Consistency: Is it a misplaced goal?

I was reminded yesterday of an argument I had with a friend of mine a while back. He is the owner of a brand of craft spirit. You see, yesterday he posted on his brand’s Facebook page about consistency. It is his position that batch to batch consistency is, in and of itself, not a goal. 

As far as that goes, he’s correct. Every barrel of bourbon tastes a bit different. It doesn’t matter if the the same mash bill was put into the barrel on the same day and they were aged in a similar location. They will all taste different. This is to be expected. Barrels are made from trees. They are natural products. The trees will have been subject to different nutrients, amounts of sunlight, stresses, etc. It is to be expected that the levels of certain chemicals in each may be slightly different. It is also to be expected that environmental factors will come to play during the time the spirit is sitting in the barrel. Hot spots in the warehouse, access to better breezes, atmospheric pressure differences from season to season are all probable. Bourbon is a natural product.

So how does every one of the bottles of Jim Beam taste exactly the same? The short answer is they do not. But they taste close enough that no one, possibly not even those trained to do so notices. And because of this things change slightly over time. If you get your hands on a bottle from 15-20 years ago odds are there will be slight differences. While there are many possible reasons for this (15-20 years ago there may have been more older whiskey blended in, the bottle may have been subjected to extreme heat or light, bottle maturation, recipe changes, etc), I posit that subtle shifts are inevitable even if “nothing has changed” and conditions were perfect after bottling. 

But if you got a bottle of Jim Beam that was produced this year and compared it to one produced last year, I doubt you’d notice a difference. So how do they get it so similar. The major reason is that they make a lot of bourbon. And they mix a lot of it together until they get the flavor profile they are looking for. They are good at what they do and have a lot of stocks to chose from in order to get it just right.

But why do they do it? Why do they work so hard to make an admittedly inconsistent product so consistent? In a word: consumers. The big brands know that the everyday consumer has been trained to expect that one box of Cheerios® will taste just like the next box. And that Toasted Oat Circles will taste different. And they know that the same consumer will expect a bottle of Jim Beam to taste like the one next to it and not like Knob Creek.

And yes, there are geeks in the world who know more than the average consumer. We know that there is variation from barrel to barrel. We know that this batch might taste better than the next batch. This is why those same companies market single barrel products to us. We are interested in the minute variations. Plus we know that the companies are going to be choosing the best barrels they can find. The ones that won’t need to have the edges averaged off.

So with all of that, should consistency be a goal in, and of, itself? My friend, from the beginning of the post, says the goal should be consistency within an acceptable range. He states craft products should not be held to the same standards as the big guys. All of this is correct, in a manner of speaking. Due to the nature of an actual small batch product using natural ingredients and processes, there will be batch variation. This is fine and may even be admirable. 

This year’s infusion may taste different than last year’s because this year’s strawberries or plums may taste different than last year’s. Why should Batch 1 be the flavor standard bearer if Batch 2 can improve on it? 

It probably shouldn’t. But if you don’t tell the consumer that, they will expect it to. Remember, we live in the world of artificial flavorings where one batch of strawberry flavored yogurt tastes the same as the next. 

Consistency should not be a goal. But letting your customers know what they are buying should be. And consistency is just one way of doing that. It’s up to producers to tell us when they are playing by a different set of rules. Whether it is batch numbers on bottles of Booker’s or vintages on bottles of wine, if you give consumers a hint that something might be different, they’ll play along. They might even want to try more than one. But if you don’t, and they notice, you may have lost the next sale.