Tuesday, April 14, 2009

What's in a name?

That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet. But Shakespeare neglected to have Juliet explain that the contrapositive is not necessarily true. Just because you call something a rose, doesn’t mean it smells sweet. Try it the next time your dog takes a crap or you drive past some ripened roadkill. Ahh… the smell of roses. Doesn’t work does it?

But that doesn’t stop people from trying. I just came back from a new deli in town (no names, they were nice people). It was a very classy looking joint. Fancy sponge-painting effects on the walls, expensive ingredients proudly on display, clean, tidy, friendly, treats for your dog if you brought him, even a scented candle flickering on a wooden display unit. I purchased a "Five-cheese Panini With Bacon". The place was expensive and we had come on many recommendations. What culinary masterpiece did my immediate future hold for me? I brought it back to the office, and proceeded to chow down on what I’d have to call a kind-of shitty grilled cheese sandwich with some crumbled bacon in it. So if it wasn't really that good, why had people told us this place was amazing? Fancy sponge-painting effects on the walls, expensive ingredients proudly on display, clean, tidy, friendly, treats for your dog if you brought him, even a scented candle flickering on a wooden display unit.

What does this all have to do with booze? Patience, grasshopper.

Mr. Dicks just posted a preemptive rant about (rī)1, the whiskey so cool it can’t even spell its own name. He hasn’t tasted it yet, but he suspects shenanigans are afoot. And as much as I love Jim Beam, I have to concur. The outlook isn’t rosy. So often in the liquor business, they try to wow you with their image and not their product. Two huge examples of this are Grey Goose and Michael Collins. They are the brain-child of marketing wizard Sidney Frank. He imported the finest French blah blah and distilled it in a yawn, who gives a shit. The end result, as I’ve ranted about before, is flavorless Everclear cut with mineral water, forever reducing the public image of vodka from an exotic alcoholic beverage to a more efficient way of delivering drugs to the bloodstream. Kind of like crack. Where was the real innovation? The price. He set the price well above the existing top-shelf vodkas like Stolichnaya and Absolut. It was so expensive, it had to be good, right? Throw a few ads in some magazines, bribe some rappers to include it in their lyrics, and then you sell the whole puppy farm to Bacardi for $2.2 billion. And as I said before, Grey Goose isn’t shit and even has a place in my home bar, but is it really worth what you pay for it? Before his death, Sidney followed up this (and many other) success(es) with Michael Collins Irish Whiskey. This time, he was less successful because the existing niche market valued flavor. And not just flavor, but a very specific flavor. Sure, it was dressed up fancy and put on the top shelf just like Goose, but once the Irish Whiskey lovers of the world sipped it, the cat was out of the bag and the brand failed to perform as anticipated.

There are, as I stated in my comment on Richard’s post, top-shelf brands that don’t follow that plan at all. Jim Beam itself has Booker’s, Baker’s, Basil Hayden, Maker’s Mark, and Knob Creek; all bourbons, all value the flavor of the product over the image, and none of which shun their bourbon heritage one bit. One look at the bottles, and you know what’s inside. Hell, the company's motto is “The stuff inside matters most” and I’ll drink to that with any of their bourbons. But something about the sleek, minimalistic, hip packaging of (rī)1 gives me doubt. And just to make sure I’ve made my point, let’s have a little visual demonstration of what I’m talking about:

You pickin' up what I'm puttin' down? It's a slippery slope, people. When you concern yourself with appearance, it's easy forget that what's inside is what really counts. It's easy to be lulled into the false belief that you can just slap a label on a dog turd that says "Rose" and everyone will say it smells terriffic. Sure, some people wearing fuzzy orange visors might, but not everyone will. And if you've completely missed the mark - if your product has no merit other than its packaging, you might just go down in flames. Not having tasted (rī)1, I can't say for sure if this is the road they've chosen to go down, but I sure hope it isn't. I hope when I take my first sip of it, I sputter and cough a little bit, Richard and Paddy laughing at me before taking sips and doing the same. I hope it's strong. I hope its bold. I hope spicy and kicks you in the teeth just like spirits distilled from fermented rye should. I hope Jim Beam Brands Co. hasn't forgotten their own motto: The stuff inside matters most.

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