Gary (gaz) Regan: A Man For All Seasons

Bartender, innovator, author, publisher, educator and more

gaz regan 2012 in suit by jimi ferrara - Copy
gaz regan

I first met gaz in the early 1990s when I was Seagram. While I’ve always known him as Gary, the name gaz is his nickname and has become his nom de plume some time ago. Whatever he calls himself, he’s a heck of a guy and has made major contributions to the booze business.

Before I get into all that, here’s a story I heard from gaz. (He spells his name without capital letters.)

I think it might have been on his radio show (with Paul Pacult) in the late 90s. They invited me on and we were discussing single malt scotches in general and The Glenlivet (a Seagram brand at the time) in particular.

To illustrate the nature of the category, gaz told a story about when he was bartending in the 1980s on South Street in NYC. It seems that a particular Scottish gentleman would come in for lunch everyday, order a hamburger and ask for the “book.” It was a guide to single malt scotches and differences in brands, regions, water, grain and distillation styles. After work, the gentleman would meet with friends and colleagues and hold forth on the verities of various malts. While he sounded like an authority on the subject, the information he provided was less than 5 hours old.

To me, the story illustrated the nature of the single malt category and the focus among those drinkers on discovery and what’s in the bottle. Portend of things to come.

There are two other things I learned from gaz – the power of stories in the booze business and the crucial role of the bartender.

Regan's orange Bitters
Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 6

Writer, storyteller

Did I say writer? I meant to say prolific writer. He has written a column for the San Francisco Chronicle for 14 years, publishes three newsletters a week, has won two Best Cocktail Writer awards and written more than a dozen books. He is also a regular contributor to Liquor.com and an advisory board member.

If you want to reach bartenders, he’s the man to see. Two of his books, gaz regan’s Annual Manual for Bartenders and 101 Best New Cocktails are published annually and reach a wide audience all over the world. Oh, and let’s not forget the Joy of Mixology and The Bartender’s Bible.

New edition to be released in May
New edition to be released in May

My favorite is The Negroni: A gaz regan Notion, the second edition of which will be released in May. Not only has he made that drink famous but has also cleared up many of the myths about its origin. All I’ll tell you is the originator was one Count Negroni, the broncobuster who first created the drink in the early years of the 20th century. It’s a fun read.

The consummate bartender

Credited by many as one of the godfathers of the mixology movement, gaz is a bartender’s bartender. In addition to books and bartending appearances (The Dead Rabbit in NYC), one of his newsletters is devoted to job opportunities around the world. Mention his name to any professional bartender and their eyes will light up and a big smile will appear. Along with other famed bartenders like Dale DeGroff, gaz has been a judge at Diageo’s World Class bartending competition.

In fact, companies like Diageo and Pernod Ricard have been smart enough to avail themselves of his services. I think it’s because he has his fingers on the pulse of the bar trade – consumer and bartender. That is, of course, when his finger is not stirring one of his world class Negronis. (Check here and here for more about this.)

Just One Shift

gaz came up with the Just One Shift idea to help raise money for a charity called Wine to Water, which has been bringing potable water to thousands of people all over the world since 2004. Doc Hendley, a bartender from North Carolina, founded Wine to Water.

Each year gaz organizes and promotes a campaign for bartenders to contribute the tips from ‘just one shift’ and 100% of what they raise brings clean water to needy people worldwide.

Great idea. I’ll let you know when the next campaign comes around.

Cocktails in the Country

Cocktails in the Country Workshop
Cocktails in the Country Workshop

This event, which you can learn more about here, ran for seven years from 2001 until 2007. He has decided to bring it back this year, and from what I’ve heard from bartenders, that’s really good news. Cocktails in the Country 2015 is a Master Class that focuses on the importance of service in the hospitality business and much more.

Held in Cornwall on Hudson NY, it’s a two-day bartender workshop that covers a wide range of issues for the trade and even culminates in a special certification for bartenders. It runs all summer and the first workshop is coming up on May 11 to 12. (See Schedule)

* * *

I think the best way to sum up a story on gaz regan is to show the headline from the Food Republic written by Simon Ford, founder of The 86 Company and formerly a top notch on premise guru for Pernod Ricard:

Gary ‘Gaz’ Regan Knows More About The Culture Of Drink Than Basically Anybody

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Craft Confusion

When is the term ‘craft’ authentic and when is it marketing hype?

