The Brown Spirits, Bitters & Bulgogi Barrage

Five years ago I was sitting in the exceptional tea lounge at the Park Hyatt in Washington DC drinking a wonderful cup of lapsang souchang alongside an 18 year old single malt scotch. For those with organoleptic predispositions, it was a magical experience to compare and contrast two vastly different sensations of smokiness. How was it that smoked tealeaves from China could have so much similarity to the peat induced smokiness of a Scottish whiskey? My colleague who suggested the pairing has been known to have keen foresight capabilities. Little did he know how big brown spirits – bourbon, scotch, rye and whisky – would become among the Millennial generation who were just coming of age.

As a Gen X constituent, I grew up with any and all alcoholic beverages that were clear and white. People’s palates at the time were so one-sided that we could easily rename Gen X the ‘Absolut Generation.’ We grew up with vodka, gin and some clear tequila. I can personally attest to not seeing a glimpse of any brown spirit throughout my entire university experience in the early 1990s. Fast forward 15 years to the dark days of 2007 and spirits companies honed in on ‘ready to drink’ products, women – Skinnygirl Vodka, and lower cost products to shelter people’s wallets.

Then something happened. It started with a host of new micro-distillers in places like Portland and upstate New York. It got hotter with the rise of professional bartenders, molecular mixology, bitters, bars like Bourbon & Branch in San Francisco, vintage Crown Royal TV ads, the bounce back of Brooklyn, the embrace of ‘craft’ and the romance of barrels. It then exploded with the Mad Men craze and new bars nationwide focused on all things brown. What’s interesting is that this didn’t just happen in the US, the craze has been international in scope. Whisky bars in Japan proliferated while Japanese distilleries like Suntory owned Yamazaki and Asahi owned Nikka began to export product for the first time. This was a global trend that also saw exploding exports of Scottish single malt whiskey to the Chinese market.

All this points to a new global pinball game where products, brands and experiences from one place rapidly bounce and are transferred, reinvented or improved upon in other locales. A case in point: Whisky Magazine ratings of Japanese single malts have frequently scored higher than their Scottish cousins.

This idea of a cross-cultural bounce can be seen in a variety of other areas. While Starbucks has expanded rapidly in Japan, Japanese coffee paraphernalia like the siphon, Hario cones, swan-necked kettles and Pota iced coffee towers have taken on mythic proportions in the US. While Gen X consumers grew up getting excited about espresso drinks, many American Millennials are looking for coffee performance and the flavor nuances that Japanese coffee brewing delivers.

The most interesting cross-cultural bounce can be seen in the new American addiction to food carts. The beachhead for this movement – it can be described as nothing less – was the Kogi Korean BBQ taco cart in Los Angeles. Since when did tacos and Korean bulgogi mix? Despite some early concern about the rebirth of 1980s inspired fusion confusion, Kogi was the seed for a mainstream onslaught of flavor adventures that continue to gather momentum in grocery stores and restaurant chains nationwide. For twenty-something consumers this idea of food travel and fantasy without the airfare or cost has become a way of life. This seems to present a tremendous opportunity for major food manufacturers who could be using food carts as a vehicle for building brand excitement through limited edition products and as a mobile research center. Imagine a Kellogg’s cereal cart with a host of global products not available on American supermarket shelves. Or what about a Weight Watchers food truck with a rotating weekly menu of healthy portion-controlled lunches along with an onsite nutritionist. The possibilities are endless – with even a tiny sliver of research and marketing budgets that stretch into the tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars. Millennials have upped the ante and brands need to respond with new experiences that live around shelved products and expensive advertising.

When it comes to experience, luxury hotel brands understand that every detail counts. And yet even here, cross-cultural experiences that resonate with Millennials are becoming the new norm. This past weekend I spent a luxurious night at the new Shangri-La Hotel in Toronto where my suite made me feel like a Hong Kong real estate tycoon; the spa took me on a journey to a Middle Eastern inspired hammam; the lobby bar took me back to my days as a student in Singapore with an authentic Malaysian laksa; the restaurant kept me grounded with Canadian locavore ingredients and the new multi floored glass boxed Momofuku restaurant delivered Korean hipster franchise food. Confounding expectations, the hotel was mostly devoid of the expected Baby Boomers and full of wealthy young urbanites sipping (mostly) brown spirits. As for me, I spent 20 minutes browsing the 63 tea selections and almost ordered a pot of Oriental Beauty Oolong from Hunan China before deciding on a bottle of Flying Monkey Hoptical Illusion Almost Pale Ale from Barrie Ontario. Cross-cultural confusion at its finest!


This article originally appeared in Summer 2013, The Bounce Back Issue 

the author

Scott Friedmann

Scott Friedmann is Chief Innovation Office at Idea Couture. See Scott’s full bio here.