‘A World of New Ideas’
I first got into spirits, namely whisky, around ten years ago. I was attending the funeral of a family friend and in traditional Scottish fashion, I was offered a dram when I arrived at the wake. Not wanting to appear rude, I accepted and wandered off to a quiet corner of the room in order that I wouldn’t make a fool of myself when I attempted to drink the thing. The whisky in question was a 12-year-old Highland Park single malt and as I took my first tentative sip, bracing myself for a mouthful of fire-water, I was rather surprised to experience instead of a liquid of soft, silky textures and subtle depths of flavour. Working my way through the glass I had something of a moment to myself, and when the tumbler was empty, I went straight to the bar to order another.
That first Highland Park lingered long in my memory and I eventually decided that I would have to investigate the matter further. So, like any newbie to the scene, I shuffled along to the spirits aisle of my local supermarket and stood there, staring in total ignorance at the scores of bottles perched on the shelves. Naturally, of course, I froze in complete terror. What was I doing? I had no idea about this stuff. What was the difference between them? Why was one double the price of another? I couldn’t even say half the names!
The way I saw it, I had two options. I could select the Highland Park which I knew I liked, or I could take a stab in the dark and hope that I didn’t purchase some kind of pleasantly packaged petrol. I opted for the latter, taking home a bottle of The Glenlivet's 12-year-old single malt. Fortunately, I wasn't disappointed in my choice and the experience helped to foster a sense of experimentation in my approach to whisky which continues to serve me well to this day. I've never really been one for sticking with one brand actually, and in truth, the idea of remaining blindly loyal to one particular product has always struck me as a little dull.
Brand loyalty is defined as 'positive feelings towards a brand and a dedication to purchase the same product or service repeatedly, regardless of a competitor's actions or changes in the environment'. In short, it is the holy grail for any producer of spirits. As consumers, however, we choose to return to a product because we were rewarded on a previous occasion with a good experience. Return too often though, and our natural human biases kick in. We begin to convince ourselves of our satisfaction in the purchase, even before we’ve opened it.
You see, the thing about us humans is, we’re idiots. We’re all prone to a phenomenon known as ‘confirmation bias’, where we interpret information in a way that suits our pre-existing ideas. Like when we share ‘fake news’ on social media because it supports our argument on a particular topic. We overlook its inaccuracies and concentrate instead on the parts which back up our position. It’s something we can all be guilty of and if we’re not careful, we can apply it to our favourite spirits too.
Many spirits, malt whisky, in particular, are batch produced and cask-aged. Variations in smell, taste and indeed quality are commonplace. It’s just a natural occurrence and distillers do their best to compensate for it through the extraordinary talents of their master blenders. Occasionally, however, a dip in quality or a perceivable shift in flavour profile may make it to the bottle on the shelf. Which is fine, we can put up with the occasional disappointment so long as it doesn’t happen often. But what if the brand is our favourite? What if we never buy anything else? What if the quality continues to deteriorate, yet we keep buying it anyway?
I’m not pointing an accusatory finger at any particular brand here, we’ll call this a hypothetical scenario instead. Nevertheless, it is one we consumers should be on our guard against and fortunately, there is a way to protect ourselves from such a terrible fate. Kind-hearted soul that I am, I’m going to tell you what it is.
Experimentation ladies and gentlemen is the key. There is an unbelievably vast universe of experiences which one can enjoy within the spirits category and the best approach is to buckle up and dive in. Why condemn ourselves to a life of repetition, sipping away at the same old brands, telling ourselves it’s as good as it’s always been and there’s nothing that can match it? By all means, we must treasure what we love and keep close to our heart the memory of occasions enriched by our drink of choice but we mustn’t become blinkered to the alternatives.
For my part, I will never forget that first sip of Highland Park all those years ago. Every time that fine whisky of Orkney crosses my path I will be reminded of the excitement I felt in enjoying a new experience. It will seem familiar and comforting and I may even dwell on it for a while but then the memory will motivate me to continue the journey and seek out another new discovery, forever recreating the pleasure which comes with the first sip of a new bottle. My next favourite dram is out there right now and so is yours. It’s sitting on a shelf somewhere, waiting. Waiting for you to come and find it. It’s calling you now. Can you hear it?