Welcome to Episode 239 of The Digital Life. A show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.
We have a very special podcast for our first edition of 2018, one that I’m very excited about, we’re gonna chat about science, emerging technology, and my favorite beverage, whiskey, with Sammy Karachi. Sammy is the brand ambassador for Relativity Whiskey, for the New England region. And he’s come today to the show to share some information about how Relativity Whiskey is changing the way the game is played. Sammy, welcome to the show.
So, let’s start with a little bit of an overview about the American craft distillery movement, because, it is a movement, there’s probably no more, sort of, exciting or vibrant area of the spirit industry, I think, than whiskey.
Jon’s getting his fanboy on today.
I’m serious, just know this.
So, I mean, I’ve been, sort of, following the craft distillery movement over the past six or seven years, and I’ve got my favorites, and, Sammy, could you just give us, sort of, a broad viewpoint of how you see American whiskey and the movement today?
Growing, continuing to grow, and not really showing any signs of slowing down. I mean, the market of whiskey has so often in our history have been really covered by those who have been in the industry for 100s of years. You know, it’s all about the people who are that immersed in this culture that are, you know, the Jim Beams of the world, the Woodford Reserves of the world.
The macros, the big distilleries.
Exactly, exactly. The establishment, the whiskey establishment. Big whiskey. And that’s a good thing, because really they have so many years of trial and error to make a premium product, year in and year out. Whereas with craft movement, the craft movement, now we can start to experiment a little bit more. We can start asking more questions, as to, “Hey, why don’t we do it this way?” Or, “Oh, that’s why there’s not a whole lot of rye whiskey out there.” It’s really hard to make if you don’t know how to distill and how to ferment rye, you’ll notice it foams up, a lot. It’s difficult to maintain. And these are things that people are learning on the ground level, but it’s by people that, you know, are really interested, it’s a giving back and trying something new, and I think that it wasn’t really whiskey, in the past few years. It’s, you know, up until now, it was just something that was expected. You weren’t … if someone asked you about whiskey, they just gave you what brand they drink. They didn’t tell you what it meant to them.
Yeah, I think, you know, as I watch, you know, as I watch these, sort of, small distillers become more popular, I’m excited by American whiskey right now, and I think one part of it that is relevant to our audience, and that we’re gonna dig into a bit, is, you spoke of the experimentation. Whiskey really is a science, it’s a chemistry, it is … the recipe that makes it up, the way the whiskey is processed, the way it is aged, all of this is, it’s craft, but it’s also science, and technology, and I think that we’re in a moment right now where the attitudes where how the whiskey is put together, how that process is successfully completed, that philosophy is changing. Sammy, could you talk to a little bit about that, because there are some really heartfelt standing opinions about what whiskey can be, and what it should not be.
Of course, right, and with the explosion of this craft movement, it’s really important to remember that, you also have to earn your place on the shelf, you can’t just be new and all of a sudden be, you can’t demand my attention just because you’re made by some dude who took a few night classes in chemistry and is making it in Decatur, Illinois. [inaudible 00:04:53] gonna buy your products? Not because it’s now, what are you adding to the conversation? And people are adding all types of things. They’re talking about different types of barrels, different sizes of barrels, barrels seasoned with other things besides just that nice beautiful char, they’re aging in beer barrels, in sherry casks, all kinds of things, it’s incredible. And it kind of shook up even the more macro whiskey side of things too, to everyone’s benefit, I would say, certainly. But just asking the questions and having new things appear in the shelf is important, not just for the little guys, not just for the consumer, but also to make sure people are innovating correctly. And that’s something that, I think, meaningful innovation is really important to Relativity Whiskey.
How does this impact the mainstream consumers? So, someone like Jon who loves whiskey, who has 100 whiskey bottles, like, here’s like, “Oh my god, a touch of ash at the end of the process, yes. Like, I can’t wait to have that.” But, the bro who goes and in doesn’t care if it’s Jim Beam or Jack Daniels, how do you get to that kind of person, how does that kind of person get excited about the nuance, the customization, the innovation that you’re bringing to the table?
