Accent on Living

WE HAVE been given to understand over the years that anything undertaken by a big company trying to sell something to the American consumer is always in direct response to his profound wants and needs. There is no guesswork, no wishful thinking, no stab in the dark. It’s all beyond argument: by infinite wisdom and a quality of research worthy of a Pasteur or an Eddington, the company has found out what the consumer really wants. That the company has actually done this by a bit of sampling through loaded questionnaires, and by hiring a few competing market analysts (who are simply earning an honest penny for a day’s work on their own), and by a modicum—just a pinch —of good sense is beside the point. The people, we learn, have signified what they want. (Democracy: . . . the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard. — H. L. Mencken.) So, hard it shall be.

It is not easy to judge the public mood about Detroit automobiles and bourbon whisky, but in each of these commodities certain recent adjustments seem to warrant comment. The automobiles have received more attention than the whisky, and a brief summary of what the public is demanding from Detroit is sufficient. The kind of car demanded above all others by the public is, then, the biggest ever, the most powerful, and the most expensive. Its speed will be far in excess of its braking capacity, its suspension conventional (in the sense that bumpy-toed button shoes for men were conventional in 1910), its trunk is big enough to take in a piano, and its rear-seat passengers will be more comfortable if they are not taller than 4' 10". This is what the public has told the major producers it wants, and neither party will entertain any heckling in behalf of Larks, Ramblers, and those rascally little importations.

Even more singular is what the public now insists its bourbon whisky must be. A distinctively American form of spirits, bourbon was nevertheless believed by successive generations to need much the same treatment as other spirits. Aging in the wood for a few years resulted in a better whisky than one made night before last, and it was no rare thing in the days before Prohibition to sample and buy direct from the cask in houses like S. S. Pierce, Park & Tilford, and Acker, Merrall & Condit eightor ten-year-old whisky, or older, according to one’s taste and purse. Distillers advertised their own brands of well-aged bourbon and rye; almost any good bar offered a choice of them, and so did the dealers.

A federal tax, until recent changes in it, tended to penalize the distiller who aged whisky in bond for more than eight years, but even so, there are only a few brands of any great reputation on the market today that are even eight years old. Most of the bonded whisky is withdrawn and sold after the minimum, for “bonds,” of four years. But quite beyond demanding that his whisky must be youthful, the consumer is now determined that it must also be weaker. He is unwilling, that is, to buy certain of the more conspicuous 100proof whiskies until they have been reduced, by the addition of water at the distillery, to 86 proof. The possibility that the consumer could add the water himself, in seeking a strength that suited his taste, is repugnant to him. The distiller knows best, so the story runs, and after devout study of what the consumer wants, is going to give it to him in abundance: more water, less whisky.

Back in the 1940s, a friend from the Middle West brought me a bourbon which seemed just right in all respects: six years old, 93 proof, and quite reasonably priced. It was not available locally, but the distributor yielded to our requests, and for the next decade the brand enjoyed and deserved a sizable following hereabouts. It lost a year in the war, regained it later, and the quality was unvaryingly high. But a year or two ago, the proof dropped abruptly to 86. The price stood firm. It was more water for the same money, a phenomenon approximated more recently by one of the bellwether bonded brands.

The bond in this case, although it had always managed to speak reverently of its great age and tradition, was a four-year product selling at $6.69 a fifth. But when the proof dropped to 86, amid such words as “modern” and “milder,” the price dropped not to $5.75, which is where my arithmetic would place it, but to $5.99.

Somewhere in the transaction 24 cents of the customer’s money seems to have fallen down behind the counter. But on reflection, it seems reasonable to suppose that even so simple an operation as watering the whisky can be expensive. Someone has to take out the bungs, run the pumps, and tidy up the finish. At today’s wage scales a team of skilled de-proofers is bound to cost money. And think what the water bill must be!

So it is that the public taste guides the big producers into novel and more constructive channels. Malcontents will persist in affecting the small car, the spirits at proofs lamentably above what most consumers want, but these will be the few. The enlightened majority will have its cars dearer, longer, and wider, and its whisky in ever-diminishing strength.