The Mad Men of New York

The Mad Men of New York

Heather Greene discovers the new whisky and technology love affair

Production | 19 Jul 2013 | Issue 113 | By Heather Greene

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Rose Jia is a dark-haired beauty rocking a tight, red pencil skirt and high black heels, casually crossing her legs over a leather banquette on the back of which her wrist is draped casually, holding a glass of Lagavulin 16.

But I am not just fascinated by her beauty and the fact that she's enjoying a dram; I am intrigued by the entire group she's with: a young, handsome crowd that seem to define a newish cultural landscape in my hometown, New York City. Not to be confused with the fashionable grade-b model types who lined up around the block secretly sniffing coke and talking their way into fadclubs like Moomba during the 1990s, these geek-chic whiskeydrinkers are actually changing the way we live and how we interact with the world, making nerdism (my term) a whole new aspiration. They are the Silicon Alley techster-hipsters: entrepreneurs, braniacs, information-gatherers, tweeters, artists, trendsetters; in a nutshell, today's Don Draper. It looks like one heck of a party from where I stand, often above their table, recommending my latest favourite dram or recent acquisition on our menu at The Flatiron Room in Manhattan.

I'm not first to the fête. The Macallan identified this group as a tremendous audience early on, one that is not only insatiable for knowledge, but capable of spreading that knowledge at the speed of light through binary code in the form of a tweet or blog. For the third year in a row, The Macallan hosted the "Registrant's Lounge" at the South By Southwest Interactive conference, now one of the most influential new technology festivals in the world and where gaggles of these techsters gather yearly. Gene Song, The Macallan brand director whose spearheaded many brand moves into the tech ecosystem, explained to me what makes this audience particularly compelling to them: "From a macroeconomic perspective, these tech companies represent tremendous economic growth, they fuel a huge part of the economy and define how we interact with the world," he says. "They also love to consume information and are very engaged with the teaching part of what we do, and we have a lot to teach them about whisky. It's a match made in heaven."

Andy Weir, brand manager at The Balvenie who has earmarked significant dollars for advertisements in Wired Magazine echoes the sentiment: "People in those fields just have an innate desire to know how things work and how they're made. That's kind of perfect for the subject matter we want to talk about, right?" WeWork labs, recently written up as "New York City's best shared space" in New York Magazine for technology companies, housing somewhere between 30-50 new businesses, also boasts a special relationship with top whisky brands like The Macallan. Jessie Middleton, founder of WeWork, where Rose Jia also works, handpicked a few lucky guests to enjoy a luxury Macallansponsored boat ride on Lake Travis in Austin Texas during the conference. But this wasn't even the first time the major whisky-maker has reached out to the WeWork Lab start-up teams, The Macallan poured spirit at the annual New York holiday party back for them in December, too. Courtship established, I visited their offices to find out whether or not the pass was fully returned.

On the second floor of the WeWork building in SoHo where I meet a smattering of tech start up CEOs and founders for a photo shoot, Jessie sits in a worn leather and camel coloured club chair that would not be out of place at the Harvard Club or suburban golf course post-game lounge. Behind him, a huge mural displaying old library books, whiskey bottles, and dark lighting give one the impression that we are, in fact, hanging out in a bar rather than the communal networking space. I even spot a black marble slab counter, a tap, stools and a couple of bottles. Three of them are already enjoying a drop of Basil Haydens. The whiskey-love is evidently reciprocal. I ask a bunch of these new leaders why they feel such an affinity for the spirit.

"Enjoying whiskey might be a reaction to how things move in the technology world," explains Matthew Gershoff, CEO of tech company Conductrics. "What we interact with on a daily basis is transient and perishable. Technology growth doubles every 18 months according to More's Law, and whiskey just isn't like that. Good whiskey doesn't require speed, in fact, it's an antidote to this life," he says.

