Innovation in Whisky

By James Henderson

Whisky, like all spirit categories, grape varietals, coffee roasts and indeed, life, continues to evolve. It can surprise, delight and even confuse the most discerning of tipplers.

Cameron Pirret was a guest of ours in 2017 – on Episode 9 of The Hospopreneurs Podcast – while behind the bar at the late, Seymour’s Cocktails and Oysters. Their Irish Coffees were known to be the best around at the time.

He’s now the Brand Ambassador for The Exchange (NSW) and back for a comment on what’s happening in whisky in 2019 – and quite possibly where we might evolve…

  • What defines a good whisky? 

Personal preference is king! There are no bad whiskys, (in theory) just different whiskys. For me it’s about distillery characteristics and maturation flavour. A ‘good’ whisky hits all the notes, both pleasing and challenging everyone – balancing simplicity and complexity.

  • How do you feel about wood chips in the ageing process? 

Not a fan! Don’t get me wrong if you use staves or pieces of oak during the maturation, that’s a different story. There are some amazing whiskys that use barrel maturation and oak pieces in conjunction to great effect though (ie: Makers 46).

If you’re trying to replace the barrels altogether you’re living in a pipe dream. Oak chips surrounded by liquid won’t breath and therefore will have one dimensional flavour. Barrels breath, hence Angel Share.

Without getting too technical, this increases some of the chemical processes that take place during maturation, acidification, esterification, ect. The result, and it’s what I alluded to in what makes a whisky good – you get a softer less dominating maturation that vastly increases complexity.

  • In your opinion, does older mean better?

Age is a good indicator of certain characteristics of a whisky and indeed I like it as an indicator and I don’t think it should be completely done away with. But on the whole, older does not mean better. It’s just one piece of a large and ever-evolving  puzzle.

Older does mean more expensive for those who choose to follow it blindly.

  • Who’s changing the game in whisky today? Why is that?

The game is changing at two ends – distillation & maturation.

Distillation – this is happening with the younger guys in the new and emerging regions. They are fiddling with grains, malting types, cut points and still shapes and sizes. The best examples here are Archie Rose (Sydney) and Westward (Portland).

Maturation – happening with the ‘big boys’ – the distilleries that have 200+ years of history. They are not in a hurry to alter their distillery characteristic too much and nor should they be.

But because of sheer production volume, their maturation and blending techniques go to another level. They have access to many types of barrels and quantities to blend.

We are currently doing some amazing things at Laphroiag and Bowmore, with regards to maturation – but I dare say if you ask any of the large distilleries across the world, they’ll also have something new cooking.

  • Who will brands be looking to for inspiration tomorrow? 

Its always the same, Consumers and Trade.

Vote with your feet, whatever we are drinking is what the distilleries are going to make. That’s why it’s important for us to continually (without being pushy about it) educate our customers. Sure, brands will push into new areas but they aren’t going to ignore global drinking trends.

For example, while Japanese whisky is super popular at the moment, many large blenders are finishing their whiskys in Japanese mizunara casks.

Now I guarantee that simply finishing a blended whisky in mizunara, does nothing to impart flavours unique to the native Japanese oak because Mizunara takes at least 15 years to impart flavour.

You can by an expensive Mizunara cask finished whisky if you want, but it won’t taste like mizunara. This could be considered innovation, but it’s fuelled by global trends, not the pursuit of quality.  

  • What will come to define Australian whisky? 

Price, if we don’t sort out our ridiculous excise tax.

Look, there are so many characteristics to Australian whisky – malt-forward, wine cask finished and more – but I cant say what will end up being the defining characteristic. I’m just excited and happy to be along for the ride.

  • Where can innovators learn from traditionalists?

Through seeing that consistency is king.

We all love to try interesting things for sure, however, you need to develop an identity.

It was inconsistency that lead to the rise of blended whisky around the world and distiller consistency that has bought it back to single malts. The new, independent bottlers need to respect that.

Just because something is different, doesn’t make it good – and if something is on every back bar in the world, that doesn’t mean it’s boring.

  • How do you stay on the pulse of whisky trends?

James, you’ve spent enough late nights with me in whisky bars to know it’s all trial and error with trends.

But to stay on the pulse, read, taste and listen to everyone’s opinion and expression.

At the end of the day though, have conviction – it’s ultimately about the love affair you have with the liquid in your glass. 

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The Entertainment Industry

By Joshua Clifton

Are you entertaining?

It may be a simple question to answer but there’s a fine line between how entertaining you think you are and how entertaining people actually perceive you.

Instead, enter the entertainment industry. The reality is you were never in the hospitality scene – it was and will always be the entertainment industry. How well you connect and entertain your customers will determine your survival in hospitality.

Having worked in this industry my entire life – from management to consultancy – the common thread I have seen in successful operations, is the ability to attract and entertain customers.

Now remove the idea of a Ringmaster from the 1960s Circus Spectacular and think more connection entertainment.

