Looking at my drinks cabinet I have just realised that there are certain bottles that get used a lot more than others. Havana Club 7 year old Rum, Geranium Gin, Siete Leguas Tequila, Sagatiba Velha Cachaca, Wild Turkey 101, these bottles seem to need replenishing rather often. But why is it that I have formed a bond with these brands? It’s not as though I don’t have other great rums or tequilas to choose from, but I seem to often find myself drawn to my old favourites.
The same is true when I’m sat at a bar, staring at the back bar and pondering what to drink first. I always smile when I see a few of my favourites on the shelf, knowing that I have some choices that are bound to hit the spot.
Of course a lot of it has to do with finding products that taste good and I find myself going back to them simply because I enjoy the flavour, but sometimes there is a deeper pull towards one brand over another. I think there are a few reasons for this emotional attachment that go beyond simply liking the taste of the liquid in the bottle.
Talking to bartenders you find that they often have really strong opinions about why this rum is better than that rum, or why certain styles of gin work best in certain drinks, but often these opinions go beyond simple taste too. Bartenders often form attachments to brands and products on an emotional level and wont be easily swayed from their favourites. So where does this come from?
HOW DID I FIND THIS BRAND?
Some time ago I was having dinner with some friends who are not in the drinks industry but who definitely enjoy a good cocktail. One of them asked me what vodka I would recommend and I asked him what he usually orders. He said that he often goes for Ketel One, but that he wasn’t even sure why.
It turns out that when he started drinking vodka he only ever drank Smirnoff Blue, simply because he was told that it was better than the regular red label. Then at some point someone introduced him to Absolut, then over the years he moved on to Belvedere and more recenty Ketel One, but actually he didn’t know why one might be better than another. I think this is true of a lot of consumers, who are pointed in the right direction (or sometimes the wrong one) either by advertising, the latest trend, or by a personal recommendation. For me the strongest of those is the personal recommendation.
It makes me realise that those of us in the drinks industry are damn lucky because we have a chance to gain a deeper understanding of spirits and to be properly introduced to new products. The way you first experience a spirit can effect how you look at it. When someone you look up to raves about a product you consider it with more intensity than if you simply taste it on your own. Obviously the first concern is the quality of the liquid in the bottle but beyond that there are smaller details that go towards forming more of an attachment to a brand.
When I sit down at a bar and ask what’s new and the bartender says ‘have you tried this new gin/tequila/rum etc’ I find my expectations are raised. Hearing someone who makes their living behind the bar say ‘I really like this xxxx because…’ makes me look at a new product more closely than I would if I simply saw an unfamiliar bottle on a back bar. Being given a taste of something new over the bar and hearing who’s behind it, what they’ve done differently or holding the bottle in my hand creates my first link to the brand and makes me pay attention.
I’m never shy to ask for a taste or to ask the bar staff about a brand I don’t recognise, it gives me a chance to explore something new and to judge a brand by criteria other than simply tasting it and forming my own opinion. Sharing this first sip and chatting about how it compares to other brands makes the product take on a bit more meaning for me. But really that’s just a starting point.
BEHIND EVERY BOTTLE THERE’S A STORY
It makes a difference when you hear the story behind the brand. For example, hearning that Geranium Gin was the project of Henrik Hammer and his father, but that his father sadly passed away before the first batch was produced, you feel that this product is a labour of love. It makes you think about the passion that has gone into producing it and you can’t help but think that this is going to be a better gin than one produced by a corporate giant. Then when you taste the liquid and realise it is as good as the story behind it you’re hooked. This doesn’t make it ‘better’ than another quality gin, but adds a new dimension to your appreciation of it.
Finding out about the actual personalities behind the brand, for me makes a huge difference. I always want a brand that is the product of good people to succeed, it makes me want to like it and to share it with others. It can even make me change my opinion about a product or at least give it a second chance.
This was the case recently with Babicka wormwood vodka. I had tasted it once at a bar show and thought that it was a well made product, unusual but that most inexperienced bartenders would struggle to know what to do with it, so its success would have to come from experienced bartenders in top bars. To be honest other than those first impressions I hadn’t really given it a lot of thought.
Fast forward 9 months and I found myself hanging out with Alex, one of the owners of the brand who I met through a friend. Talking to him about Babicka I found out the whole thought process behind creating a wormwood vodka and the incredible story of the Babicka recipes that date back to the 1600’s. Hearing how he had been inspired by the ‘Babickas” or peasant grandmothers who dabbled in witchcraft and produced healing potions based on wormwood and other herbs infused in alcohol, and that Alex had wanted to produce a vodka that was a tribute to this tradition, made me look at the product differently.
