Want to trick people into thinking you know your whiskeys? There's an app for that now.

By James Robinson , written on February 6, 2014

From The News Desk

I have one whiskey preference, Jameson. It is the first whiskey I drank and liked, so I stuck with it. I like having the name in my pocket in case someone is ordering me a drink in a bar and wants to know my preference, or I need to buy a bottle and not embarrass myself. I enjoy drinking whiskey, but my taste appreciation has only two modes: “Hey, that tastes like rocket fuel” and “Burns, but in a good way.”

Luckily, for a new generation of whiskey drinkers, drawn in by Don Draper’s old fashioneds and thousand yard stares in "Mad Men," a new app called Distiller - or “web based whiskey recommendation” engine, if we’re being precise - has arrived to help us all pretend we’re connoisseurs.

Co-founder Mikael Mossberg was working in the Warner Bros. social media department when the Distiller idea started to grip him. He was a casual whiskey appreciator and a member of the Los Angeles Whiskey Society. “Which is really just a fancy name for a bunch of people sitting around drinking whiskey,” he says.

The genesis of the idea was that Mossberg grew frustrated by how often he would go into a store to buy a bottle of whiskey and have no way to research the different bottles. Researching on his phone, the distillery websites would have little information and often not be optimized for mobile.

“Whiskey is expensive and there’s a high barrier to entry for experimenting. It’s a booming space, but then there’s no digital footprint that can connect people with the wealth of information about each bottle,” Mossberg says. In 2012 he visited his friend Brent Stiefel in Seattle and they found themselves in a local whiskey bar with a long menu of options that dated back decades, but with no way to know what to go for. The friends began making notes and decided to go all in at the start of 2013, funded by Votiv, the nationwide media group where Stiefel works.

Distiller allows its users to rate each bottle of whiskey they try and will in turn develop personalised recommendations from that information. As it stands, it is a catalog of 300 bottles, Mossberg says, with 400 more about to be added in. The startup has a table of tasters who try each entry and compose a personal flavor profile, while inputting 25 different data points. This allows the program to make recommendations in line with the intended location for drinking the bottle, cost expectations, alcohol proof, flavor, previous preferences and so on. To create a more social, show-offy element, users can create a “top shelf” of their favorite brands to share through Facebook.

I wonder to Mossberg if devout whiskey drinkers are not generally the everyday app using audience he’s courting. Whiskey is not an old guy thing anymore, he says. And while whiskey drinkers skew male, it is not as pronounced as people imagine. He thinks that the market is growing out rapidly. The Los Angeles Whiskey Society used to meet monthly but now convenes several times each month, he points out. The numbers play this out on more than an anecdotal level. American spending on spirits has increased at a steady rate for the last dozen years, with Whiskey being the fastest growing area within that. The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States said this week that bourbon and Tennessee whiskey revenues rose 10 percent higher in the US in 2013.

Distiller isn’t the first in this space, A Taste for Gin is available on Windows phones and My Favorite Vodka - a mobile vodka app and diary - is on iOS. Distiller might however, be the most comprehensive and careworn of its kind with its efforts to connect each bottle in its engine with a set of human lips. The big unknown in front of it is whether people need an app to tell them about whiskey. It’s not an everyday beverage. I don’t come home from work, pour myself a tumbler and nestle in with a book or watch TV. People buy a bottle of whiskey every so often and they’re in a bar at most a couple of times a week. The best designed program still has limited use.

Mossberg has no set target of users for Distiller make its launch a success. “Our biggest goal is to build a product people engage with and are able to use,” he says.

There are revenue generating options available to it, if the user base grows large enough to let the company pursue them. “We’re adamant that we’re going to stay brand neutral,” Mossberg says. Naturally, retail is a possibility, with the mobile platform also allowing distilleries a chance to target users by location and push through offers. There’s real estate in the app for advertising and Mossberg says Distiller would consider creating branded content sections in the future.

For now, the idea is but a day old. On first use, Distiller gave me a few more fancy terms to throw about next time I’m nursing a Jameson. “It is light and breezy but still has secrets,” it says. “And, more than anything, it’s a gateway whiskey.”

To succeed Distiller is going to have push a lot of people through that gate and convince them to bring the app along with them.

[Image Credit: amerune on Flickr]