point to acknowledge that everyone who isn’t my friend isn’t my enemy. But, although it may seem like a rather obvious corollary, those people aren’t, by definition, my friends either. No one would really shed a tear if NAS magically ended tomorrow – defense of the poor industry and its problems never seem to extend THAT far – but very few are really doing anything, by word or deed, to see it ended today. Again, people are part of the problem, part of the solution or part of the landscape and, while the first group is probably more harmful, it at least HAS a coherent POV that the third usually lacks.
And, speaking of the people who are part of the problem, no, I can’t respect Nick Morgan, for instance, for saying anything like one of the reasons for NAS is that “we’re running out of numbers”; if that’s his method, then he either knows nothing about the product he’s selling or he thinks that I know less than nothing. Dave Driscoll thinks that the sales ends justify the bullshit means as well and, in terms of mutual respect, it’s the same story. I’m sure that, outside of their professionally mandated duplicitous capacities, some of these folks are quite nice and interesting; Morgan is supposed to be a pretty good guitarist and, for all I know, Driscoll is an expert bongo drum player.
But, sadly, when it comes to whisky, I’m no more interested in their bills, kids, dogs, guitar work or possible bongo playing than they are in mine; it’s not, and never will be, a factor in our business relationship. What’s more, I don’t think that that’s a bad thing, because it helps keep people focused on brass tacks rather than warm fuzzies… and bongos. Alright, alright, alright?
True “human shields” don’t normally volunteer for the job, or get well paid to do it – we’re not dealing with victims in any real sense here. If many of these people really know anything about whisky at all, then they know that, on the subject of age, they’re being paid TO tell a transparently bullshit story and, yes, that they will, and should, take some heat for the transparently bullshit story they’re paid to tell – and even more heat if they try to cover for their transparently bullshit story by saying the issue is really about what other people “don’t know about whisky”. The more heat, the better for consumers, I say; maybe, with enough heat, we’ll finally get some truth told and some reform actually done instead of just being perennially called for while many try to otherwise compliment the industry into submission.
You see, it’s not just a case of the industry, predictably, having “a different agenda” from consumers that’s troublesome – it’s that the industry and its representatives are demonstrably barefaced lying about both whisky and physics in order to pursue that agenda. People who both know and care about whisky should be, if not surprised, at least somewhat troubled by that.
If various industry people or the professional whisky “experts” who often defend them are embarrassed or inconvenienced by the nonsense they’re spouting, well, they should be. If they don’t feel particularly loved or respected for spouting that same nonsense, well, they shouldn’t be. After all, at the end of the day… it’s fucking nonsense; people who hang their professional reputation’s hat on this ridiculous stuff deserve what they get. By the same token, if these same people stop spouting and/or defending nonsense, then they’ll deserve the credit involved for that as well; it’s far more in their control (or that of their script writers, if applicable) than anyone else’s. The world will neither implode nor explode regardless of the choice made, but it is what it is.
From the above, I think the most important point is to acknowledge that industry interests, no matter who defines them, can often be plainly seen to be in conflict with those of consumers – less product information vs. more product information, more price gouging vs. less price gouging, more bullshit vs. less bullshit, etc., and that, in many instances, the twain shall never meet. The key takeaway from this is that consumers need to stop worrying about sympathizing with the industry’s solutions to the industry’s problems and start acting (and working together) to find consumer solutions to consumer problems.
Caveat emptor – truer words never spoken… and, to the industry’s inconvenience, buyers ARE beginning to wake up and beware.
Anyway, good piece, and I hope it provokes a lot of thought.