I love craft distilleries. Or micro-distilleries. Or whatever you want to call them. I visit them whenever I get the chance. I love the can-do, small-business, All-American work ethic that they have. These guys are going up against some of the biggest companies on the block and saying: my stuff is good too. And most of the time they are right.
The deck is stacked against small distillers. A lot of these guys don't have and don't want investors. They need to find a way to stand out and make some money. Now. The start-up costs are high, the on-going costs are high. And if they want to make an aged product, it won't be ready for months to years. Toss in the fact that the big guys are making a good product, they have loyal customers who like what they are producing and they have the scale to make the product cheaply and you are looking at a deck that is not only stacked, but but a game that should be unplayable.
So how can the small guy stand out? Because passion doesn't pay the bills and love doesn't keep the lights on. Well one way is by engaging with your audience. Turn your customers into followers on twitter and Facebook. Talk to them, reach out to them online, show them that you are a real person and the passion you have for what you do. If you do it well, you'll turn those followers into brand advocates. You'll get them on your side and recommending your stuff to their friends.
I've got a great example of this, (and though it comes from one of the big guys, this particular big guy has had to do a lot of brand reconstruction and recovery in the last decade to make up for the many decades of neglect their brand had had before). My wife is currently going through chemotherapy. Two or three days before her first treatment, I tweeted that I'd gone out and bought a 2009 Four Roses Mariage for her to crack open after the chemo treatments had been deemed a success. Because Four Roses follows both my wife and I, they saw this. On the day of her first treatment, they sent out message to my wife telling her that they were thinking of her and pulling for her. My wife was in the chair, scared and being hooked up when she got it. It made her day. And, whether it was their intention or not, it made her much more likely to choose a Four Roses when she's standing in the liquor store and doesn't know what she wants.
Every small distiller, hell, every small business person has time to do this. I use social networks when I'm not doing anything else, not when I'm busy. It's before bed, while watching tv, when someone else is driving, when I'm eating lunch, or (I'm ashamed to admit) when I'm in the toilet. Times when I'm not doing anything productive.
So what else? Because a loyal following will evaporate if there isn't an interesting product. And this is the topic I love most about small distillers. And why I prefer the term craft distiller to micro-distiller. They have the opportunity to experiment. Experiments are not all successful. I was a bit harsher than I intended in my review of MB Roland's product the other night. (Not because of the rating. I was trying to rate it from the perspective of an uninformed public. Someone who didn't know anything about the history of the thing, but saw the name bourbon on the label.) But because I forgot to mention the fact that even though this particular product wasn't my favorite based on my own preferences (don't really like the smoked drink thing, not even in beer) I love the fact that it was produced!
Let me repeat that: I love that MB Roland created an aged bourbon made out of smoked corn.
I love the sense of experimentation. The creativity and the innovations that they and other craft distillers are creating. I have, and will again, plunk down my hard earned cash to support such ventures. Because although experiments fail, sometimes they succeed beyond our wildest dreams. And, to circle back to the first bullet point, if they've done the engagement part of this they have a willing audience to not only pay for these experiments, but to show them off and tell their friends about them. I have no doubt that there are people who love the Black Dog Bourbon that I gave a "high-meh" rating to. And I hope to find them and tell them about this product that I've tried and want to share with them.
And I do this because I found out Paul was a real human being, not a faceless corporation. I've engaged with him online, we've talked, and tweeted, and emailed and facebooked. And I hope to continue to in the future.
In the spirit of experimentation, here is a cocktail recipe that would not have been possible without experimentation and creativity on the part of a craft distiller. I give you my Smoky Old Fashioned.
Smoky Old Fashioned
.5 tsp sugar
2 drops Angostura Bitters
2 oz Bulliet Rye whiskey
a heavy tsp MB Roland Black Dog Kentucky Corn Whiskey (no substitutes)
one cherry to garnish (a moonshine cherry works well)
mix sugar into just enough water to allow it to dissolve (heat it for 10 seconds in the microwave to use less water). Add 2 drops of Bitters. Add ice to cool the sugar water. Pour whiskeys over ice. Stick cherry onto a stick and use it to stir.