Brands exist as a signifier of quality. But what happens when products are quietly diluted or diminished? Beware the intervention that is nerfing, says Satan’s Whiskers’ Kevin Armstrong

Do you remember that amazing Johnnie Walker ad with Robert Carlyle? It told the story of a young grocer who gained a reputation for blending whiskies, and how attaching his name to his blend signified a consistent, unique product. This is how brands work – most of the time.

What I’ve learned over the past couple of decades serving spirits is that a brand name is not always the guarantor of quality. Sometimes things change. Without inside knowledge, it is almost impossible to ascertain the true motive for a brand or recipe evolution, but there are real-world reasons – supply chain issues and ingredient availability, skills shortages or government interventions could all play their part.

Frequently though, you suspect these changes are driven by cost and profit – a desire to increase bottom line or pacify shareholders. Seldom do manufacturers intentionally increase their production costs in a drive for improved quality. A new recipe normally means a more cost effective way to make something.

Few categories illustrate the evolution better than tequila. I remember when tequila producers switched between 100% agave and mixto (and ultimately back again), driven by volatile agave prices and a market that wasn’t yet ready to pay premium prices. Another strategy employed there was the introduction of more efficient production processes, to squeeze every ounce of available yield from the agave – in doing so, sacrificing quality for output.

The problem is, some of these liquids no longer resemble the brands I first fell in love with. It’s sad to say that some of the products I have had the most attachment to I no longer stock. It may take time, but eventually the market twigs. This nerfing of spirits is one of the main reasons we periodically blind taste each category on our back bar at Satan’s Whiskers.

Recipe adjustments

There are countless more examples. A once-favourite bourbon brand changed the abv of its product, most likely to reduce the impact of duty, and when tried side-by-side, it was noticeably and considerably inferior.

Just recently a big gin brand has reduced its alcohol content from 43.1% to 41.3%. My fears that such a change would not allow it to maintain the excellent standards it had set were thankfully not borne out, but this feels very much like the exception, not the rule.

In 2018 the government introduced the sugar tax. Since then we’ve seen recipe adjustments from swathes of soft drink manufacturers, and some of the greatest nerfs have befallen this sector. As a business we were forced into changing most of our mixer line-up at the time (as everyone yanked the sugar from their products or traded it for stevia or alternative sweeteners), and now we’re reviewing this again as another of my favourite soft drink producers has too nerfed its sugar content, and sadly the taste along with it.

I was so infuriated that I wrote to the producer. It confirmed that, after long consideration, primarily enforced by the burgeoning costs of new legislation/regulation (tax), it had to make changes.

As far as I could tell, this recipe adjustment was unannounced and surreptitious, and perhaps some people would never notice the change – if so, mission accomplished – but I did and now it’s gone. The quality of brands you sell represent the quality of your bar.

We can always take our custom elsewhere, but often we don’t want to – we just want the products to taste the way we remember. Frustratingly, once the product is nerfed, the choice to pay more for the product you love is taken out of your hands. I know a few products I’d happily stock at a premium to restore them to their original versions we’ve come to love. Instead we must accept the less sugar, less alcohol, less taste, less fun of the sanitised new version.

Perhaps in a generation no one will remember the old version anyway, but without new customers falling in love with the product for the first time, it’s the brand’s sales that will suffer.

I understand that things sometimes need to change, and the reasons can be far-reaching and complex, but so often it is driven by profit, not product. And I’d love that to stop. So, the next time you try one of your favourite brands and it doesn’t taste the same, it might be because it’s not the same – it might have been nerfed. And you know what to do.