The American Whiskey Experience

The whiskey selection at Chicago's Untitled Supper Club.

When considering the customer experience, do you consider the histories of the products you sell? You should, because their stories can be leveraged for marketing, promotions and enhancing the guest experience. Whiskey, as an example, has a rich history that you can use to engage with guests, create loyalty, and deliver the WOW! factor. Attendees of the 2016 VIBE Conference in San Diego were treated not only to a tasting of Hudson, Stranahan's, Jack Daniel's, Wild Turkey, Booker's, and Russell's whiskeys, they learned about American whiskey history.

Whiskey’s history, it can be said, is the history of America. The first settlers that came to America brought with them their knowledge of distillation from throughout Europe. Some settlers made whiskey to pass the time while others used it to trade. In fact, the first domestic product to be taxed by the newly formed federal government was whiskey. Most Americans think Prohibition was the first example of the public pushing back against the government over alcohol. In reality, the Whiskey Rebellion (also known as the Whiskey Insurrection) saw Americans resist what came to be known as the whiskey tax. This resistance came to a head in 1794 in Pennsylvania. More than 60 Pennsylvania distillers were subpoenaed for not paying the excise tax, and the majority were served without issue. But in July of that year, warning shots were fired at the federal marshal delivering the subpoenas and his escort, a general. This led to rebellion, the raising of militias, mob violence, and the eventual collapse of the insurrection. While state courts in Pennsylvania convicted many Whiskey Rebels for assault and rioting, two men were convicted in federal court of high treason and sentenced to death. President George Washington – who was making whiskey during this time – pardoned the two men. Whiskey Rebellion, Whiskey Insurrection, Whiskey Rebels… The marketing almost creates itself.

The thought that whiskey has only been increasing in popularity over the past few years is inaccurate. Data collected by DISCUS for 2015 shows that whiskey overall has been experiencing growth since at least the year 2000. It would be more accurate to say that craft whiskey has become more and more popular over recent years. Proof of this is that the TTB cannot keep up with the amount of craft distillers. Other challenges presented by craft whiskey are the clutter generated by its incredible growth, the undefined and overused term itself, and inconsistent state-by-state regulations. Some also see the demand by consumers for more and more transparency in terms of products, but this can actually help to create loyal guests and boost traffic. If you choose to carry high quality, popular whiskeys produced by transparent – and therefore trusted – distillers, consumers to whom that matters will see your venue as a whiskey destination. Plus, the stories behind the distillers can be used to engage with customers.

Transparency is one top trend to expect in 2016. Corporate ethics (sustainability, charitable actions, and more), whiskey cocktails, authenticity, and the master distiller reaching celebrity status are other 2016 trends. When you’re considering the whiskey experience that you offer your guests, expect bartenders and servers to be asked about sour mash. It’s important to know that most bourbon is made via the sour mash method; this method is not specific a style of whiskey made in Tennessee. You may be surprised to learn that Jack Daniel’s, which proudly states on the label that it is “quality Tennessee sour mash whiskey,” can technically be considered bourbon. Finally, do your research and ask your suppliers about American whiskey styles beyond bourbon and rye, American single malt whiskeys, and American whiskeys that will feature age statements on their labels.

Don't miss out on informative, immersive and fun events like the American Whiskey Experience! Be sure to save the date for the 2017 VIBE Conference, taking place February 28 through March 1 in San Diego!

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