So, I would say, you know, there’s a comedian that once told me that, you know, you hear so many jokes, that when you hear the start of a joke, you can tell where it’s gonna go. I’ve been drinking whiskey for more than a decade, if I look at the label and I find out where it’s made and how it’s made, what it’s made from, I have a general idea of what it’s gonna taste like. I’m not surprised very often. Especially in American whiskey because it’s just so narrow a, sort of, film. This little tiny area where you can exist, right? Because, you know, to me, American whiskey, to be Bourbon whiskey, you have to be aged in new charred American oak casks. New, you can’t reuse these casks, you can’t season with all these other things, right? But for someone that’s a whiskey aficionado, someone like Jon that has 100 bottles … are those empty or are those full, by the way?
So, I think Dirk’s exaggerating a little bit, but-
What’s the real number? I want the real number.
The real number right now is around 40ish. Because the holidays came and I got a whole bunch of cool new stuff, just as a side, I have a lot of Japanese whiskey I’m working on right now.
How many books? How many whiskey books do you own, Jon?
At least 30. At least 30 whiskey books. Like, obviously, I’m a little obsessed. It’s … when I get into something, I kind of get into something.
Listeners, if you love the show, send a bottle of whiskey to Jon. I mean, that’s the reward if you enjoy.
So, Sammy, I want to dig in a little bit to the experimental philosophy, because there is a little bit of controversy now that age statements are not, like, sort of, the only demarcator, the only representation of whiskey quality, right? So, I mean, there are, I think there are still those people who would say, “Okay, look, I’m not gonna look at anything that doesn’t have, like, a 12 year age statement, right? I know that you have this wonderful combination that you’re trying to sell to me, but if it hasn’t been aged, you know, for 12 years, I don’t want to touch it.” How do you address that when people ask about that?
It’s a fair question. There’s a huge end movement right now with the non-age statement whiskeys that are appearing. Especially in single malt Scotch, right? I would say really when it comes down to it, if you look at sales for single malt Scotches, for example, back in the 70s and 80s, no one was drinking them. Americans did not drink single malt scotch until they started putting age statements on them. You know, it was this heuristic quality. But I think that really, we’ve become so knowledgeable about whiskey, the consumer, the basic average consumer, that we’ve outgrown that. People are starting to learn that age isn’t everything, only maturity is the most important thing. You know, through my job, I’ve had the opportunity to taste many, many whiskeys, especially right from the cask. I’ve tasted an eight year old whiskey that had the complexity and richness of a 30 year old whiskey. And I’ve also tasted 30 year old whiskeys that are absolutely disgusting, that were astringent and sharp and almost young tasting.
The fact is that no two casks are the same. So by having whiskeys that don’t have non-age statements, by allowing a master distiller or a master blender to aim towards a flavor profile, or a feeling that someone gets when they drink their whiskey as opposed to just a line in the sand at an age, it gives us more freedom. It goes into innovating into actual feeling. Innovating with purpose. And I think that’s … while some people might worry about being lied to, and then maybe people are hiding what’s in their whiskeys, I would say then, you have to trust the brand at the end of the day.
That makes a lot of sense, but I don’t know if the average consumer is moving past age statements yet. I think folks like Jon are, enthusiasts, certainly, I think, but you know, I can blind tell the difference between an Oban 14 and a Lagavulin 16, and I am not looking past age statements. Like, when I see a whiskey without an age statement, I’m naturally skeptical. It’s not particularly interesting to me. So I really doubt that the average consumer would feel the same way about that kind of product.
Well, I drink a lot of whiskeys blind, I never think to myself, “Oh, this tastes like its 16 years old.” I don’t think that-
I don’t either, that’s true.
