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).