Sunday, November 11, 2007

Travis McGee in The Dreadful Lemon Sky

"There is something self-destructive about Western technology and distribution. Whenever any consumer object is so excellent that it attracts a devoted following, some of the slide rule and computer types come in on their twinkle toes and take over the store, and in a trice they figure out just how far they can cut quality and still increase the market penetration. Their reasoning is that it is idiotic to make and sell a hundred thousand units of something and make a profit of thirty cents a unit, when you can increase advertising, sell five million units, and make a nickel profit a unit. Thus the very good things of the world go down the drain, from honest turkey to honest eggs to honest tomatoes. And gin."
That rant was by Florida private detective Travis McGee in John D. McDonald's 16th McGee novel, The Dreadful Lemon Sky from 1974.

McGee was lamenting the fact that his favorite gin, Plymouth, was no longer distilled in the U.K., but in America. "It isn't the same," he complained. "It's still a pretty good gin but it is not a superb, stingingly dry, and lovely gin."

I'd never heard of the brand before until this year. If it was around in the U.K., it was obscure in America. Apparently a company called V&S Group bought 50% of Plymouth in 2000, and then acquired it outright in 2005. They relaunched the brand a year later, which is probably why I can find it in liquor stores today.

But this is exactly what cynical "slide rule and computer types" do with companies with histories as long as Plymouth's (it was started in 1793 by monks). When they see that a gin company or a French couture company or luggage maker has fallen on hard times, but still has the skeleton of a legacy, they buy it up, pour millions into an ad campaign and fire all the old staff. They cut corners in production and source cheaper materials to make room for bigger margins and astronomical marketing budgets so that a year or two later, you and I can suffer the pretty girl at a trendy club who refuses to drink any brand but this one and lets the bartender know that he is a fool for thinking that she'd take a rail gin with her cocktail.

Or, in corporate speak:
Plymouth Gin is over 200 years old and is re-establishing its reputation as the smoothest premium gin in the world. The objective of the re-launch is to transform an outstanding product into an outstanding brand.

Therefore we have reviewed the core marketing strategies, and created a new communication platform. A shift in focus took place and a new Brand Strategy was established. Consumer research was conducted to assess whether the current/previous Plymouth pack was in line with the new brand positioning. Namely, whether it communicated Plymouth’s premium position and smooth taste. Over 18 months of exhaustive qualitative and quantitative research involving hundreds of gin drinkers of all age and usage groups helped us to understand which elements of the old pack should remain but also what should change.
The company claims that they haven't strayed from the orignal 1793 recipe, and that:
"We only distil gin at our Black Friar’s Distillery in Plymouth and have done since 1793, making us the oldest working distillery in England. All the other famous English gins no longer distil in their original sites; indeed most are made in multi-purpose distilleries, which also distil other spirits and even other gin brands."
So was McGee mistaken? His specific complaint was that the gin was being bottled in America. Does that make such a big difference? I don't know. I like the gin because it's lighter on the juniper than Bombay, Tanqueray or Seagram's. It has a crisper flavor. But then I haven't had the gin bottled before 1974 to compare.


[The cover art for The Dreadful Lemon Sky above is by the great pulp illustrator Robert McGinnis, who also did most of the James Bond film posters. His most famous art maybe the poster for Breakfast at Tiffany's.]

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