Quality Control

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard or even used the expression — “It’s all about what’s in the bottle” — when referring to the appeal of a spirits brand.

It’s homage to the intrinsic appeal of the product and recognition that image alone is not sufficient.

Couple of interesting questions…

If that’s the case why do some awful tasting brands of booze sell well? To maintain my friendships in the industry I won’t cite any examples but lets just say there are brands that sell more on image than product taste.

The more important question is, who decides if it’s “in the bottle?” For the smart marketer it’s based on consumer taste tests, sensory panels and research of that nature. Generally there are benchmarks, action standards and criteria or hurdles of acceptability.

Except when the owner or senior executive decides that he/she knows better than the consumer.

At Seagram there were the owners who made the decisions and their deputies who established the criteria.

I once asked the head of quality control who had been trained by Mr. Sam about Jack Daniels and got a 20-minute lecture on what was wrong with the quality of the brand. I protested that his view of the product was counter its performance in the market place and consumer appeal. Good thing Mr. Sam was long gone by this time or my head would have been rolled down the building plaza.

A good friend who was there when Seagram introduced a Scotch called 100 Pipers recently told me a story that illustrates the point.

Despite the fact that the company owned Chivas Regal, the leadership at the time, from Mr. Sam on down, was Canadian whiskey driven. So when the idea of 100 Pipers came along the QC folks, led by the owner, kept rejecting the formulation until it reached their notion of acceptability. Research was ignored; R&D and production was ignored; they kept fiddling with it until it tasted the way they thought it should. They felt that no one wants to drink Scotch so take the Scotch taste out.

The result — a good tasting Canadian whiskey that Scotch drinkers hated and Canadian whiskey drinkers wouldn’t consider. It never clicked.

Guess what? According to data I recently saw, it sells over 2 million cases today with more than half of that in Thailand. Who knew?

Still made by Chivas Brothers and owned by Pernod Ricard. Bet it tastes like Scotch too.

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Keepers of the Quaich

The Keepers of the Quaich is a Scotch Whisky society with membership by invitation only. Along with others, James Espey founded it to acknowledge those who have contributed to the Scotch Whisky industry.

As an aside, James has held very senior positions in the liquor industry including at UD, IDV, Seagram and others. He’s known for the creation of Bailey’s and Malibu, among other brands, and is the consummate marketing and managerial professional.

He also has a great sense of humor so it comes as no surprise that he would help found a 500-year-old society in 1988.

This is a Quaich (pronounced kweix). It is the classic small drinking bowl of Scotland and the centerpiece of the society and the induction ceremony.

Everything about the society and its induction process is serious and worthwhile but in my humble opinion it’s a hoot, especially the stories surrounding the event and ceremony.

On the serious side, while I’m not sure how it works today, the people who ran the society when I was inducted put on a great event. The Keepers had its own tartan and inductees received a cummerbund made in that plaid. There is a coat of arms with the motto Uisgebeatha Gu Brath which means “The Water of Life For Ever.’’

The event itself is held at Blair Castle (not to be confused with the Blair Witch project), which is the ancient home and fortress of the Earls and Dukes of Atholl. The ceremony, as I recall it, was something to behold even for the most blasé  “been there and done it” booze business executive.

Throughout the induction ceremony and the serious and splendid dinner, you actually feel honored and totally enthralled by the evening. It isn’t until the end of the meal when the inductees are full of Scotch, Haggis and singing while standing on the tables that one realizes that this is just good fun.

About the standing on the table bit, perhaps some readers who are members can enlighten me as to the number of injuries that might have occurred over the years when tables collapsed. My memory is a bit hazy on that aspect of the evening. I recall standing and singing a Scottish drinking song and vaguely remember joining everyone else as we stood on the chairs while raising our voices. But, how the few hundred others and I got on the tables to end the song is beyond my recollection.

Ah, and the Haggis. Now there’s a tale Laddie.

As the dinner began two men appeared, one holding the Haggis and the other looked like he had come from central casting and, with a booming voice, recited the Robert Burns poem, Address to a Haggis. Allow me to set the stage for you.

As you remember from High School, Robert Burns was a renowned Scottish poet and lyricist, widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland.

Haggis is a dish containing sheep’s liver, lungs and heart mixed with onion, salt, oatmeal, other stuff and simmered and served in a sheep’s stomach. Let’s just say that, like Scotch, it’s an acquired taste. (The term ‘mystery meat’ you used in High School doesn’t begin to describe it.)

The poem is a celebration of the dish’s role as a unique and symbolic part of the Scottish identity and culture. So it’s more than fitting that the Keeper’s dinner should begin with this presentation of the Haggis accompanied by the Burns poem.

As the story goes, at one particular induction dinner, things went awry. Picture the server carrying this enormous Haggis followed by the booming voice reciting the poem.

As he walks down the dining room, his voice gets louder as he approaches the final verse, the translation of which is:

You powers who make mankind your care

And dish them out their meals

Old Scotland wants no watery food

That splashes in dishes

But if you wish her grateful prayer

Give her a haggis!

Just then the server slips and the Haggis is tossed four feet in the air. It lands with a loud thud and showers Haggis all over the place. We’re talking meat and offal on the tables, floors, chandeliers and a few dozen Keepers in tuxedos with their unique tartan cummerbunds.

At which point one of the longstanding members was heard to remark: “I see they’ve added a new element to this year’s event…the flying Haggis.”

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