First World Problems

First World Problems

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Thoughts from... | 20 Mar 2015 | Issue 126 | By Fred Minnick

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There's a hashtag floating around Twitter #FirstWorldProblems - that puts ridiculous concerns into perspective. People use this hashtag to complain about college alumni associations sending too many emails, shoes not fitting properly, broken hot tubs, the waiter bringing the wrong salad dressing, etc. They're the kind of problems that my great grandparents would have loved to endure during the Great Depression, and that don't hold a candle to real problems impoverished nations face. In other words, life goes on if the waiter brings you plain balsamic vinaigrette instead of the raspberry balsamic vinaigrette you requested.

In whisky, distillers and consumers, including myself, need to channel the #FirstWorldProblems hashtag once in a while. For one, we all get way too worked up over stories.

Since the whiskey business's beginnings, companies have tried to spin the craziest stories that range from their grandpappy bringing yeast over on a ship or magically finding a recipe under a rock. They've attempted to turn bootleggers into interesting heroes and stretched the truth about their importance in distilling history.

Hey, whiskey, do us all a favour and stop with the backstories.

Consumers trust whiskey labels about as much as they trust politicians.

So, to all whiskey companies looking to create a new label, please remember this is a #FirstWorldProblem. But nobody cares about your story. Just give me good whiskey.

As for consumers, it's time to relax and channel the #FirstWorldProblems mentality when you see a phony whiskey story. We are all guilty of getting ticked off over a whiskey brand's marketing practices, but is it really worth your blood boiling?

Well, it could be, especially if you can get $5 million out of your whiskey-marketing hardship.

In December, two San Diego residents sued Maker's Mark seeking more than $5 million in damages because the bourbon brand uses 'handmade' on its label. The lawsuit alleges Maker's Mark is not homemade and is manufactured through machinery, adding an automated process does all the work, including milling the grain, mixing grains with yeast and water, and all the fermentation. Uh, do these plaintiffs know how whiskey is made?

Safora Nowrouzi and Travis Williams were so offended for spending $58.99 and $32.99 respectively that the American legal system was their only recourse for justice.

Maker's Mark is not speaking about this case, but they're as close to 'handmade' as there is in the bourbon business. Their grains are purchased from area farmers, and they have the smallest column stills - at 36 inches in diameter - of the larger distilleries. The fact that they hand-dip every bottle in red wax makes the 'handmade' claim accurate to some degree. I'm no lawyer, and the Maker's Mark class-action lawsuit joins Tito's Handmade Vodka and Templeton lawsuits as spirits brands being sued under certain Consumer Protection Laws.

These lawyers will not stop at chasing down 'handmade' claims. They'll go after every term on the bottle - from Straight Bourbon Whiskey to Small Batch - and pick brands apart in the media. Some brands will settle out of court; others will fight until they've spent $750,000 in legal fees. Some consumers and tradespeople will loathe these lawyers; others will praise them for doing what the media failed to do - calling out alleged fraudulent claims.

Class action lawyers are circling the stillrooms and mash tuns, looking for anything to use from a tour guide or a distributor pamphlet.

Are these claims ridiculous? Yes.

Is the Maker's Mark lawsuit without merit? Most likely.

But this is the world we live in, and American distillers have played fast and loose with their marketing for too long. Our litigious society will either motivate distillers to be more transparent and tighten up their labelling or it will expose bourbon's phony marketing schemes.

In the end, it's only whiskey, and these are First World Problems.
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