OK, so, listen, this is going to be some deep nerd stuff and I won’t get offended if you stop reading now and move on with your life.
The single biggest problem that I see consistently in the spirits industry, and I’m sure it’s true of any industry as well, is that you don’t know what you don’t know.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, and I started to think of it in terms of Taiji Chin Na and Bagua and rigorous epistemological pursuits. In Taiji Chin Na, you’re inside a circle and you’re moving your opponent around you. In Bagua, you’re on the outside of the circle and the idea is to move around your opponent. If you think about this in terms of knowledge about one’s profession, someone who has been inside the industry their entire career knows everything there is to know from the inside, but they lack outside perspective. People who have been on the outside of their industry for their entire careers can see inside of multiple circles, gaining a knowledge of trends that those inside the circles can’t see.
For the most part, people don’t know that their knowledge is limited by which side of the circle they are on. It’s not that they’re stupid, but you just don’t know what you don’t know.
I tweeted the above a couple of weeks ago after the 4000th time this year that someone told me they were “one of the only” something. It’s becoming an exhausting thing for me to hear as a journalist because I have to go through the process of fact-checking outrageous claims and claims of being the first, the only, or one of the few are almost always untrue. But if you’re inside the circle of knowledge looking out, you can’t see into all the other circles to know who is doing what.
You don’t know what you don’t know.
A friend reached out to me after a distillery tour a few weeks back to ask a great question. He’d been told this particular place was the first place to have thoroughbred horses in history. The story went that they’d sold their whiskey in the Southern ports and ridden horses up the Natchez Trace and that’s where thoroughbreds came from and it happened here first.
A rigorous epistemological examination of that story looks at facts and likelihood. First, historically, the story about selling whiskey in New Orleans and riding horses up the Natchez Trace is the best evidence we have for the thoroughbred connection to Kentucky. The distillery my friend visited was in Tennessee, but it’s still feasible — all the same things were happening there. The issues come in when it’s time to prove the first of something — it was a common thing to do during frontier trade so no one would have been looking into other people’s circles to see what everyone was doing, and no one would have thought to write it down. In short, it’s feasible and probably happened, but it almost certainly wasn’t the first instance from a strictly statistical standpoint.
Brands often try so desperately to get a foothold in relevance that they will try anything. I caution anyone reading about making unsubstantiated claims. It’s completely innocent — you don’t know what you don’t know — but consumers will think you are lying or trying to manipulate them. It’s not worth it.
It’s worth noting here that I love and appreciate every story I hear of how people got into this industry, why they do what they do, and how they are trying to make their mark. You are all special to me because I recognize the blood, sweat, and tears that go into what you are doing. However,
If you can’t fact-check it yourself and come up with a definitive answer, don’t make the claim.
The especially harmful way I’ve seen this play out repeatedly is in offensive branding, and it happens because of hegemony and echo chambers. One particularly offensive brand was created within the last decade. For a long time, including after I’d met the executive team behind it, I assumed it was greenlighted because a bunch of men thought it sounded cool and there were no other viewpoints to challenge their assessment. I recently found out that brand did have a woman rep for a long time, and I was stunned to discover this fact. But then I realized she’s a woman trying to make it in a boys’ club and did not have the status to be able to say maybe this isn’t the way to go.
When you have a bunch of people inside the circle who are really good at what they do, it’s hard to challenge that. When I have personally said to people in the past that I don’t think this is a great idea, they blow me off, and rightfully so — I am not paid by them to give my expert opinion and they have paid experts from inside their circle to research facts and present opinions.
I’m just one asshole with an opinion on the outside of their circle.
Progress dies in a vacuum. Ideas and opinions should be able to stand up to rigorous challenge*. Success comes from challenging the status quo and inviting in differences of opinion.
It all starts with recognizing which side of the circle you are on.
*That doesn’t mean you should blow off the lived experiences of marginalized people and I’m sad I have to make that distinction, but from the outside of the circle, I know I need to. Le sigh.