Craft StillThe spirits industry has seen amazing growth of craft distillers and brands. The Distilled Spirits Council of the US (DISCUS) has reported that there are nearly 730 “small” distilleries producing 3.5 million cases in 2014 (up from 700,000 in 2010) and with revenues of nearly half a billion dollars.

This craft spirits development is here to stay based on a number of factors including the interest in whiskies of all types; consumer trends regarding connoisseurship, craftsmanship and artisanal products in general; the focus on ingredients, process, and the distiller; and, attention to what’s in the bottle.

There are other forces at play here, particularly the rejection of mass-produced products in favor of small batches and hand crafted. A phenomenon affecting all consumer businesses from packaged goods to durables.

So it’s not surprising that the power of the words, “craft” “handmade” “small batch” would be adopted by large brands and used despite the intent of these words. When a brand sells hundreds of thousands or millions of cases, one needs to wonder whether the use of these words is marketing hype (as in “smooth”) or outright fraud. At the same time, there are also small distillers jumping on the bandwagon without the real credentials.

The lawsuits

The best and most succinct coverage of what is going on is to be found in the Feb 16, 2015 edition of Wine & Spirits Daily, under the headline, Truth Squad Discusses Transparency in Labeling Lawsuits. The “Truth Squad” is a panel of WSD readers (manufacturers and wholesalers) who express their professional views on a range of issues affecting the wine and spirits businesses.

There are a number of cases involving court action related to labeling:

  1. Templeton Rye was sued for claiming it was made in Templeton, Iowa when in fact it is made in a large multi-brand distillery. The implication was that the brand was a small batch product. They have since revised their label.
  2. Tito’s Vodka is being sued in California and Florida for the label claim that it is handmade as in, Tito’s Handmade Vodka. At roughly a million cases, how can you call yourself handmade? Unless, of course, you count turning on
    Tito's label
    Tito’s label

    the lights as part of the process.

  3. Maker’s Mark is also being sued for claims related to “handmade.” According to USA Today, “The lawsuit…accused the distillery of deceptive advertising and business practices with its “handmade” promotion on the labels of its bottles, known for their distinctive red-wax seal.” I know that they hand dip each bottle in the wax but can you totally hand make 1.3 million cases?
Maker's Mark
Maker’s Mark

Don’t get me wrong… I think these are outstanding, well-made products. I’m a fan of each of them but the words in question are not marketing hype words like “smooth” or “premium.” To many people, the misuse of these words appears to be deceitful.

Enter the Truth Squad

One member thinks too much is being made of this issue and suggests that the consumer doesn’t know or care. Maybe. But, how about the genuine small batch or craft distiller who has invested their life savings in a distillery and whose livelihood depends on it?

Another view was that it’s the lawyers “who make a fortune” with spurious lawsuits that are behind it all. Perhaps. People who are looking for the real deal deserve not to be cheated with misleading claims. And, if the regulatory people won’t deal with it, then the courts should.

A distributor executive put it nicely when he/she said,

“I think that the average consumer feels better about purchasing something with the perceived or real support to a small company, and dislike it when they find out it’s just part of a huge corporation. It would be…like someone buying… produce at a big box store, and then taking it to the Farmer’s Market on a Saturday wearing overalls, and making money on the perception that they are a farmer.”

What’s the answer?

Simply put, there needs to be a standard by which those using of the word ‘craft’ (and related phrases) are held accountable. Don’t expect the alcohol governing body (TTB) to do it. Even if they were so inclined, they don’t have the resources to police these types of label claims. For the same reasons, forget about the Federal Trade Commission.

I think the craft distillers associations like American Distilling Institute or American Craft Spirits Association should tackle this but, for whatever reason, seem to be disinclined to take a stand.

But, a fledgling craft organization seems more than willing to provide a solution.

Robert Lehrman, an alcohol industry attorney (Lehrman Beverage Law) together with a number of craft distillers has formed the Craft Beverage Association and its mission is to tackle this subject. This is from their (in development) website:

The Association was formed to try to find a way to set standards for the seemingly simple, yet hitherto amorphous and elusive — but fundamentally important term: craft.”

What they have in mind is analogous to the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval or the Certified Organic Label. Their mission is: “To set craft standards for beer, wine and spirits, in a fair, modern, flexible, enforceable way, so the term can be filled with meaning and saved from abuse, for the benefit of consumers and craft beverage producers everywhere.