Right. We don’t, it’s just not how we work. If you hear a song on the radio that you like, you don’t think, “Oh, this is A major.” Unless you have perfect pitch, and some people do have that ability and some people can work in a warehouse and can figure out exactly down to the month how old a whiskey is.
But it’s how people are used to buying, right?
Exactly. The only heuristic you had back in the day was really the age.
Good stuff has an age statement, bad stuff costs 20 bucks.
I’d say some of the best whiskey’s I’ve had recently, especially in the past year or so, haven’t even had age statements. But, to your point, now you’re left with price.
Which are important things.
You can’t really base it off color, because there’s so many artificially colored whiskeys out there in the market.
Which is unfortunate, none of the whiskeys are, anything in my portfolio, everything is natural color. Because we’re dumb biological creatures, we attribute a lot of things to the hue of a whiskey.
We would never want to change that, but I think, you know, maybe the jury’s still out on the average consumer, but the movement is still going towards non-age statements, and more acceptance of it.
No doubt, no doubt, and I guess at some level, it’s your job to turn the average consumer around, right? That’s what you’re doing.
Just like it was the version of my job 30 years ago to get people to try and buy Scotch because it had a number on the bottle. It didn’t mean anything to anybody. If you ask someone who’s been drinking Maker’s Mark for the past 40 years and you ask how old is it, they don’t know. There’s no number on the bottle.
So Jon, this is also super interesting to me, but what the heck does it has to do with technology?
Bring this into our show now.
So, so, there is a reason that I raise the age statement question, and part of it is because Relativity Whiskey does have this special maturation technology, which, you know, the maturation technology of, you know, that’s commonly used is time, right? So you age the spirit in barrels in a warehouse, and there’s, you know, hot summer days, and cool, you know, autumn nights or whatever and that change over time the taste, the flavors of the barrel, you know, seeps into the whiskey, and, of course, you know, some of the whiskey evaporates, et cetera, et cetera, and over time, you know, the distiller will, sort of, choose a point at which he or she will, you know, take a taste from the barrel and see, you know, how it’s doing, et cetera, and that is the process, right? And, of course, every year, there are taxes and other things that you pay to store your whiskey, and that’s why, you know, over this period of time, you know, the longer aged whiskeys get more expensive and more flavorful, hopefully.
But, for Relativity and a few other brands, which we’ll talk about, you guys are using some computer-driven techniques for aging. Samuel, I know you can’t get into the totality of this because of various patent pending reasons, but why don’t you give us an overview of how you’re using technology-driven aging process to make relativity taste the way it does?
Sure, absolutely. I mean, really, what it comes down to is, our compression maturation technology allows us to re-create the natural environment in which whiskey and wood interact, but with more speed and more precision. I really can’t overstate how precise the facilities are in our laboratory. We create this natural … it really comes down to our proprietary software. When the guy who actually put this together, Doug. Doug really, like all great ideas, they started in a garage, and he wanted to figure out if whiskey is just the sum of that interaction of wood and whiskey, how can I speed that up. And he wrote a program for it. And he wanted to re-create a vessel, this, sort-of, pressure vessel that would allow him to, again, mimic the seasons.
That’s really what we’re doing. Even if you’re going to a classic Bourbon distillery like, you know, for example, like, in their warehouse, they’re going to have a lot of, you know, air conditioning happening in the warehouse. They’ll actually chill it and heat it up in the summer and the winter. That’s basically what we’re doing, but we’re doing it in 40 minutes. We’re spinning all the seasons, all the ebb and flow of the whiskey coming in and out of the wood constantly, just down to a few minutes. And that’s really what we do better than anyone else. It’s the precision and the speed. And we wouldn’t be able to do that without our technology.
And for those of us who aren’t whiskey aficionados, what is the process? Like, in the old days, like, I imagine, you know, there’s a river, you’re siphoning water out of the river, you’re mixing in some stuff, you’re throwing it in a barrel, and it sits there for 30 years, and then you sell it for 500 dollars a bottle. Like, is that the traditional process? Is that approximately correct, or is it horribly incorrect? And then, like, what, where are the differences coming in from what y’all are doing?