Cafes are popping up faster than any other business in the hospitality sector, so what does that mean? It means customers have choice and more choice means more options – and more options mean customers get picky – whoever can tailor to those needs the best, wins.

Everyone does coffee and there’s also speciality coffee, so how do you compete? It all comes down to how you connect with your customers. If you entertain them long enough, you’ll force out any alternatives in their mind.

Today’s customer is starved for attention and craves stimulation. We are all wired in, monitoring everything and everyone around us. Unless a situation can be snapped, grammed or shared on our phones, it will struggle to achieve its full potential.

So am I telling you that creating a great coffee isn’t enough? Yes and no.

There is still plenty of room for great tasting coffee and food to draw a solid following. But the reality is, everyone else is close on your tail. Having operational efficiency, low wages and strong supplier relationships are very important, especially as you grow and expand.

But it’s secondary – all of it.

It all hinges on getting customers through the door and having them unload their wallets for your experience. It’s not just about a Facebook post or how you remember a few of your regular’s names – it’s much more.

How well you entertain, falls into three categories for your café.

1) Your Core Business

What makes you, you? Why should I pick you and not the other café down the road? How is your business different and why would it be appealing to me? Think of your business as a personality – how would it entertain your customer personalities?  It could simply be your location or a new exciting method to deliver your coffee.

Make it about you, because customers want to get to know you.

2) Your Internal Strategy

This relates to your team, from recruitment and training to upper management. Your team should be a reflection of your core product and embody your café’s personality. Consistent meetings and key management catch-ups, business transparency and empowering your team must become the norm.

People are attracted to fun and exciting things. If your team are engaging and prompt, you will run rings around your closest competitors.

3) Your External Strategy

Social media, strategic alliances, partnerships – all of it increases your ability to entertain more people. No more excuses and no more saying ‘I don’t need it.’ Facebook and Instagram work wonders and are mediums perfectly aligned with this industry. Share, target and advertise as much as possible.

Team up with businesses around you, whether it’s a coffee deal with customers at a nearby hotel or latte art competition sponsored by one of your suppliers. It all makes noise and is highly entertaining. Invite local food bloggers and hospitality related resources to share your story and tap into their audience.

Being successful in this industry requires hard work combined with smart work.  I often see operators get burnt out working constantly on one particular category and not spreading their efforts across all three. When you work on all three, you actually work less and start working on building pipelines to bring customers in. 

Remember, you can’t entertain the same people forever. They will eventually move on, so having a constant flow system is paramount and the only way to build that flow is by constantly reviewing these three categories.

We all have the ability to be great entertainers. Visually amazing cafes are attractive, smiles are infectious and screaming to the world why your team and café is the source of good emotion will catapult you to the top in this industry.

Just please make a good coffee first – after all, that is your business.

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Reignite the Limelight

By James Henderson

Many great venues make the mistake of resting on their laurels.

I won’t name names but we all know some that the limelight has set on — the popular venues that have had their day and died out.

When service gets sloppy and dress codes relax, chipped corners and stained tables lose their reminiscent charm and instead turn into an ugly reminder of an impending fit-out, necessary to reinvigorate the space (visually, at least).

Ill-motivated or poorly-qualified operators become hinges on which this turn takes place. They starve the cash cow and milk it dry.

The public wonders why — what happened to the business.

As good operators, we know though.

We stopped turning up when the coffee supplier changed or the cutlery was laid out incorrectly — long before staff stopped welcoming us or the water became self-serve.

We knew the turn was coming.

But for those who are just inexperienced, they don’t know any better. So when their demographic changes or ‘All Day Breakfast’ blurs into the evening, they don’t know that a 2pm close isn’t enough.

These are the same operators who need help to breathe soul into a space, absent after a clunky restructure or when a hefty new aesthetic is bankrolled for them.

It’s these operators that make the skilled among us, look good. Despite that, it’s healthier for the future of the industry to support them — not with our wallets, but with our time — to educate, motivate and inspire.

Experienced operators are here to demonstrate how businesses can continue to reinvent themselves and still stay true to their North Star — we know how to identify and hone in on what makes a brand popular.

…and it’s not an empty smile, expensive fit-out or the latest oat milk.

Ignore the noise — there’s a lot of it.

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Is The Internet Destroying Hospitality?

By Samuel Tripet

It’s damn hard to make a name for yourself or your business without a social media strategy these days — which raises the question,

‘Is the internet making us lazy or does it push us to be better at what we do?’

Both are correct in my opinion. Although the internet can be used as a tool for deceit and evil, I know and respect that it has many uses in our beloved industry and is hands-down one of the most important sources of knowledge and inspiration.

Today, we are lucky enough to be able to closely watch what the best bars and bartenders in the world are achieving at all times. The many talented and passionate hearts of our industry beat in unison and innovation on one side of the world can become an industry standard in no time.