Knowing why a spirit was created, who is behind it and what they are trying to achieve makes you connect to the brand in a different way. You come to realise that many brands have been created by people who are passionate about making the best product they can and are driven enough to take a huge financial and emotional risk by launching a product that may or may not ever make them a penny.
THE CHARACTERS INVOLVED
Sometimes it’s not the story so much as the actual personalities behind the brand. When you are lucky enough to either meet the person who makes the liquid or the guys who own the brand then the real bond begins to form.
I’m pretty lucky in as much as that over the past few years I have visited a fair few distilleries in various countries and met some real characters along the way. I mentioned Havana Club earlier in this post and for me a good part of my attachment to the brand goes beyond the fact that I think it is a well made great tasting rum. I was lucky enough to spend an evening in the company of Don Jose Navarro, Havana Club’s master blender, a couple of years back. Spending the evening talking to him about how he makes it, why he does things the way he does, and most importantly seeing first hand his passion for his products got me completely hooked.
Another brand that stands out for me is Wild Turkey. I have always liked their bourbon and rye whiskies, but when I got a chance to spend half a day with Jimmy Russell, their master distiller I gained a whole new level of respect for the brand. He’s the longest serving master distiller in the bourbon industry, and after 56 years of making Whiskey in Kentucky is a living legend.
Hearing him talk about the steps he takes to ensure the quality of his bourbon, and seeing his knowledge and love for the bourbon industry took me from simply liking the flavour of the bourbon to having a real love of the brand. Now when someone asks me about bourbon (which happens quite a bit) I can’t help but talk passionately about Wild Turkey as I know the man making the liquid puts a lot of love and attention into every drop.
This can extend beyond meeting the master distillers or brand owners, which of course not everyone gets to do. There are Brand Ambassadors who I have met who are so passionate not only about their brand but about the entire category their product sits in, that they have helped to get me hooked into their spirit.
Dan Warner gave me my first ever Gin category training, and quite apart from the fact that it was through that training that I discovered everything I thought I disliked about gin was down to my dislike of tonic water, his personality made such an impression that I found myself wanting to like Beefeater all the more.
There are countless brand ambassadors out there training the industry in every category imaginable, but the best of these, characters like John Gakuru (newly crowned International Ambassador of the Year at Tales of the Cocktail), Jimmy Olsen, Jane Conor and Zoran Peric, have so much passion for their brands that it becomes infectious. For me this personal touch of meeting someone involved with the brand and seeing firsthand how much they believe in it, helps to convince me that a brand is more than just a liquid in a bottle.
EVERYDAY IN EVERY GOOD BAR
Now it’s not every day that you get to meet a master distiller or visit a distillery, and there are plenty of people who may never get that experience, but every day in any good bar there is a chance to find a product that could become more than simply an ingredient in your drink.
Good bartenders spend a lot of time learning about the products in their bars, they get trainings from brands, they read old books and research brand histories, they visit distilleries or attend bar shows. In short they gain a deep understanding of many products which when added to their firsthand experience of tasting one against another, this means that many of them are walking experts. Who better to introduce you to good products or to point out some of the brands that despite their clever advertising might not be the best tasting in their category?
Asking a bartender why he uses a certain rye in his manhattans or gin in his martini, or even if you can have a taste of a product you see in his bar, can be the first step in discovering a better way to drink your favourite cocktail. Many bars are now offering consumer tasting events where you can learn about a specific spirit category or individual brand, or are running cocktail master classes, there is the opportunity to learn more and have a better drinking experience every day.
To me, talking to bartenders or attending tasting events is a great way for consumers to start learning more about some of the products that are lurking on back bars waiting to be discovered. Asking a bartender what his favourite rum is and why can open the door for a whole new appreciation of the rum category and may just lead you towards finding your own personal favourite.
For those of us lucky enough to work in the drinks industry, making the most of as many brand and category trainings and trying to get on trips to distilleries is the perfect way of forming a stronger bond with brands. It also makes us responsible for championing those brands that are not only great in terms of quality, but also have great stories and passionate characters behind them, and introducing them to as many people as possible.
When you find a brand you enjoy, learn a little bit about it, and maybe even see where it’s made or meet some of the personalities behind making it, it transforms the product and brings it to life. When this happens, every time you drink that brand you have a deeper and more fulfilling drinking experience and every cocktail becomes that little bit more special.
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