A telltale sign that the brown spirits movement has much more room to run: whiskey nerds (like yours truly) are getting nerdier.
Consumers today revel in the array of flavors, innovations and — most importantly — information now available in the world of whiskey. Fandom has spiked to new heights. Knowledge of these spirits is a badge of honor worn proudly by more and more people. Whiskey geeks have gone mainstream.
Why? Why have Facebook groups for whiskey fans exploded across the country? Why does your neighbor now know the definition of “mashbill” and “Bottled in Bond”? When did Louisville become the new Disneyworld?
Part of it is human nature.
“Becoming knowledgeable about something you’re passionate about is a larger fundamental human truth, and it applies in whiskey as well,” says Joshua Steely, brand director, bourbon, for Buffalo Trace. “Ultimately, being knowledgeable helps you connect with others that share the same interests, which is something we all value.”
But why whiskey? Brown spirits have taken hold of the consumer conscience unlike any other alcohol category in recent time. Popular bottles fly off of retail shelves. People wait in line, sometimes overnight, for the latest must-have releases. Jubilant fans post scores and hauls on social media (often with the comical #crotchshot in the front seat of their car), flaunting rare whiskeys that they managed to track down. A robust secondary market has formed, as has devotion for single barrel store picks.
It becomes a self-fulfilling competition: masses of people online all trying to obtain and show off the same bottles.
Incredibly, if you speak with some of these folks going gaga for whiskey on social, some only began drinking brown spirits with regularity in the past year. There’s a suddenness to this mania — not unlike the Beanie Baby craze of the ‘90s — except whiskey more depth than colorful fabric and pellet filling.
“Whiskey is an exciting category that is attracting a new generation of consumers, many of whom are discovering whiskey for the first time,” says Kaveh Zamanian, founder and whiskey maker of Rabbit Hole. “In addition, we’re in the midst of a renaissance and there’s not only a plethora of core brands from great makers but there is also a steady stream of innovative new releases that drive continual excitement in the category.”
Which seemingly answers our chicken-or-the-egg question. What came first? The fanatical fans? Or the whiskey innovation that fuels them?
“A bourbon boom bringing with it an explosion of new brands on the market, coupled with information being more easily accessible than ever, has stoked the flames of bourbon nerdery to a full-fledged wildfire,” says Old Forester Master Taster Jackie Zykan.
Perhaps most telling of all, this has sent fans flocking distilleries as tourism destinations. Here, consumers ask questions that reveal incredible levels of knowledge — and eagerness for more.
“I have witnessed an ever-increasing level of interest in brand-specific production details,” says Zykan. “Everyone wants to know the mashbill, the barrel specs, the age, the warehouse location, the distillation and fill proof, yeast information, fermentation duration, grain sources, filtration techniques, it goes on and on.”
She is far from alone in noting how fans have grown smarter and more curious.
“While questions about mash bills and barrel char levels were commonplace, we’ve moved beyond that into topics like terroir, type of wood used for maturation, location of a barrel in the rick house, reasoning for using one barrel over another and how we select a single barrel,” says Joe Beatrice, founder, Barrell Craft Spirits.
This newfound nerdiness also finds roots in another trend transcending food and beverage: “healthier” consumption.
“People are increasingly interested in what they are putting into their bodies,” Beatrice says. “Quality ingredients make a difference.”
“In general, people have a thirst (pun) for how things work and what makes a product different from the next,” he adds. “As a result, there is more information available.”
Naturally, this information filters through our always-on, always-expanding, ever-influential social media.
“In the past, the gateway was the bartender, but the torch has passed to Instagram, which can transport them directly into the distillery and give them the insight on a new brand or release,” says Meghan Ireland, quality assurance supervisor, WhistlePig Whiskey.
“When new label approvals are released, they are immediately showcased for the whiskey community to debate months in advance of a launch,” says Ireland.
In turn, the people who run these distilleries have perceptively tapped into the endless consumer need for information.
“Whiskey makers have also become more sophisticated when it comes to engaging the consumer and I think that has played a role in driving the consumer’s hunger for knowledge,” says Zamanian of Rabbit Hole.
For instance, Rabbit Hole was among the first major craft distilleries to explain its unusual mashbills on the branding. “Packaging design provides brands a practical opportunity to highlight what separates one brand from another,” says Zamanian.
Drinkers increasingly scan labels, expecting extra information. More brands will reflect this consumer behavior by printing finer detailers on the packaging about production, distillery history and the distillers themselves.
“There are personalities behind the brands that the nerds also want to understand,” says Ireland. “I think they are interested in how is whiskey being made but who is making it. Smaller brands can expose the distillers and blenders who ultimately are potentially more exciting than the barrel toast.”
Which, altogether, is to say that modern consumers want to know and understand everything. The reasons are the collective movements on social media (which has elevated nerdiness in all fandoms), people wanting to understand exactly what they consume, and the explosion in whiskey innovation.
So where does it all lead? One answer is unprecedented transparency.
“It is very beneficial for brands to be transparent about their processes,” says Zykan. “If you’re comfortable sharing this information, it may as well come from you and not get lost in the game of telephone among aficionado groups. It is ever increasing in importance to buyers to know what exactly they’re consuming, and with so much competition in the category, now is really the time to provide shoppers with details you want them to know which make your brand unique. Incorporating commonly requested facts about your processes in labels, hang tags and website shows that you’re confident in your production process.”
Echoing her is Steely from Buffalo Trace.
“There are many ways to highlight facts, but it all ladders back to transparency,” he says. “Ultimately, if brands try to be as transparent as they can, that should help sate the appetites for more knowledge.”
Savvy brands will explore innovative means to include fans in all parts of the whiskey-making process. Thanks to social media and livestreaming, it’s never been easier to welcome whiskey consumers behind the curtain in fostering our growing nerdiness.
“I think [the future] is dynamic aging, single barrel experiments,” says Ireland. “How can you make the fans part of the journey, and give them a hint of what is to come.”