*     *     *

There’s a major shift occurring in the beer and spirits industries and it’s called craft and/or handmade and/or small batch. Large manufacturers have lots of options as to how to deal with this growing consumer interest. They can ignore it and present the merits of their brands as is. They can attack it, like Budweiser’s advertising. Or, they can buy legitimate craft-made brands, then screw it up, again like Budweiser. But to co-opt or misuse these terms is just plain wrong.

I prefer the industry to clean its own house but, until then, I guess we’ll continue to make the lawyers rich.

 

Handcrafted Sorel --  Jack From Brooklyn.
Handcrafted Sorel — Jack From Brooklyn.
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The State of the Spirits Business

What’s behind the continuing growth of liquor?

Last week the Distilled Spirits Council of the US (DISCUS) presented its 2014 Market Report, which indicated that discus_logospirits (liquor) sales were up 4% to $23.1 billion and volume grew 2.2% to 210 million cases.

In addition, market share versus beer increased for the fifth year in a row. Overall, spirits sales share went up 6.4 points since 2000 to over 35% of revenue. Most interesting to me, supplier revenue in 2014 just about doubled from 2000. Sales went from $11.7 to $23.1 billion.

The DISCUS release went on to report a number of factors contributing to the industry growth, all of which make sense. However, I have my own take on the factors and trends that are driving liquor sales and they can be best summed up as changes in consumer attitudes and behavior.

Changing consumer taste preferences

Let’s take a brief trip down drinking memory lane.

From the 50s to the 70s, whiskey dominated drinking preferences. The ‘silent shudder’ that came from the first sip of an American or Scotch whiskey was worth the effort “once you got used to it.” From the 1980s to the 2000s, consumers stampeded away from whiskies into vodka, the ubiquitous alcohol that provided the kick but mixable with almost anything that masked or camouflaged the taste.

24875266_sOver the last ten years, a new generation of drinkers has turned to whiskey for its perceived greater depth of flavor and its newfound mixability thanks to the cocktail resurgence. (By the way, that desire for taste and depth of flavor is what is also driving the craft beer growth.)

Also, the vodka suppliers shot themselves in the foot with the flavor explosion that went from the sublime to the ridiculous; from citrus to esoteric, from serious to such choices as whipped cream and marshmallow. (See a previous posting on vodka.) The result has been the ability to purchase over 600 flavors and slower growth. Vodka sales are underperforming the overall spirits category as a new generation of drinkers goes back to what their parents or grandparents had rejected.

What’s in the bottle and how did it get there?

This new generation has brought with it a conversation about the craft of making spirits and, like many changing values, 29949289_mit has spread to other age groups. While once upon a time consumers focused on the alcohol effect, today the focus is on ingredients, process, the distiller and artistry among a host of other manufacturing factors.

In short, some categories of the spirits industry are becoming much like the wine business and craft beers with an emphasis on quality, taste and small batch production. In fact, DISCUS reports that small distilleries grew from 92 in number in 2010 to 700 in 2014 and from 700K cases in volume to 3.5 million today.

It’s not about mass production or even consumption. Quality rules. Are you listening Smirnoff and Budweiser? Run all the clever ads you like, you won’t stop this trend.

Women and whiskey

Let’s take another trip down memory lane. Once upon a time, whiskey was the domain of men and distillers tended to 33892845_mshy away from marketing and advertising toward women. It wasn’t until 1987 that DISCUS lifted a voluntary bam on advertising directly to women. In a recent article in Huffington Post, Meghan O’Dea of The Whiskey Women had this to say, “We’re seeing a move toward gender-neutral drinking.” (Check out her website, it’s interesting. The home page has this slogan, which I just love, “Fill your mother’s crystal decanter with your father’s drink of choice.”)

I think the days of “girl drinks” are over. And, I think that the recent tutti-frutti direction in vodka is a contributing factor. Again according to O’Dea:

Women are consciously realizing that the beverages you enjoy have a lot to say about who you are as a woman…women are shying away from drinks that infantilize them.”

Clearly, whiskies have benefited from this change in attitude and, while flavored whiskey may have played a role, it’s by no means the sole driving factor.

(For an interesting historical perspective on women and whiskey, see this article from The Denver Post.)

The outlook

George Washington Distillery
George Washington Distillery

With more positive attitudes toward spirits consumption among consumers, I expect that the growth of the category will continue. DISCUS does a good job in promoting market access and helping to change archaic purchase laws. After all, how do you tell the public that state after state is legalizing marijuana but you can’t buy liquor on a Sunday?

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