What Happened with the 80s?

I was thinking about the incredible boom happening in the craft liquor and spirits and beer industries. Gin producers are now foraging the herbs and roots that flavor their products.  The hippening of unique brandy flavors is on the horizon. The “high-end premium” market is propelling overall growth. The once standard clear glass bottle is now transformed into sizes and shapes rivaling what used to be seen only at the apothecary. Producers are seeking creative ways to heighten “consumer engagement and leveraging it to fortify authenticity.” Holy smokes!

To distill the trend (oh yeah, I said it) you could summarize by focusing on two words: small batch. People want custom, uber-meaningful, top notch experiences. And that’s just when they are looking for a buzz! I wonder what we are demanding for dessert?

It made me think, unfortunately, of the 1980’s, when a bar had three beer taps: Bud, Coors, and the cheap beer (Schlitz, The Beast aka Milwaukee’s Best, or maybe a Busch). There was also the abomination in bottles that was light beer versions of local pilsners. IC Light was our regional brew.

There was nothing hoppy, nothing dark and chocolatey, nothing with strawberry or grapefruit. Nothing curated, nothing charred oak-inspired, infused, nitro cured, or osmosis blended. Nothing with hints of coffee or cupcake or honey. It was just pilsner and light pilsner. And Guiness, if you were at a fancy metropolitan sort of place. And wine: red or white. And they had vodka, rum, gin, scotch, and whiskey. They tasted like vodka, rum, gin, scotch, and whiskey, and whatever Galliono or blue curacao or fake corporate sours the part-time house painter behind the bar poured into them.

How, in some thirty-odd years, did consumers become so sophisticated? And is it OK that, while people in some of America’s finest cities struggle to get lead-free drinking water, we have the bandwidth to honestly care about the back story of the fiercely dedicated artisan barkeep who picked the berries that made the brew that became my $16, 3.5oz gin cocktail?

What was going on in the 80’s when bars were much simpler places, and corporate beers and spirits seemed to make a lot of sense, and inspire brand allegiance? When “I’ll have a whiskey” meant grab that one brand of whiskey you have there and pour it in a shot glass, not as a pretext for “Which of our thirty varieties, and would you like it neat, on the rocks, or blended with water?”

Barman flaring behind bar counter. Restaurant shelves with alcoholic drinks bottles on background
Barman flaring behind bar counter. Restaurant shelves with alcoholic drinks bottles on background

I am all for choice, and I do rejoice in the current bounty of selections. I just wonder how it all came about, so fully, so relatively quickly, and with such precision and skill. Imagine if we got this good this quickly at sewing or dog walking or Frisbee. It could be a whole different society we’d be living in.

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