Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The return of the monoculture

I didn't really think I'd be posting so soon about an alcoholic monoculture, and I'm not sure it really deserves a post to it self, but again last night, only a few weeks removed from the last bewildering experience, I found myself at a bar where only one alcohol was being served.

At least this time I was expecting it. And at least this time it was whiskey--and a decent whiskey at that--which is a damn sight better than a sea of Bacardi. And it was free, another notable distinction from the last debacle.*

This particular monoculture was advertised beforehand as a promotion for (ri)^1 whiskey, which is some relatively new rye production from Jim Beam. For those who didn't have the differences between rye and bourbon or plain old whiskey explained to them last night, here's the deal: All whiskey is distilled from corn, wheat/rye, and barley mash. Like bourbon, rye also sits in oak barrels to age.

Rye, though, must be made from a mash of at least 51 percent rye grain, whereas bourbon is made from at least 51 percent corn. Pre-Prohibition, rye was the whiskey of choice in the Northeast. So if you are really, really old and you had a whiskey drink in New York, Boston, or any of those other fancy Yankee cities before Carrie Nation ruined this country for a few years, that was what you were drinking.

After Prohibition, rye didn't really survive. Maybe it's because in the past I found rye to kick like a mule and bourbon to be more smooth, or maybe it's because the rise of corn-based whiskey after WWII has to do with the nefarious plot masterminded by the USDA and the military-industrial complex to inject us with as much cheap corn as possible and cripple us with obesity and apathy while they conspire with the Federal Reserve to financially enslave us and..............WHOA.

Sorry about that. So maybe it's just because people prefer bourbon.

Anyway, rye has enjoyed new found popularity and traditional rye cocktails like the sazerac are making a comeback. Jim Beam is capitalizing on this trend with (ri)^1, hence the tasting event last night.

Strangely enough, though, the event last night hardly seemed to be about whiskey at all. Sure, the whiskey label was clearly visible throughout the art gallery, but the only four drink choices involved copious amounts of simple syrup, citrus juice, herbs, chunks of pineapple, and even chipotle peppers. My company (all female) agreed that most, if not all, of the drinks were too sweet, even by their hairless chest standards.

It was explained to me that the purpose of the event was to present rye as a versatile alcohol that can be used in a variety of ways. The slogan on their Web site is even "mixes well, but never blends in." So the point was to show all sorts of people who think they don't like rye whiskey that it can be just as palatable as the insipid vodka. I guess that could make sense if you were trying to expand your market, but to me it's kind of silly.

I'm fairly certain that rye whiskey is never going to replace the ubiquatous and tastless vodka as the base liquor of choice for cocktails among people who enjoy drinking lots of sugar. It's just not.

I would think it would make more sense to show people what their whiskey actually tastes like, which I found to be fairly smooth and enjoyable. If people don't want to drink it straight like I did, then have some cocktails like the sazerac that show what rye is all about. Why would people switch to rye if it's flavor is masked just like vodka? It seems even more likely that people would opt for vodka when it's so much cheaper than the $40 and up price tag I've seen on (ri)^1.

The only way you could get some people to start drinking expensive rye if they don't even know what it tastes like is to market it as something hip and cool. Therefore, you hold a free event in a hip gallery, invite lots of young people who are interested in trends, hire attractive young women to serve drinks and give them tight-fitting futuristic/nostalgic orange dresses to wear, and hope a bunch of other trend-savvy people see them order (ri)^1 next time they go to a hip, new bar.

I think that could work in the short term (like maybe one or two visits to a bar after the event), but I still don't see people ordering a bottle of rye next time they go to Ghostbar or wherever. That won't come until they convince L'il Wayne to put down the cough syrup and slug some rye next time he's on camera. Even then, most alcohols who go down this road until people became sick of it or move on to the next hooch de jour.

But then again, I guess they are big enough that they already make plenty of money from Knob Creek, Basil Hayden's, Booker's, Baker's, and Old Overholt. So with all the cushion to work with, I guess this foray into tempting the average liquor swiller might actually be a pretty good plan. Thanks again for the rye, Jim Beam, and good luck.

*Thanks again to Dan Cohen and Rachel's friend Greg from Australia.

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