From Whiskey Boom to McConaissance

On the heels of the Matthew McConaughey’s New York Times interview, Richard asked me if I wanted to write a “Whiskey Manifesto” for the site after being long absent from the public discourse. Richard is right when he says the interview is crap and the video is damn good. I don’t know if the interviewer came in with a predetermined agenda or an inherent dislike for Mr. McConaughey or if everybody’s cooler older brother really came off that douchey. Also, like Richard, I bristle a little bit at the ad agency doublespeak about “selling.” Whether you’re selling a product, a story, or an experience, you’re still selling. Whether you hire a carnival barker or an ad (wo)man, you’re still trying to move product.

Most of my adult life, I worked at a place whose primary focus was selling “brand experiences” (not what I did there, but that was their primary focus). I spent a lot of time sitting in meetings where Creative Directors and Strategists would spout the same rhetoric about authenticity and not being “sold to” about Boomers and GenXers as they are now saying about Millennials. These are not generational affectations, this a fundamental human condition. No one enjoys condescension and a good portion of the buying public is smart enough to understand when you are talking down to them (and often when you’re talking down to other demographics as well). Rarely did the word-salad-faux-Ted-talk strategy sessions churn out anything but pandering and recycled ideas. There were a few inspired moments, but they were depressingly far apart. On the few occasions where I fell within the target demographic (whiskey drinkers for instance), the strategy often showed a fundamental misunderstanding of the already imbedded culture within the demo. These misunderstandings often went all the up the chain to the multi-national beverage conglomerate that hired us in the first place. Where the New York Times article feels like the Wild Turkey campaign is falling into the same traps I’ve seen a thousand times, the video suggests a deeper understanding, not just for the brand, but for the culture of whiskey drinkers. There seems to be a concerted effort not to alienate the market that already exists in an effort to chase one that may never coalesce. There is a reverence for the spirit and the heritage of Wild Turkey that feels genuine.

I’m not angry about the assertion that Millennials are the target audience for this campaign. Honestly, it’s their time. Aging boomers and rising GenXers gave us the whiskey boom, the micro-distillation rage, and the innumerable whiskey blogs. In a way, it’s up to that peer group to continue momentum from the initial ground swell. The ad agencies missed us while they were busy boosting birthday cake vodka, cherry flavored everything, and “whiskey for women”. I’m more upset that they missed the point the first time around than I am to be skipped over now.

I suppose, so far, this is more of a whiskey in advertising diatribe without much to do with whiskey itself. I agree with a lot of what Richard has to say, so I’ll try to be brief. He points out that “We founded Whisk(e)y Apostle on the belief that there is a whiskey for everyone,” and I still mostly believe that. I have only met a few people that have not been able to find a whiskey they enjoy and I think it largely comes down to a lack of willingness to try something. They have a predetermined opinion about what whiskey is (often built on a bad experience with some rotgut brand or other) and they are not interested or willing to give it another chance. It’s also quite possible that I’m wrong. I have a hard time with that though. I love whiskey in many styles and countries of origin. I love some that don’t even taste like what I would call whiskey and some I hate for the very same reason. Strangely, it’s often those weirdos that help me pick up the stragglers waiting to join the whiskey parade. Whiskey is such a diverse class of spirits, it’s hard to believe that someone could write it off in its entirety. I guess, when you are incredibly passionate about something, it’s hard to understand why someone else can’t find the same joy. Maybe McConaughey says it best when he says in the video, “If we’re for you, you’ll know.” I knew whiskey was for me on my first sip, but that’s not everyone’s experience. I’m also innately curious. When I find something I like, I want to learn as much as I can about it, I want try every variety, and I want to share it with others. Even if I don’t like something all that much, I sometimes test it out more that your average person would just to make sure I don’t like it. Not everyone has my sense of curiosity or experimentation. And that’s okay. I’m willing to do the research/testing and share my findings.

I only halfway agree with Richard about whiskey not being an acquired taste though. He’s right that people find whiskey when it’s their time. However, that first sip of whiskey that speaks to you often opens the doors to other drams (some you may have even tried before and didn’t like). Personal tastes change, but so does our ability to parse out flavors, smells, and mouth feel. That’s how you acquire a taste for whiskey, not from dogged repetition, but from finding the one you already love and branching out from there. Some folks will never branch out. They’ll be Jim Beam or Wild Turkey drinkers all their life and never try Four Roses or Old Forester or Buffalo Trace. That’s who the advertisers want; the lifelong, brand-loyal, everyday drinker. That’s not what I’m about, that’s not what Whisk(e)y Apostle is about. We are looking to share a dram with curious folk (in all senses of the term) and folks with a sense of adventure. If that sounds like you, pull up a chair and settle in. It’s going to be a long and beautiful night.

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