Yeah, you have the basic idea there. It starts with a grain, a fermentable sugar, you ferment it, then you distill it, distillation is, of course, that’s just really, it’s Latin for “separation.” You’re separating the alcohol from the water. And then you take that and distill it, and then you throw it in a barrel to age it. Now, there’s a vast symphony of reactions happening in that barrel, you touched on a few of them, Jon, it’s extraction is the most important one, the whiskey going into the wood and pulling congeners and aldehydes all these nice flavors out of the wood. You have evaporation. That’s just, everything leaving the barrel. That’s what we more romantically refer to as “Angel Share,” you know, and that changes based on climate. And that really goes back to how this is different. Because really now, we have the ability to mimic all the seasons we want in any climate we want.
So, if you’re making, for example, if you’re making Bourbon in Kentucky, you’re losing about three percent to six percent a year. You know, six percent a year just to evaporation. Gone. You’re paying taxes on it, sorry about that. It’s gone.
So over 30 years, you’ve lost 180 percent?
Well, it’s not quite linear.
But then if you try and make that same whiskey in Dominican Republic, you’re losing ten percent a year. There’s some distilleries in Taiwan that lose up to 25 percent a year. And we’ve actually taken our compression maturation technology, and the software, the whole process, and we’ve made a version of Relativity to see what it would taste like if it were distilled in the Islands, in the Caribbean. We’ve made a version that would taste like if it were aged in Moscow, and in-
It’s everywhere. It’s fantastic.
That was one of my follow on questions. So, obviously, you’re still innovating, you’re still experimenting.
How can I get a flight of Relativity whiskey with those parameters, right? Like, what is your uber-whiskey nerd flight of whiskey, like, “This was distilled and Moscow, this in the Caribbean, this in New England.” Like, what’s the algorithmic flight.
That’s the dream, right? I mean, we’re still very new. And I think what separates us from other whiskeys, from, again the macro whiskey out there is, our ideologies. You know, the big whiskey, it’s all about, “We’ve perfected this over time, it’s perfect. You can buy it or not, we’re not gonna change anything. This is what it is.” And we’re saying, “We haven’t perfected this yet. We’re learning every day.” And by the way, no one has it perfect yet, and that’s really why I believe that Relativity is the first truly data-driven whiskey. It’s a whiskey that’s changing and we’re learning from our whiskey all the time. In the future, I would love to see us do, like, little flight boxes, little, you know, value added packs in the holidays of all these types of whiskeys. You can try the same whiskey and the only variable you change is not age, or barrel, or mash bill, it’s where it was made, right? That would be incredible. I’d love to taste that side-by-side and see what climate does to whiskey. And that’s really in a nutshell what relativity can control is it’s all about that climate. And I’m glad you’re excited about it, because that’s a new … I’ve been really interested in seeing what happens to this brand in the future.
Yeah, or, you know, since you can do it in, you know, a short period of time, maybe there’s, you know, a crowd, sort-of, funding aspects. Like, “Hey, there’s enough people who want to try the Moscow version, the Caribbean version and the New England version, you know, and when we get up to 1000 people, you know, per run, we run these things.” Or, if you have a bunch of money to spend, I can say, “Hey, this is the Jon Follett algorithm, right? I want a 20 year, as if it was aged in, I don’t know, Scotland, let’s just say, or somewhere in Japan, right?
What about California? You love California.
I do, I do love California. I’m a big fan of Saint George Distillery. Yeah, I could see a personal algorithm, you know, given the right sort of infrastructure, right? The, you know, and then we would send a bottle to all our clients, Dirk, right?
