Bostonapothecary: Imagining a future for the industry.
Am I really qualified to imagine a future for the distilling industry? I don’t know, but I’ve been a wine & spirits buyer for 15 years and people constantly write to me from around the world describing their projects, asking questions, and discussing research papers amassed here. I’ve done a myriad of small consulting projects and am slowly getting deeper into the industry because stuff I’m interested in is finally starting to take off. Lack of interest in product development laboratories had been holding me back, but the tide is turning.
My big bold futurist talking points are that in many categories nearly all productions have to change and we have to recognize that the productivity of the big distillers is way too high. This means we have to educate a new generation of distillers. All distilleries also have to embrace agro-tourism, but it has to be good. It has to be fucking exemplary. We also need to resurrect a lost generation of spirits analysis ideas and I think I personally have some key solutions to that.
This futurist proclamation may seem like huge parts of the industry are getting torn down, but really the pie is expanding and it will hold more people and be more enjoyable to work in. The only groups that should be worried are private equity firms that bought big vodka brands at the top of the market or contrived marketing firms that butchered history and avoided the actual teams that made the spirits.
Do all productions really have to change? I’m a restaurant buyer and my reps keep telling me that Tito’s vodka is absolutely crushing the market and robbing other established brands of many millions in market value. Other factors are also at play that no one ever foresaw such as the most popular cocktail among females in my restaurant being the Old Fashioned. We can easily go a week without a call for a Cosmo. Canadian Club and Seagram’s V.O. are 100% dead when not too long ago they were staples of every bar tender’s speed rack (they were, as we all know, reborn). What does this mean for all the small tier rum brands like Myers, Mount Gay or Goslings? I bet their sales are slipping. Consumers aren’t discovering commodity producers when they leave vodka, they are discovering guided traditional practices like the single malts (who restarted many mothballed distilleries to great effect), or the new generation of Bourbons. A truth seeking story is what it takes to get people to acquire acquired tastes.
My rum scholarship tells me that the rum market is going to move to sophisticated fine blends where funky producers make incredible heavy bodied rums and they buy bulk stocks to proudly blend them down. Education and embracing the new Grand Arôme framework will free rum from being compared to Bourbons in terms of age statements, single barrel is better ideology, etc. Fine rums will be categorized by their complications.
In my market, I would hypothetically make a small scale very involved Grand Arôme rum and I would buy blending stocks from an exemplary producer like Privateer (arguably the best American rum producer and local to me which is just beyond the city). Privateer would likely also make their own well differentiated Grand Arôme rum. My business is driven more by tourism than a wholesale reliant model. I attract tourists by being in an urban area, but that means I cannot handle the environmental burden of a large production which is why I make strategic relationships yet maintain a product involved enough to be fine.
The Caribbean would likely benefit from similar ideas. With Tito’s style market pressure, and who knows, possibly tariffs, the only growth anyone can experience is through agro-tourism. A single bottle sold on-premise at retail is likely as profitable as an entire six pack sold wholesale. Thus, most distilleries should not grow, they should multiply emphasizing agro-tourism, and public policy should encourage it. When distilleries multiply and are forced to conceive new differentiated productions such as Grand Arômes, we are going to need a lot of new distillers with skill sets that near no one possesses currently, but more on that later. The large distilleries are also relics of colonialism and likely contribute relatively little to local economies because their productivity is so high and they are so foreign owned capital intensive. The distributed model would be a true trickle down bonanza for small economies.
The next wave of industry market pressure is going to come from the distributed model. The Tito’s killer or Hendricks slayer (probably more like denter) is not made at one giant production facility, it is rather distributed between 25 locations in America alone, and one on every island. It’s fermentation has inline monitoring for quality and it’s stills are automated. It also doesn’t suck and was conceived by brilliant cool people who birthed the cocktail movement and it’s label art is cooler than anything out there with the next generation of Ralph Steadmans at the helm. Taxes on spirits are so high that tax breaks can be more significant than any economies of scale from being centralized and huge. Why physically ship highly regulated ethanol across borders when you can ship vacuum sealed bags of botanicals?
This is the Coca-cola model done fine. This isn’t exactly new and has been practiced by degrees for years (Bacardi, Campari and Fernet et. al. are known to have been produced in multiple locations), but it is about to be fully elaborated with advances in automation and a new cast of characters to imagine the products. The Coca-cola model will create quality jobs and keep money in the right places so policy will encourage it.
So, we just changed all the productions and we distributed all the production scales by a factor of X. Now we need X times the thoroughly educated distillers (which are really fermentation chemists because the actual distilling is easy). There is likely going to be two categories of distillers. There will be those that can develop new productions a la Arroyo, possibly with legit chemical engineering backgrounds and then there will be those descended from the cocktail scene with incredible sales and hospitality experience which will maximize agro-tourism.
I keep getting emails from cocktail pros who run multi million dollar bars with incredible passion for spirits that want to get into distilling now that they are older. Many also have wanderlust and would love to bring their Manhattan hardened skills and discipline to far flung locations not known for boundary pushing innovation. It may take Manhattan minds and a Manhattan sense of what exemplary is to bring NYC tourists and their money. Currently, many distilleries are staffing their tasting rooms with relatively unskilled labor and their results are in line with that (I know a few exceptions that hired big city bar pros which are kicking ass!). Only a few new American distilleries have truly exemplary cocktail bar style tasting rooms and absolutely no one is remotely on par with the legally distilling pubs of the UK.
