Brent Stiefel and Mikael Mossberg didn’t know much about whiskey when they met up for drinks in May of 2011. Like many people navigating an ocean of Scotch and bourbon, they “were intimidated by folks with mustaches”, Stiefel says, but didn’t want to drain their bank accounts by buying shelves of bottles in order to learn more about what they liked and what they didn’t. Feeling a booze-filled higher calling to drink better (and more), the two began drawing up plans for the ideal whiskey resource they’d been searching for but never found.
Their plans were spurred in large part by the current “whiskey boom”, which, according to Dave Quinn, Master of Whiskey Science at Jameson Irish Whiskey, is changing the drinking landscape. “People are more interested in beverages that have character and an authentic provenance”, Quinn says. “Whiskey and craft beer fit those requirements.” The surge of whiskey fanatics eager to open their wallets has brought on a fleet of speciality stores and bars, trying to cash in on increased demand. And with more whiskey comes more choice and more confusion. Mossberg and Stiefel’s app, Distiller (free), became a solution to that problem.
Because they both worked at Votiv, a media and venture capital group with holdings in mobile apps and networking development, the duo had the resources to develop a streamlined navigation-system-slash-social-network aimed squarely at uninitiated drinkers. In its first form last December, the app (available as an iOS and Android application, along with the full site) provided novices and veterans alike access to a basic recommendation engine with original reviews and the ability to save recommendations for later reference, in a sort of drunk man’s wish list called “Top Shelf”. However, Stiefel and Mossberg wanted to create more than just a recommendation application. This was about learning, so they also added pages of original content surrounding whiskey history, production and differentiation.
Then they brought in the experts.
Distiller distinguished itself from forums littered with inexperienced drinkers by cultivating the Tasting Table, a panel of whiskey experts — from editor-in-chiefs of alcohol publications to whiskey bar owners — screened and selected by Head of Tasting Table Stephanie Moreno. Currently, half the expert tasters apply to participate, while the other half is sought out directly; Moreno’s looking for comparable palettes and writing styles, not to mention a decent time commitment — the tasters physically taste and rate every bottle on the site. By combining these expert ratings, Stiefel and Mossberg assign an overall number and flavor profile graph to each bottle, helping users compare subjective qualities, such as taste and style, directly. And while focused whiskey tasting is completely personal and subjective, not to mention surprisingly hard (learn how to taste test properly with Gerry Tosh of Highland Park), having a vague sense what to expect out of a bottle can help point you toward potential favorite distillers.
Interview: Dave Quinn of Jameson Irish Whiskey
Dave Quinn is the Master of Whiskey Science at Jameson Irish Whiskey. This means he, in his own words, does “all the technical stuff, quality, research, new whiskey development, whiskey planning” for the largest Irish whiskey company in the world. We caught him while he was in New York and asked him a few questions about the current whiskey boom.
Q. What are you working on right now at Jameson?
A. A couple of new whiskeys with the help of our Master Blender Bill Leighton (sorry, no more info!).
Q. What are you reading right now?
A. Some technical stuff about yeast metabolism (it’s interesting, seriously).
Q. Whiskey popularity is exploding right now. To what do you most attribute the recent growth?
A. I think people are more interested in beverages that have character and an authentic provenance, so whiskey and craft beer fits those requirements.
Q. Do you have any fool-proof hangover cures?
A. Once you have one you just have to live with it. But prevention is best…pace yourself and lots of water.
Q. Why are barrels so important to the whiskey distilling process?
A. Spirit coming off the still while having lots of flavor is a bit raw and harsh. Barrels have this great ability to both add and remove. They remove undesirable character (like harshness and immature flavor) and add mellowness and extra complexity due to the interaction of the spirit and the wood components.
Q. What is currently the biggest development in the whiskey industry?
A. It seems flavored whiskey is all the rage at the moment. I think the jury is still out on whether this is just a fad or is here for the long haul. It’s good to see innovation in the industry (as long as everybody plays by the rules) but I think at the end of the day people will come back to the genuine article.
Q. What’s your one, best piece of advice for new whiskey drinkers?
A. Enjoy the range of complex flavors that the world of whisk(e)y opens up. There is a whisk(e)y for every occasion, every mood, every social situation and also lots of ways to enjoy it. There are no rules.
The ability of the experts to distinguish “Rich” from “Full”, “Briny” from “Salty” and “Herbal” from “Floral” is the backbone of the most consumer-facing feature: The Recommendation Generator. The recommender asks users how familiar they are with whiskey, which style they’re seeking and where they’ll be enjoying the drink, along with their adventure level and price range. Then it hits them with a specific match to their general answers, giving indecisive people hope and adventurous people a fresh idea. Meek, financially challenged users might get paired with George Dickel No. 12; the rich man by the hearth would be pointed toward a peaty bottle of Laphroaig 18. The simple questionnaire benefits newcomers the most, who, at the heart of the app, are the main focus.
Stiefel and Mossberg realized that trying to explore their tastes at specialized whiskey bars left them feeling lost, uncomfortable and broke. They didn’t know the right questions to ask and felt alienated from an entire world of booze, a feeling they wanted to eliminate in their app users. The two designed a “clear separation between the experts and the community to nurture a welcoming atmosphere for everyone”, Mossberg says. They implemented an area for novice ratings and notes that contribute to a whiskey’s “Average Rating” number and show up in a separate notes panel, while the original expert reviews are displayed in the “Tasting Notes” area for each drink and are aggregated into the “Distiller Score”. This lets users contribute without feeling intimidated and distinguishes comments from people who know what they’re talking about, versus the two-drink-deep, overly confident newbies.
Speaking with the founders, it’s evident they are far from finished expanding the app. Last Thursday they launched the Distiller Community, which allows users to follow one another and view activity from users they follow in “The Feed”. So aside from reading the opinions of experts, which are already available in excess on a wide variety of alcohol publications, users can now peruse other users’ profiles and, if they dig their drinking habits, pick up tips and new bottles to look for.
Opposite what Mossberg calls the “Scottish guys, who write inaccessible 9,000-word diatribes” on the havoc caused by the surge in whiskey demand, Stiefel and Mossberg said they are creating an app for the surge — drinkers like themselves who are part of the new consumption trend. And as their experience grows, so does the app. The duo is looking to publish more and better original content, streamline the ability of users to discover new drinks and, eventually, allow users to buy bottles directly through the site. Ultimately, that means pressuring the market to get better, because educated drinkers demand better whiskey.