Tommy Tardie, owner of The Flatiron Room in Manhattan where I work, agrees: "I've run many clubs in New York City during the past 15 years, and what I'm sensing is a move from pounding shots of vodka over a loud DJ to a more relaxed yet luxurious environment where one can hear each other speak," he observes. "In fact, WeWork Lab entrepreneurs and other Silicon Alley businesses might very well make up more than half of our loyal clientele — many of them have a bottle collection in our lockers that just keeps on growing. They chip in and collect them together." Rich Lee, CEO of Caseflex, a legal tech company, is one of those collectors.

He gathers friends weekly to enjoy the expanding collection both within the tech community space in SoHo and out on the town. "Whiskey is a very social drink; it provides great conversation fodder, and so much of the startup community is about meeting and talking to new people," he says. His hypothesis about why whiskey attracts this demographic grew out of his own personal experience as a newcomer on the scene a while back: "It was Friday afternoon and I brought a bottle of Glenmorangie 10 to the office. I was still pretty new to WeWork and didn't know many people. Within minutes, there were 15 of us sitting around drinking and relaxing after a long week." Ironically, Glenmorangie is not actively pursuing the tech community, choosing to ensure that "Our core whiskey consumers first are aware of the brand," defining that demographic as one that plays golf, reads golf magazines or perhaps watches golf TV, where, incidentally, much of its advertising dollars are spent this year.

"We haven't targeted that segment specifically yet, it is more of an organic growth for us with them. That said, I think what is going on is very interesting;" explains Maxime Balay, brand manager at the Glenmorangie.

"But we are not as big as some of our competitors so we need to focus on the details within a smaller territory. Once we define our values with our core customer, we can expand to younger, more aspirational consumers." This raises of course, the question of pinning down or even identifying who today's core whisky consumer actually is. The nature of a trend doesn't lend itself to be backed up by big numbers necessarily, rather, it demonstrates a sort of ethereal buzz or an intuitive feel as to a general direction of growth or change. A nano-second Google search reveals San Francisco with the most people interested in "Whiskey Meet- Ups," and a deeper dive into the interests of those who sign up for the meet-ups describe curiosity in Java Script, extreme programming, "geek culture" and "business start-ups" rather than an afternoon gathered around the 9th hole. That San Francisco also arguably harbours the world's braintrust for all things cyber might not be a coincidence in this whiskey-tech love story. "There is no graphic data yet, and I don't need the data. It doesn't take a genius to realise that these guys are good customers," Mr. Song states.

If a good customer this day and age is also one who spreads the word by using the latest web 2.0 tools, then these guys seriously deliver a two-one punch.

Middleton shares: "On that boat, there were at least 30 people who combined had more than, I'm sure, 100,000 followers across Twitter. One tweet about how great their drink was would be seen around the world any time, day or night. There's never been a larger megaphone than what we have today.

That's cheap, simple, efficient marketing." Rose Jia actually uses Twitter to share her own tasting notes on a varied whisky collection that now includes Yamazaki 12, Kings County Bourbon, Lagavulin 16, and Abelour A'bundah, a dram that gets her "fired up to go out at night versus drinking Bulliet Bourbon for a chill night in." These aren't just one-off scenarios. In fact, on any given day almost 18,000 tweets might surface on whiskey or whisky, according to Josh Emert, chief of product at startup GoChime who ran a real-time, 24 hour twitter query for this article. "We are already here and tweeting," says Gershoff. "I suppose the challenge for a whisky company might be to ensure the tweets stay positive, and that the communication from them to us is relevant and excites us." Identifying excitement within this ecosystem is not so obvious.

On the one hand, these influencers are pushing boundaries, building companies, and inventing stuff most of us can't even envision yet, and they're doing it as fast as an electronic impulse. On the other hand, they seem eager to embrace the languid movements of a bygone era, lingering over drams in the evening and discussing the beauty of the Balvenie Caribbean Cask 14 year old. I've seen it with my own eyes, an outsider looking in on all that excitement, watching them talk the way rock stars used to talk about landing a big record deal, all pumped up on ideas that will change the world, fuelled by investment and passion. Or, as Jamie Roth of Quotidien Ventures, puts it: "Whiskey is for sipping while pondering the action items that lie between present reality and world domination."
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