Whiskey and Storytelling: Part 1

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Whiskey and Storytelling: Part 1

If you look at whiskey brands the world over, you’ll notice something peculiar in how they talk about themselves. It’s not about the mash bill (literally what they put in it) or the process (how they make it). No, what they talk about is their story.

It makes sense. There’s a lot of history in whiskey, even if you just consider a bottle. It’s not uncommon to see reasonably priced whiskeys aged 10 years or more. Just think about what you’ve done in the time it’s spent just sitting in a barrel. 10 years ago, I was in my last year of undergraduate work and ordering perfect Manhattans at local bars, much to the dismay of the bartenders, who would frequently give me whiskey sours instead (I drank them anyway). Now, the closest I get to a cocktail is typically whiskey in a glass, and I spend my days writing about writing and helping others translate their thoughts into words on the (web)page. In other words, I’ve grown a lot…and so has everyone’s thirst for whiskey.

The whiskey industry latched onto the power of a good story a long time ago, and as the saying goes, good artists copy; great artists steal outright. Throughout this series, we’ll discuss the intersections of whiskey and storytelling and learn what we can from the work whiskey’s been doing for decades.

For this round (sweet bar-themed pun), let’s look at the why behind it by talking about taste. Grab a glass (I’m really enjoying Hakushu 12 year, a straw-yellow Japanese whisky, lately).

Subjective Experience

Daniel Whittington, co-founder of the Whiskey Marketing School and vice chancellor of Wizard Academy, recounted a funny thing that happened when he was hosting a tasting. One of the students smelled a whiskey, and when Daniel (never call him Dan) asked what he smelled, the student said, “Grandma.” Now, this student wasn’t trying to say his grandma was a heavy drinker. After some follow-up questions, Daniel found out that the smell that made the student think of grandma was, in fact, cinnamon. His grandmother apparently used some sort of cinnamon air freshener with some frequency, so that smell was tied to his memory of being in her home.

“Smell is the only sense that has no objective language,” Daniel says. “The reason is, the sensors in your nose bypass critical thinking.” If I were to ask you to bring me the tumbler with a square bottom (my favorite), we’d all be able to know which glass I was talking about because we all know, objectively, what a square looks like—not so when we’re talking about subjective experience.

“If you want to really experience a whiskey, you have to be comfortable with your brain throwing up something in your mind as an answer to what you’re smelling that makes absolutely no sense,” he says.

So, whiskey producers discovered ages ago that it’s far easier to tell a story than to try and explain what you might experience. It’s just too abstract, and we can apply this to how we discuss our own products and services. Everyone wants to claim they have “excellent customer service,” but if you really want to explain to your customers what that is, you have to give them an example (i.e., tell them a story). Because…

Story Is How We Describe Ourselves

If you ask me to describe myself, I could tell you that I’m a word nerd and fun fact aficionado (and I’ve done exactly that before), but to really get what that means, I’d tell you a story. I’d tell you about the time in the office when my colleagues and I scoured the internet in search of the term for the jagged shape in advertisements that calls attention to a particular offering—the dot whack—and how excited I was to learn a new word. I was so excited, that I wrote myself a note on a Post-it that reads, “Don’t forget the dot whack,” with the shape drawn on it. I see it every day when I sit down at my cube.

I’d tell you about the time someone mentioned hibernating like a bear when I overzealously explained that bears don’t actually hibernate, that their torpor isn’t sustained long enough to qualify. I maintain that my colleagues looked on with pure fascination (though their looks probably more closely resembled “who cares?”).

The point is, when someone asks us to describe ourselves, we usually respond by telling a story because our lives are too complicated to be boiled down into a few buzzwords. Brands function the same way. If you’re a brand without a story, then you come across as just another commodity.

At Our Next Tasting

In future posts in this series, we’ll look more closely at how storytelling sets us apart and how the whiskey industry capitalizes on this. We’ll even look at some specific examples of whiskey brands that are telling great stories, along with why it’s so important to be authentic in your storytelling.

In the meantime, I encourage you to taste some whiskey (responsibly, of course), and start telling some stories.