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Who Decides What We Drink?

This post has been sat, unfinished and many times rewritten for over a year. Sparked off by a conversation on Twitter it was originally about how blended whisky has changed over the years, but as is often the way it spun into something else in my head. Originally I was just trying to be contrary but on further thought I found that I sort of agreed with myself, a situation that I try and avoid as often as possible. With further prodding and poking I’ve realised that my opinion truly lies between that of the whisky geek mainstream and my argumentative internal voice. So, what is the question that my brain asked me? Simple:

Who decides what we drink?

The conversation that started it was a simple one – was blended whisky better ‘back in the day’? The general whisky geek answer is ‘yes’, whereas my deliberately antagonising stance was ‘it was different, what does better mean anyway?’. While I do generally thing that blended whisky was better back in the day, the second part of my answer is the thing that has stuck in my brain – what is better and why would a company produce something that was worse over time?

The alcoholic drinks market is a big old place. The range of things to drink varies from 95%, flavourless spirit through to sludgy brown beers that taste of death and Marmite, with almost every palatable flavour imaginable popping up in between – Bakon vodka, I’m looking at you. Looking back over history many of the drinks of the past have disappeared or changed, and often we have nothing but nostalgic memories to dig up how they once tasted. The world of spirits, however, gives us more than that, thanks to the preservative power of alcohol.

It’s not perfect, as the bottle ageing of spirits is a thing even if we can’t agree on what causes those ageing effects, but thanks to the preservation of flavour that you definitely don’t get with lower strength alcoholic drinks we have some way of comparing the past to the present. The one thing we can agree on is that things have changed over the years when it comes to what goes into the bottle. My annoyance, and the one that happily drags me into an argument almost every time I see it, is why things have changed.

The regular answer from those in the booze-geek camp is that it’s down to the producers trying to save money and generally screw over the consumer. Production methods changed, more efficient but less flavoursome ingredients were used, things were brought to market faster, shortcuts were found that impacted flavour. All of these things were true, but the one part of the original Twitter discussion that sits in my head is this – could the producers have continued making the drinks they were and could they do it again today if they wanted to? I reckon the answer to that is yes. The inevitable development from that admission is ‘why don’t they?’

A less acknowledged actor in all of this is the consumer. Us. Well, not Us, because generally the Us involved in this discussion are booze geeks (and I use a very lax definition of geek – ‘people who are more interested in what they are drinking than average’). The general consumer, the people who don’t care so much about the vintage of their whisky or the changes in the ABV of a bottle of Maker’s Mark, the folks who don’t complain about a lack of Glencairn glasses at the pub or that someone’s put ice in their whisky. Normal people. The ones who spend lots more money than Us on drinks.

Over time the tastes of the consumer change. Even in the geek world this happens, with bitter drinks rising and falling in popularity along with peaty whisky, hoppy beer, sweet rums and ‘challenging’ vodkas. The main difference that I see between the general consumer (them) and the geeks (us) is a call for flavour. The geek community almost always want more flavour, whereas the general consumer want something that tastes nice and doesn’t take effort to drink. Over time lighter drinks have come to the fore as popular with the masses, with a combination of price and ease of drinking pushing them on to further heights.

The consumer has dictated their needs – we want reasonably priced booze, with enough flavour, that is nice and easy to drink. The drinks companies want to produce the drinks that the customers want at as low a price as they can to maximise profit. Most of the drinks companies serve the average consumer, and with that has come the rise of young lightly flavoured whisky, the ‘flavourless’ (by law) vodka, 37.5% compounded gins, Budweiser and all of its watery cousins, and all of the other drinks that we geeks rail against. There are of course exceptions, companies that go out of their way to hit up the geek market and convert general consumers into geeks, but that’s far from the norm and we shouldn’t really expect every company to cater for us.

So, in the end it’s a joint effort. People ask for things and companies produce them. Sometimes companies produce things and it turns out that people don’t want them (I’m looking at you, every single ‘beer for women’ project that’s ever appeared), but in the main if something is still for sale then it has a market. It’s up to us to show people that there are better drinks out there, but at the same time it’s not for us to rail against people drinking what they want – there’s a certain unattractive arrogance to telling people that they don’t know their own minds that ties in too well with the booze geek personality, and is often the stereotype that we are all tarred with. To quote Wheaton’s Law – Don’t Be A Dick.

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