We are used to thinking about quality in the products we choose to buy, whether its clothing, food, or alcohol. But is there any truth to this when it comes to alcohol, or is it simply a marketing ploy by the alcohol industry?
For time immemorial, the alcohol industry has used the idea of ‘quality’ to promote its products. Beer and lager producers focus on natural ingredients and the craftmanship that has gone into production. Similarly, whisky distillers talk of the simplicity of ingredients, the time spent crafting each product, and evoke idyllic imagery of rolling highlands, pure spring water, and how the natural world is imbued in every wee dram. Wine producers understandably avoid discussing what is actually in their products – although perhaps you’re happy to drink dried fish bladder (isinglass), pig or cow collagen, and whatever polyvinylpyrrolidone is – so instead they focus on provenance and price as markers of ‘quality’. (As an aside, this is why the wine industry has been so resistant to improved labelling, unlike the beer industry which often lists ingredients on-label.) Wine producers also focus on craftsmanship, variety, and time spent ageing.
To highlight but a few:
AB InBev’s Stella Artois: for decades it had the tagline ‘Reassuringly expensive’, implying it was therefore of higher quality to other lagers, focusing on price as the marker of perceived quality.
Diageo’s Talisker whisky: on being ‘Rare by Nature’ and ‘Made By The Sea’. Focusing on the product’s natural beginnings as a marker of quality.
Diageo’s Smirnoff: focusing on being ‘triple distilled’ and therefore having ‘extraordinary purity’ as its marker of quality.
As part of the Scotch Whisky Association’s ‘Made to be Measured’ campaign, the Pernod Ricard owned Chivas Brothers’ wrote that: “For people the world over, Scotch Whisky is synonymous with quality. Made from just three ingredients – water, cereals and yeast – and always matured in oak casks in Scotland for at least three years…”
The Wine & Spirit Trade Association talks about how “the value of fine wine is in its provenance along with the expertise that goes into the bottle, its scarcity, its original label etc.”
Crucially, all of these examples lack any clear explanation of why these factors make them ‘good quality’ products, or what that even means.
What does the science say?
Although the alcohol industry, researchers, and public health charities often refer to alcohol’s quality, there is very little research on perceived quality of alcohol. A 2006 Swedish study, for instance, looked at how price increases affected consumer choice between defined ‘quality classes’. But how did they decide which products were high or low quality? Purely on the price of each product.
Dirk W Lachenmeier has published interesting work on the quality of unrecorded alcohol; alcohol that has been developed outside the usual system of government control, such as home brews, smuggled alcohol, or alcohol purchased abroad. Across the World Health Organization European Region, unrecorded alcohol counts for 22% of the alcohol consumed, so a significant and important amount. Lachenmeier chemically analysed unrecorded alcohol from 16 European countries and found that around half included contaminants such as methanol, ethyl carbamate, copper, and manganese. Although this is less of an issue in the UK (around 10% of alcohol consumed), it’s an important consideration when discussing the quality of alcohol. And much easier to agree on as a marker of quality than the industry concepts described above. In fact, in this sense, any alcohol that is produced and sold commercially is therefore of ‘good quality’.
But we know that when the industry talks about quality, they aren’t saying ‘free of contaminants’, so let’s look deeper.
Intrinsic vs Extrinsic ‘Quality’
Lachenmeier and Jürgen Rehm discussed perceived intrinsic and extrinsic factors in their article: Is there a relationship between alcohol quality and health? They highlight the huge variation in definition across different research disciplines.
Food science and technology focus on the intrinsic marker of ‘typical desirable taste and absence of off-flavours’. A seemingly fair statement, except that taste is highly subjective and something not being ‘off’ doesn’t exactly mean it is good quality. We’re also notoriously terrible at working out what a product is by taste. As Lachenmeier and Rehm explain:
The restricted literature that is available shows that in most cases consumers were unable to differentiate brands of beers, malt whisky from blended whisky, or between different strengths of vodka and rum, by taste, and a study on US beer brands by professional tasters has shown that there was no correlation between price and taste-test quality either.
Other intrinsic factors would be the absence of contaminants – which we’ve already discussed may be the only really marker of quality – and alcohol content, which we’ll come to.
Extrinsic factors identified by Lachenmeier and Rehm include those that relate to the brand image, packaging, product price, provenance, and perceived authenticity. I would add perception of, or genuine, scarcity.
