Not all spirits are created equal

Twenty five years ago, when I was the features editor at The Publican newspaper, I went with an actor friend to see how pub licensees responded to complaints from customers.

We would order two halves of bitter (young, middle-class men ordering halves is enough to get under the noses of your average publican right there), then my actor friend would complain about his beer, no matter what condition it was served in. The licensee’s response should have been to taste the beer, explain that it was meant to taste that way and why, and then offer an alternative should my friend want it. Unless the beer was off, of course.

Nearly all the pubs served perfect pints, and nearly all of them responded in the right way. In fact it went swimmingly until pub 10, when my friend, now sufficiently lubricated and growing into his role, accused a pub landlord, who looked like a cross between Danny Dyer and a heavyweight boxer, of watering down his beer. Hey ho.

Anyway, I went back and wrote a glowing story about how business-like the modern publican had become, and how everyone would benefit from such high-class customer service.

A quarter of a century later, though, how much progress have we really made? Recently at a drinks fair I heard a distributor telling a customer that the American craft whiskey he was about to taste was “something of a Marmite whiskey – some love it, some hate it. I love it”.

I tried it later. It was awful. Taste is subjective of course, but we’re not talking the difference between grilled fish and fried fish – we’re talking straight out of the water raw fish with its head still on. And if the customer went away from that experience in the belief that this was what craft whiskey was meant to taste like, then Houston, we have a problem.

I’ve been working on a number of craft spirits books recently, and I’ve been in touch with dozens of bars specialising in microdistillery products. Some play the numbers game, proud of the hundreds of new spirits they stock. But a growing number are now sceptical about what purports to be craft. A crash is coming, and it’s coming a lot quicker than it did in craft beer.

Why? Partly because the experience with at least some craft beers has made many of the better bars wary of the new spirits. They do not accept that you can cut corners and make whiskey in a few months by maturing it in a small cask. Partly because customers are baulking at paying $10 for a brand they have never heard of when tried and trusted brands are available for a similar price, and the major companies are putting out exciting and innovative spirits of their own. And partly because, unlike beer, it costs considerable time and money to make spirits, and I suspect that producers are reluctant to throw their liquid away when they have made it.

There are lots of new players making good new spirits – too many to name. But there is a lot of junk out there and, to use a football chant for some distillers at least, they don’t know what they’re doing.

We have to recognise the snake oil for what it is. Before it causes irreparable damage.