Well, I mean the next step, I don’t know, I mean, have you guys … in 3D printing technology now, you can print out edibles, you know, things that you can ingest, I mean, is this technology such that Relativity could distill it down to just flavors and underline, I don’t know if it’s chemicals or materials, but so that I could just print out, you know, I could just push a button and out comes my Relativity Timbuktu, or my Relativity Krakow, or, you know, whatever that mix is. Is that kind of technology possible in end years, and/or is that kind of thing on your radar or not?
Possibly. I would say so, yes. Can you, can you take apart whiskey? Can you tear it apart on the molecular level and say, “Hey, this is [inaudible 00:20:58], this is what gives me that sweet-spicy flavor, these are phenols, this is what gives me the smoky flavor. This is vanilla, this is what gives me all that lovely vanilla flavor. I imagine you could put a couple of, you know, numbers into a computer and then it will vomit out some delicious whiskey.
I don’t know if “vomit” is the right kind of taste you’re going for.
It’ll vomit it out, it’s gonna spit at you, right out of your new iPhones, or maybe it’ll be iPhone 20 at that point. But I think that’s possible, I don’t think it’s around the corner.
Is it on our radar? I mean, is there a personal whiskey market? I think, that’s totally [inaudible 00:21:33] reasonable in the future, where you can just type in your preferences, your algorithm, and then you get a bottle that was distilled in, you know, Montreal Canada for 18 months, and then it makes you feel this, that’s not too far away.
And I’m compelled to the question, because the brand itself speaks to that. It’s a 21st century brand, from my perspective.
Jon was mentioning some brands of other companies doing similar things on the technology side, it sounded like 19th century brands, so, I’m sort of assuming a level of innovation and thinking just based upon the brand, which might be short-sighted on my part, but.
I’m thinking that really what we’ve been … the gestalt, the, what we’re going through right now is all about individualism, right? Especially in our market, that’s what happens when you have a capitalistic society, a democracy, it’s all about what makes you unique, what makes you special, you define yourself by what you consume. Whereas I think, this is really a whiskey for the people. For the masses. You know, this is not something that one dude is gonna drink on one day, and it’s gonna make him feel happy, this is something that you can share with everybody, that everyone can enjoy, and I think that that togetherness on this whiskey is really the more important message behind it. I mean, yes, we can tweak it, and we can specialize it, but we’ve already one that through our software, we’ve already made what we think is something perfect down to a tenth of a psi in pressure, down to a tenth of a degree Celsius in temperature. I mean, everything has been perfect, perfected over, you know, two weeks of just constant fermentations.
So, is there an alternate labeling with Karl Marx on there? Is that-
Yes, there is, oh my God, you found out. You saw the one in my bag, Karl Marx, obviously, a huge whiskey drinker, that guy. Loved his whiskey.
So, are there any plans for Relativity to use this maturation technology for other spirits? Other alcohols? Like, I could see an application for like, Port, right? Or, you know, other wines that might be aged in such a way.
All wines are aged, right?
You know, it sort of depends, right? But yeah, that’s certainly a factor. Any plans along those lines?
I know that right now, we’re really excited about whiskey. And right now we have, Relativity is a four grain whiskey. So we have whiskeys in there, you know, made from corn, wheat, rye, and malted barley, all of which add a different flavor. And were we to make a different type of whiskey, maybe highlighting one of those grains, or making a whiskey that is in a different style, like a peaty, single malt Scotch, it sounds like you like Oban and you like Lagavulin, maybe we could make a peaty, Scotch-tasting Relativity version, maybe we could do something more in the soft, supple, you know, fresh characteristics of a Canadian whiskey, maybe an Irish whiskey. But beyond that, I’m not sure, maybe other spirits, possibly down the line? I know that right now there’s so much work to be done on whiskey and as we’re looking to innovate, and also it’s where the minds of America are really focused is whiskey. Whiskey is the thing right now.
Right. So, I had one other question for you, so is this the first lot for Relativity whiskey that’s out on the market? We’re we tasting earlier today Lot number one, is that it?
