Schrödinger’s whisky: the quantum world of the spirit

Schrödinger’s whisky: the quantum world of the spirit

The quantum world of whisky is always changing
Chris Middleton

07 June 2021

Publication: Issue 175

Descend into the subatomic world of quantum mechanics and we find a strange place populated by cocktails of elementary particles: charm quarks, buckyballs, muons and bosons. Whisky concoctions share equally colourful names such as Manhattans, Old Fashioneds and Juleps. Where whisky lives in a more secular sphere, quantum existence is a world of probability and duality. Everyday light is both a particle and quanta of energy, simultaneously a photon and wave. What you observe, where you observe it, and how it is measured renders it this, or that, or both at the same time.

What’s seen upon descending into the whisky world, to the drinkers’ level, also varies depending on how, where, and when you observe a hundred million whisky drinkers – all with differing modes of consumption, as they too inhabit an entangled and uncertain world. Consumer research into alcohol has a chest of diagnostic tools to read these market conditions. One research technique is multi-dimensional cluster analysis or quantitative psychographics. The methodology statistically analyses attitudes and lifestyle characteristics of similarity, identifying distinctive psychographic mindsets. These clusters get given names like ‘status’ conscious, and if the need-state changes, a paradigm shift moves to ‘discernment’, ‘sociability’ or ‘release’.

Consumers can leap between different states as quickly as subatomic elements, yet this change keeps the clusters relatively stable. Large liquor firms employ tools like these to understand consumer motivations to formulate brand positioning benefits and align latent desires with product consumption. Need-states analysis also informs the likely numerical size and unique characteristics of the cluster and their probable consumption modes. A ‘discerning’ segment, while usually numerically smaller, favours an older age segment and is less likely to consume whisky as a mixed drink or cocktail, preferring whisky neat, with water or on ice. Whereas high-energy occasions of release and sociability are younger, socially active clusters with higher volumetric usage, often drinking their whisky mixed with carbonated beverages and in cocktails.

When idealising a whisky serve, our imagination usually envisages a glass of full-strength whisky poured over ice. In the quantum world of whisky drinking, it is the opposite. More than 70 per cent of whisky is modified and diluted with other beverages; this holds in established whisky-drinking countries and has been constant since consumer surveys started in the 1950s. Although the continuing trends toward premiumisation, aging populations, and increased flavour appreciation have seen neat consumption almost double over the past decade, a recent US consumer survey reported that 46 per cent of whisky is drunk with carbonated mixers (mostly cola), 23 per cent in cocktails, 10 per cent with ice, and five per cent with added water.

When the English began adapting Gaelic whisky... it was firth drunk as a toddy

An obvious conclusion is that most consumers do not enjoy the raw taste of whisky or its alcoholic potency, preferring the spirit diluted as a flavouring ingredient added to sweet and aromatic beverages. This behaviour is not unique to whisky, as rum, vodka and other spirits share similar preparation formats. Even the universal non-alcoholic drinks of coffee and tea are diluted and modified in more than 85 per cent of drinking occasions – sweetened for taste and softened in mouthfeel by adding sugar (sucrose) and milk products (lactose).

This phenomenon has existed since whisky entered the public domain in the late 18th century. Even the proto-whiskies of Scotland and Ireland were a compounded beverage, like gin and liqueurs, to make the raw distillate appetising. When the English began adapting Gaelic whisky in the 19th century, it was first drunk as a toddy – blended with honey, spices and citrus juice. With the introduction of the seltzer bottle, whisky and soda became the universal way to drink Scotch well into the 20th century. In America, this was called the highball, and in recent years this serve has renewed Japanese interest in drinking whisky. Green tea substitutes for soda water in China, but it was cola that became American whiskey’s popular mixer partner.

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