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Going Long-View, Angel’s Share Bourbon Instead of Magic-Bullet Plastic

by Callie Oettinger on March 7, 2014

Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.

Benjamin: Yes, sir.

Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?

Benjamin: Yes, I am.

Mr. McGuire: Plastics.

—The Graduate

Magic-Bullet Plastic

For The Graduate’s Mr. McGuire, “plastics” was it—that sure-fire, magic-bullet road to riches. A couple of decades later, he might have said “home health care”—and today’s young Benjamin Braddock would perhaps have given him the same confused look, and the same follow-up Q&A would have ensued:

Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?

Mr. McGuire: There’s a great future in [home health care]. Think about it. Will you think about it?

Mr. McGuire seemed like a shiny-object guy, always racing after the buck-making magic bullet du jour. He might have hit it big that way, too—but it’s a long-shot, like investing your paycheck in Powerball tickets. Odds aren’t in your favor.

But what if he had found that passion for the magic bullet within the long term?

Long-View Bourbon

Fortune Magazine just did a cover article on a product that relies on looking into the future: Bourbon.

I’m not a bourbon drinker and until reading the article was void of any knowledge of how it is made.

Bourbon is produced via the long view.

From Fortune’s article “The Billion Dollar Bourbon Boom” by Clay Risen:

Whiskey is unlike most spirits—or most any consumer good, for that matter—in that production cycles are measured in years, not days or weeks. No matter how efficiently a distillery mills its grain or ferments its mash, a four-year-old bourbon has to sit in a barrel for at least four years. That means production levels are based on projections far into the future.

It also means that what you make better be good in four years or ten years or at however many years old you intend to sell your bottles.

For bourbon, creating today is creating for the future.

In a way, bourbon is a back-list bestseller.

In publishing, a title transitions to back-list the day after it is published, when the editors and the publicity and marketing teams, are already working on the season-to-come’s titles. More titles fade into remainderdom than remain in circulation, as backlist titles. The ones that make it can thank good writing, but also a team that’s in it for the long-view, that’s willing to push through the unpopular spots, to maintain the interest of current readers and connect with potential readers.

In bourbon’s case, its frontlist days are long gone. Its continued success relies on the quality with which it is made, the team behind it and the enthusiasts keeping it going. Some decades are booms while others are busts. Right now, though… Seems to be a boom.

When Long-View Fades for Magic Bullet

Another quote from Risen’s Fortune article:

All this growth, and the subsequent pressure on supply, may be a good problem for distillers to have, but it is still a problem. “We only have as much [10-year-old bourbon] available as we made 10 years ago,” says Comstock. (Comstock is the brand manager for Buffalo Trace and is quoted throughout the article.) “We’ll continue to make more, but it won’t help today.”

In response, distillers have gone on a building spree . . .

In The Graduate, this might be the point when Mr. McGuire advises Benjamin to get into bourbon, instead of plastic, along with, “Bourbon’s hot, the supply is based on what was created when it wasn’t hot. Let’s expand.”

Risen points to the craft sector as the one that will be hit hardest if the bubble bursts, comparing it to what happened to the craft beer sector in the 1990’s.

“It got to where everyone and their brother was making beer,” says Hansell, [editor of Whiskey Advocate]. Then, when the recession of the early 2000s hit, hundreds of those newbie breweries couldn’t stay afloat. “There will be a similar shakeout in distilling,” he says.

Angel’s Share—Surviving the Long View Shakedown

Angel’s share is a term I learned through all this bourbon reading. It’s the portion of the whiskey that evaporates in the barrel.

Last year I read about Maker’s Mark catching flak when it announced it would lower its proof—and thought no more of it when Maker’s Mark backtracked. According to Risen, the proof-lowering was an effort to “make supplies last.”

Part of surviving in the long view involves the angel’s share.

There’s a mentality in publishing and really within many industries, that the more products there are for sale, the more money there is to be made. That mentality keeps remainder and other discount shops in business. It’s the long view bourbon models, giving away the angel’s share that have the best track record.

In publishing the angel’s share could be compared to the many books that should be given away in order to give a book a shot at permanent residence as a backlist bestseller. New readers are born every day. If the focus remains on the front list, void of outreach years later when those readers are of buying-their-own-books age, you’ll lose them as an audience. The angel’s share is something that has to be an accepted giveaway year after year because it helps ensure the quality of a book’s life – still selling vs. remaindered.

If Mr. McGuire were speaking with Benjamin today, “bourbon” isn’t the advice I’d want him to offer instead of “plastics,” but the long-view and angel’s share of the bourbon creation? Yes, definitely.

Note: This post is a part of the “What It Takes” series, running on Steven Pressfield’s blog.

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