There have been version of this that have been released prior to what I have poured for you today, right? And if I were to buy a bottle off the shelf that has a different batch number, every bottle has a batch number on it, every batch is about 15 bottles worth, very, very, very small batch.
Extraordinarily small. 15 bottles per batch, really is the output.
What’s the cost per bottle?
It’s on the shelf, we recommend 35.95.
Oh, wow, so really affordable.
That small batch size, that’s incredible, actually.
I mean, most of what we’re doing, again, we’re sourcing our whiskey that’s aged traditionally and then we’re bringing it to a laboratory, so you’re paying for all the years of R and D, and the making of the software, the making of the, of our compression technology. That’s really built into the price. Otherwise, we want everyone to enjoy this. So we want to make sure that it was as approachable a cost as possible, but, again, the question was referring to [crosstalk 00:26:08].
Yeah, I was just interested in how many lots have you made?
Like I said, this is a data-driven whiskey, it’s changing constantly. I was just talking to Doug, the founder, today. On, actually, this morning, at 8:00 o’clock, and he said he had another breakthrough. And he’s constantly tweaking and improving this whiskey. When this whiskey was first really put in a bottle, and put on a shelf about a year ago, we were doing a lot of blind tastings with 18 year old single malts, and with, you know, 12 year old Bourbons, all these really, really high-end whiskeys and trying to see how people felt, and, by the way, we were winning those, people were choosing our brand, eight out of ten people at a time. It was incredible just, you know, the reaction we got from it. But the new goal for Doug is really, and for all of us at relativity, we really want to actually put this whiskey, the new whiskey, against our old whiskey. We’re just trying to best ourselves. That’s how we’re trying to grow, that’s what our goal is for the future.
That’s great. So, where can people get Relativity Whiskey right now?
Now, I know it’s available on Drizly right now. If you are not a part of Drizly, it’s fantastic, it’s essentially, like, Amazon for booze, we don’t have that nice thing in America quite yet, but from a various brick and mortar stories, you know, Julio’s Liquors has it, Cambridge Spirits has it out in Cambridge, but right now, it’s really Just in Massachusetts, so if you’re a local and they don’t have it, ask. I don’t think enough people realize how much power they have when they walk into their local package store, or liquor store, if you ask them, “Can you carry this?” They’ll bring in a bottle for you. If it does well, they’ll keep on bringing it in. That’s what I’ve done for years now.
Thanks. Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to show you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in realtime, just head over to thedigitalife.com, that’s just one L on the digital life and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody, so it’s a rich information resource that you can take advantage of while you’re listening, or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. You can find The Digital Life on iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher, PlayerFM and Google Play. If you want to follow us outside of the show you can follow me on Twitter @jonfollett, that J-O-N-F-O-L-L-E-T-T. Of course the whole show is brought to you by Go Invo which you can check out at goinvo.com, that’s G-O-I-N-V-O.com. Dirk?
You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer, that’s @D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R, and thanks so much for listening. Sammy, I just want to say, thanks so much for coming on the show today, and is there any way people can contact you either on twitter, or via website, or maybe if you want to give a plug for a how people can find Relativity.
Yeah, absolutely. My name is Sammy Karachi, you can find me on my Instagram, which is just at Karachis, K-A-R-A-C-H-I-S. And, again, if you’re looking for the brand, if you want to talk about the brand, I’m always chatting with people especially in the startup culture, that’s why we really launched it, here in the area. You’ll find me here in town. But otherwise, reach out to me, and I’m happy to bring by a bottle to talk about it.
And Dirk, how can people contact you?
You can follow me on Twitter, @dknemeyer, that’s at D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R. And thanks so much for listening.
So that’s it for Episode 239 of The Digital Life, and Happy 2018, you know, we’re gonna have a great season of The Digital Life this year, you know, please stay tuned, we have lots more interesting guests, and thanks again to Sammy and Relativity Whiskey today. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.