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Consistency is the Enemy of Brilliance

December 4, 2009

Harvest Spirits is getting a lot of love from me this week.  My trip out there on Tuesday reminded me of a theme I’ve been meaning to explore: the benefits of inconsistency.

A few weeks ago I glanced on the subject:
When there is a truly handcrafted product involved, inconsistency is par for the course.  If you expect consistency, may I suggest Pizza Hut or Domino’s – they are nothing if not consistent.  And on the flip side, the lows can even make the highs all the better.

All too often, consistency is touted as THE virtue for food producers.  It’s a golden ring that many strive to achieve to keep their customers happy.  But consistency has an ugly dark side.  Inconsistency, on the other hand, allows for flashes of brilliance and stunning results that are unreachable when one is trying to make the same thing, the same way, all the time.

Core Vodka is probably the most inconsistent spirit on the market.  Please take a moment, and look at their Distiller’s Notebook.  When you are done, we can discuss.

Did you see it?  Pretty much the distillery makes an entirely new vodka every month.  Nobody does that.  They do not even consistently use the same variety of apples for their product.  The distillers work with what the orchard has produced.

For me, the frustrating part is that I want to try them all against each other to better taste the changing nuances from batch to batch.  And it’s just not the same to drive out once a month to taste the current lot.

But after tasting the current batch, it would be hard to argue that the inconsistency hasn’t paid off.  One could imagine that Harvest Spirits would lock down their formulations and process after the award-winning batch #4.  Thankfully they did not.

Inconsistency happens.  What the big producers of wines and spirits do is try to minimize the inconsistency.  And blending plays no small part in the process.

Many batches or barrels are produced, evaluated, and then carefully combined in proper proportion to make something that tastes like the consumer remembers from the last time they bought the product.  In the case of large-scale-production wines, some small amount of the previous vintage can be held and snuck into the current release as well.

This process dilutes the character of each of the batches or barrels, thus the appeal of single-barrel whiskeys and other such spirits.  Frankly, it’s the reason small-vineyard or parcel wine fetches a higher premium.  People who care about how things taste and their authenticity want the real deal, warts and all.

Blending is a craft in itself.  And I do not want you to walk away with the idea that blended things are bad and unblended things are better.  It’s not blending that I have a problem with per se, but rather blending for the primary purpose of producing a consistent product.

That thing that is consistent may be very good.  It may even be excellent.  But it will never be brilliant.  Brilliance requires the bravery to take risks, and taking risks sometimes means failing.  And failing requires the integrity to not sell your failures.  Although I am still curious to try a glass from batch #14 to see what it’s all about.

I salute Harvest Spirits for their bravery, and their marketing acumen.
Because now I want to buy a bottle from every barrel of Cornelius Applejack.

Damn them.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 15, 2012 7:34 pm

    I like this post. I’ve been thinking and saying lately that we are striving for consistency, but after reading this I can revise w/ the nuance of doing our best to balance our creativity with a consistently delicious product. We have some not-so-shining moments, no doubt, which hopefully we hear about if they make it into customer’s hands. I’ve had to ditch, repurpose or give away to friends about 5 botched batches of brownie cheesecake tartlets this week because they were over or undercooked. Either the rewiring of our oven is affecting our oven’s consistency or I’ve forgotten a few small details of how I used to prepare them at our other shop. Frustrating, but a valuable reminder that the details of quality control cannot be underestimated. Thanks!

  2. April 16, 2012 9:54 am

    Daniel,

    This is a great post. Thank you Britin for commenting on this post and, thus, bringing it to my attention.

    I can speak about consistency in its relationship to farmhouse or artisan cheeses. Frankly it does not exist. The notion is that each batch changes according to season, the diet of the ruminant milking animal, and the cheesemaker’s touch both in making and in aging their cheese. This means that change is inherent in small scale cheese production. And all of this change brings about the possibility of variation that sometimes is subtle and sometimes is not so subtle. In the end the variation offers a new taste experience for us cheese lovers. To The Cheese Traveler every wheel new and exciting.

    So for The Cheese Traveler, what is important is whether the changes amount to a cheese that is consistently good, consistently average, or consistently blah, in all of its metamorphoses. We select our cheeses accordingly and love tasting and sharing each incarnation.

  3. October 24, 2012 11:13 am

    Aha. I see what you were talking about. But I still disagree. What is a huge difference to Eric at the Cheese Traveler would probably be tiny to the consumer who is seeking a cheese that’s consistently good. And once Britin and Nick get their brownie recipe right, they’ll make it that way forever more. That’s what the public expects.

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