Which one of these bottles is a better-quality product?
Consumers’ engagement with brand image and packaging is subjective and therefore cannot denote quality, but it also doesn’t have anything to do with the liquid being sold. These two bottles could have the same liquid in them, yet many would claim the Hibiki whisky is ‘better quality’, purely due to branding.
Product price is a highly effective marketing tool used to suggest a drink is ‘good quality’. Grey Goose used this tactic when it launched to position itself as a super-premium vodka. As Ralph Schwartz wrote for the food publication Mashed:
In order to beat the best-selling premium vodka at the time, which was Absolut, Sidney Frank created a new vodka, made it in fancy France rather than rough-and-tumble Russia or Sweden, and charged nearly double what Absolut asks for a bottle of vodka.
Highlighting how little Grey Goose’s price has to do with the enjoyment of it, tasters at The New York Times didn’t rank Grey Goose in their top 10 vodkas and rated Smirnoff as tasting the best.
Ronak Parikh of Industry City Distillery in Brooklyn discussed the distilling process for vodka with the podcast Planet Money:
Chemical constituents of alcohol, esters, they will create flavours, but in the case of vodka, they will not be related to its raw material, by definition that is the case. So if you see packaging that states ‘this vodka’s made with northwest Pacific grains, kissed by the Colorado rapids’, that’s all marketing b******t. When it comes to vodka, your raw material cannot influence final flavour.
Studies have also shown that our brain tricks us into thinking something tastes better when it is more expensive. I can attest that: having done a blind taste test of red wines with a group of ten people, no one picked out the £80 Burgundy as being the best.
This leads on to provenance as a key tactic used by the wine industry to create a perception of quality and craftsmanship. But does that make Champagne better quality than Crémant de Loire? Or a Scotch whisky better than a Japanese brand? Or does it simply come back to what people prefer to drink?
What is the purpose of alcohol?
Perhaps we need to defer to other goods and their definitions of quality. Take bacon. Few would disagree that bacon pumped with water to make it cure faster is of worse quality than bacon that isn’t. Or orange juice being watered down. A good quality bicycle is one that makes you cycle fast and lasts a long time. A jumper that keeps you warm, doesn’t change shape or colour after washing, and doesn’t fall apart is a pretty good jumper.
But with alcohol you can’t simply do this. Maybe we need to move away from attempting to understand it from a scientific basis – because there is no scientific explanation – and conjure up the spirit of Aristotle and his philosophical theory of teleology instead.
Teleology is about understanding things by looking at the purpose they serve. Using this we would ask: ‘What is the purpose of alcohol? What is it for?’. It would mean that alcohol is best when it is serving its intended purpose. With other goods, that’s easier to understand: a pen is for writing, a train is for transporting, a watch is for telling the time. For alcohol, if the purpose is to get people very inebriated, then high-strength alcohol is the best, consumed in high quantities over a relatively short period of time. If its purpose is to slightly reduce a person’s inhibitions, while keeping risk of harm low, then low-strength alcohol is best, consumed in low quantities. This brings us back to Lachenmeier and Rehm who explain that for some people, the quality of alcohol is simply about how strong it is, particularly for dependent and heavy episodic drinkers, a decision-making process referred to by Szmigin et al. as ‘calculated hedonism’.
Does any of this matter?
We should care about this because the concept of ‘good’ quality alcohol allows the alcohol industry to hide the harm it causes behind a façade of quality. The industry also uses the concept as a highly successful way to market its products – and alcohol marketing is causally associated with increased alcohol consumption among children.
Almost all alcohol is also like any other fast-moving consumer good in that it is sold in high-volumes, relatively cheaply. But unlike these other products, alcohol is no ordinary commodity as its consumption causes the deaths of 3 million people across the world every year.
We should also care for academic reasons. It’s important to discuss alcohol in a consistent way that doesn’t reinforce misunderstanding or contribute to alcohol industry marketing ploys. Academics and those working to reduce alcohol harm need to be discussing alcohol in the same way, to have any hope of countering industry misinformation.
In the world of alcohol, the idea of ‘good quality’ is more about marketing than reality. The bottom line: there’s no such thing as ‘good quality’ alcohol.
Written by Jem Roberts, Communications Manager, Institute of Alcohol Studies.
All IAS Blogposts are published with the permission of the author. The views expressed are solely the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Institute of Alcohol Studies.