One problem the industry has is that as new micro scale distilleries have come online, near no one is properly educated. There are a few fiercely smart standouts, but you can count them on your fingers. There is a big lack of advanced educational material to support the new productions. Most of the large texts teach you how to continue a production, but not how to elaborate one or start from scratch. These texts were not designed for our current needs. A new generation of hastily written small books is cropping up, but they do not have aspirations grander than look mom I produced rum. We need new texts drawing from much bigger bibliographies now that so much literature has been recovered and translated to English.
As a short case study to illustrate missed opportunities, possibly the biggest problem with most new American rums is that they use organic acids like citric, malic, or tartaric to acidify the ferment instead of sulfuric acid. Newly re-discovered research tells us that these acids markedly alter yeast metabolism changing the congener profile and creating more ordinary congeners relative to the extraordinary, thus the need to cut them away. Sulfuric acid has some safety learning curves that must be tackled which may be why it is being ignored by many, but a wealth of public research is not finding the producers or their consultants. The phenomenon is known in the literature, but the literature is not known to the new industry.
My vision for the industry started long ago when I mused about what would happen if all the literature on distilling was easily available. Ceaselessly and unendingly, I found journal article after journal article on distilling (everything was in journals and not books). Much of this was first time digitized and unknown to google. There is now a large bibliography on gin and the lost Seagram protocols for botanical assay have been recovered. There is a continuous technical history of rum production from 1870 to the present with near no gaps that includes translations from Spanish, French, German, and Dutch (we are about to digitize and translate all of Kervegant). The mash bills and detailed production parameters have been found from 115 whiskeys representing 42 American distilleries during the golden era of production (1967). Papers detailing solutions to numerous fermentation faults have been found.
The next step that will be a game changer for the industry is the return of the birectifier laboratory still. Currently, near no one small is doing any significant analysis. Even automatic titration is rare in new distilleries (so no one is benefiting from the concept of Δ acidity!). The birectifier and 8 fraction Micko distillation in conjunction with the four other classic organoleptic tests are going to aid the progressive development of new spirits in a way that takes less specialty labor and is integrated with tourism. Not much more than acute tasting skills are going to be necessary to create actionable advice for advancing a production at multiple junctures (every juncture!). More advanced forms of analysis are complementary to the birectifier. As distillers start to ask more pointed questions of their spirits, advanced in house or sent away lab tests will present a strong value proposition because the results will be more actionable. If you are a consultant, you will want to make sure every client owns a birectifier.
The industry, both new and established, is currently pushing forth a lot of junk product. Many of the same organoleptic dissection techniques used by producers will also be available to portfolio buyers and blogger-super-connoisseur-do-gooders to keep producers competitive. If you don’t score high on the exhaustive test for a molasses based rum, you aren’t going to command a price. Producers will also be doing competitor and role model analysis.
If a mysterious darkly colored rum hits the market and it has an incoherent 30 year solera claim and possibly added sugar, countless birectifiers are going to dissect that rum. The sugar content will be confidently known to the gram. It will be Micko distilled into 8 fractions at high rectification, sorting and magnifying the congeners. The marks of divinity or lack thereof will be known. The market will clamor for this product, bidding it up, or shun it until it is closed out and dropped by distribution. An iPhone photo and label image recognition will instantly connect a consumer to a new generation of reviews. Truly compete (and be a gracious host) or perish. Luckily, there is an abundance of ideas to create unique productions or to climb aboard the emerging Coca-cola train.
In the restaurant the other day, an older woman Italophile was asking about our tiramisu. She wanted to know if it was heavy or light, dry or wet. She made it seem like we were capable of no opinions and could not call our shot. To her, we were producing at random and it might match her opinions of what tiramisu should be or not. I told her that Rose had been making it for 18 years and held thorough aesthetic opinions on what tiramisu should be. He wasn’t executing someone else’s recipe; it was his. He completely calls his shot, and, the way it is, is what he thinks tiramisu should be. Rose’s tiramisu is hyper conscientious. This, believe it or not, was exactly what she wanted to hear and she found someone she could trust, Roselie. She took an extra piece para llevar. The distilling industry is going to clone their Roselie and we will find them all over the place. That kind of sure footedness is detailed here in the Sherry industry.
I’m getting a lot closer to making available my Bostonapothecary tool set of laboratory glass products for spirits analysis. The birectifier is finally available, but I’m still working on the optional automation kit for 8 fraction Micko distillation (I’m up to my ass in automation!). There will be a new generation of Clevenger apparatus for crude essential oil yield and sub analysis. And finally, there will also be a new generation of perfectly sized soxhlet extractor for highly accurate essential oil determination while minimizing organic solvent use. (There may also be a more idealized and automated obscuration still if I can prove some ideas).
These tools, at the heart of a distiller’s laboratory, will be accompanied by Youtube video demonstrations and educational material as well as reviews and introductions to peripheral products like analytical balances and automatic titrators.
The future is bright, but be honest with where you stand in a shifting market and realize that improving quality and investing in human capital will always be a good idea. We must remember that a high tide lifts all boats. Countless distillery professionals before us were essentially part of a society of letters, freely sharing insights and information in journals read around the globe. The studies of the Jamaican experiment station were available to any other island. Dr. Luckow and Paul Kolachov both helped Rafael Arroyo who in turn was ready to help anybody. James Guymon, Maynard Amerine and the entire U.C. Davis cast of characters also helped everyone. Capitalism in the realm of culinary and agriculture should have a mission before it has any ownership. We will not create a golden era without remembering that.