Our dedication to delivering the best to our guests continues to elevate that standard and I love to wonder where we’ll be, ten years from now— knowing how far we’ve come since I started working in bars, ten years ago.

But realistically, how do we determine who’s truly delivering a great experience and who just owns a smartphone and is fluent in fluffy cocktail lingo?

It’s more common than I’d like to admit, that the cool new cocktails being posted online can, in person, be underwhelming — or worse, they don’t exist at all.

If that’s the case, can we be sure that the same thing isn’t happening with bars themselves? Is it possible that we know so much about social media and marketing now that we can fluff up an entire business to appear better than it is?

How long could a business survive with a top-tier marketing strategy but average service, average drinks and no bar hooks before anyone notices?

Does genuine hospitality actually make a bar successful or has it merely become a factor of it?

I have faith that present day bar operators are still working incredibly hard to improve their bars, their service, their drinks and their aesthetics to create better drinking experiences for the masses, but I also wonder how reliant the they are on platforms like Instagram and Facebook to get numbers through the doors — and I wonder how many businesses won’t be able to back it up with what really matters.

I’m sure you’ve had experiences going to reputable venues and quietly wondered, “Is this really in the Top 50 Best Bars list?”. I definitely have — it’s the contrast that makes it obvious.

Now, I’m not saying they aren’t ‘good’. I just think that nothing on that list should be ‘good’ — they should be much better than ‘good’. I don’t think I’m alone when I imagine a memorable drinking experience to be more than just chummy handshakes and some online hustle.

Let’s let our service, our drinks and our ideas speak for themselves and not fall into the cycle of fluffing up who we are and what we do to make friends on the internet.

Leave that to the influencers and let’s just focus on hospitality for a little while.

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Your ‘Best Before’ Date

By Joshua Clifton

I’ve always thought that we have an expiry date in the hospitality industry— where we finally throw in the towel and move on from the industry altogether — that one final straw with a customer pushing you over the edge, a staff member that didn’t turn up to their shift or simply dealing with the day to day unpredictable juggernaut that is the hospitality industry.

Is this just how it is in this industry or is it a reflection of the workforce overall?

I feel as if in our hospitality life we start strong, have our peak time of performance then slowly move in a downward spiral until we lose our shit, scream at a random customer and hang up the hat.

Sometimes we get out early; sometimes we stay past our best before date.

I think we all hit that proverbial ceiling where we say ‘enough is enough’. I often hear stories of people commenting that they got out of the industry years ago and never looked back.

Personally I’m a goal-orientated person. Put a target in front of me and I will commit to hitting it but I still have my days where I want to jump the counter and body slam the customer.

With all this being said, the question remains,

‘Is working day-to-day with customers, suppliers and our team pushing us over the edge faster than in other industries?’

How can we exercise resilience to push forward in the industry without breaking? Is there a method to the madness?

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Flavour and Language

By James Henderson

Our finite arsenal of words attempts to convey a sensory experience, unique to the individual.

This collision of two abstract worlds magnifies communication error.

Despite the flexibility of language, it’s not robust enough to adapt to this personal and intimate envelopment of the senses.

Language is beautifully metamorphic and powerfully applicable but still bounded.

There are an incredible number of factors involved to effectively communicate flavour: idea conception, protocol knowledge (each party’s understanding of the chosen communication language), breadth and depth of flavour experience (and recall of such) and synthesis of protocol and recall to correctly articulate what the participant wants to — the choice of language matters.

How someone identifies themselves, could potentially influence their perception of the experience; their mood, the season, day and general temperament are all justifiably contributors to the retrospective experience.

Generally accepted terminology may reign supreme but it is in itself, another language — a subset of its parent, with altered linguistic relationships.

Understand language to — by definition — better articulate experience.

Language is paramount.

Without selecting words appropriately, reality may disappoint or fall short of its capacity to deliver — this differential is the ‘dead weight loss’ of language.

The story of flavour may be better than the flavour itself.

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A Recipe For Change

By James Henderson

The hospitality environment we live in is diverging.

There are those who appreciate the in-person nature of our craft and those who would rather get their meal delivered to their couch. The shortest path to sustenance is cutting out the art of our industry and distilling it into a pure science, where robots serve for the purpose of meal delivery and patrons sit, undisturbed, on social media.

May we consider that technology, in all it’s magnificence, is in itself a tool — a powerful tool of humanity that must be harnessed appropriately — carefully applied.

I’m not suggesting we fear technology’s impact and ability to disrupt, but rather that we steer it in a direction that we’d like — a direction that proliferates more important ideas than those possessed by simple minds.

Without the influence of industry players who speak up and push for the appropriate change, technology will mutate our beautiful industry into a beast that we aren’t proud of.

There will be job losses. But they will reallocate.

There will be business closures. But new ones will rise in their place.

Be someone who supports the creation of a robust entity to balance Hedonism and longevity in an industry that flirts with myopia.

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