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Ab Ovo #25: The Supply Chain Comes for Mardi Gras
Last year's predictions of supply chain breakdowns have turned into this year's wine and spirits shortages
It’s a mere four weeks until Mardi Gras, and New Orleans is running short of Jameson. This might not make much difference to you personally, particularly if you have no plans to attend New Orleans Mardi Gras (sorry to hear it), and/or you don’t care for whiskey, or for Irish whiskey, or for Jameson specifically (again, condolences for whatever happened to you that made you this way).
But if you subscribe to this newsletter, it’s fair to assume you have at least a tangential interest in wine and spirits. You may even be the type to occasionally uncork a bottle of your favorite beverage to enjoy among friends. And if that’s the case, it doesn’t really matter if you’re a seeker of fine Burgundy wines and rare Armagnacs, or more a connoisseur of the Champagne of beers. Your fate is more closely intertwined with that of the fine folks slinging shots of Jame-o down at Pat O’Brien’s than you may think.
A couple of weeks ago, local New Orleans outlet Gambit ran the following headline that neatly captures the acute problem: “New Orleans Jameson supply dries up less than six weeks before Mardi Gras.” In the piece, local bar owners and beverage directors bemoan the difficulty of securing meaningful quantities of Jameson from their distributor, citing a shortage that has deepened over the past several months. This is a problem for bar owners and bartenders, not least because people love Jameson. It’s the best-selling Irish whiskey in the world, and owner Pernod Ricard makes literal tons of it (the company sold well more than 8 million nine-liter cases of Jameson in 2020). Relatively inexpensive and softer on the palate than similarly priced bourbons or ryes, it’s a people’s whiskey, one you can find just about anywhere and enjoy without too much thought or ceremony.
Given its popularity, a lack of Jameson creates headaches both for bar staffs who have to disappoint a large volume of customers and for customers who have to endure a large volume of disappointment. But dig a little deeper into this story and a larger problem emerges, one that has nothing to do with Mardi Gras, or New Orleans, or even Jameson specifically. A quick Google search will turn up plenty of other press reports — usually of the hyper-local variety — about bottle shops or bars in some part of Virginia or Michigan or wherever that’s having problems stocking shelves with certain popular spirits brands. Indeed, New Orleans bar managers cite shortages of Crown Royal, Maker’s Mark, and various types of tequila as well. Even Tullamore Dew — the Irish whiskey some bars have turned to in place of Jameson — is hard to come by.
Industry analysts and beverage companies have warned for months that specific brands or categories of beer, wines, and spirits could face supply scarcity in 2022 (we touched on this a few weeks ago when writing about “The Great Champagne Drought”). We’re now seeing some of these long-predicted supply chain breakdowns manifesting themselves. Just yesterday, spirits giant Diageo noted during a quarterly earnings call that pandemic demand has sapped its inventories of popular brands like Don Julio tequila, Crown Royal whiskey, and Lagavulin Scotch whisky. Meanwhile, it’s having trouble securing enough bottles to get its popular Bulleit bourbon onto shelves. To top it off, the company faces shortages of raw materials like aluminum and distilling grains that could threaten the production and/or packaging/shipping of other brands as well (Diageo also owns Guinness, FWIW).
It gets thornier still. While it’s possible for Diageo to ramp up production of something like its Tanqueray gin or Smirnoff vodka brands (neither of which require barrel aging), there’s only one way to make a bottle of eight-year-old Lagavulin whisky, and that’s to put it in a barrel for eight years. When whiskey is in short supply, producers can’t simply distill more product to meet current demand. New distillate has to age, in some cases for a decade or longer. Supply shortages can linger for years (see: Japanese whisky).
If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that many consumers will likely be forced outside their comfort zones when their go-to spirit (or wine, or beer) isn’t available at the airport bar. What’s bad for the most popular brands could prove a boon to less-recognized labels equally deserving of consumers’ attention. My advice to those for whom a pour of Jameson is ritual: Get familiar with the very pleasant Powers Gold Label Irish whiskey (it’s made by Pernod Ricard’s Irish Distillers at the very same place where they make Jameson). Or look to Northern Ireland and call for a Bushmills. In fact, have a Black Bush — Bushmills’ sherry cask-finished blend of malt and grain whiskies — and tell me it’s not a best-in-class whiskey for the price.
That, and get used to drinking more gin, I guess. See y’all next week.
Ab Ovo is a (somewhat) weekly newsletter produced by Clay Dillow (CD) and friends. If you enjoy our work, we’d love to have you as a subscriber (it’s free!). If you already subscribe, we appreciate the support — and don’t forget to forward this to a friend. Thanks for reading.
What We’re (Not) Reading
Speaking of New Orleans and supply chain breakdowns, those awaiting the much-anticipated (by me, anyhow) cookbook from Turkey & The Wolf — NOLA’s much-loved, much-Instagrammed Irish Channel sandwich destination — will have to wait a bit longer. Reason: The initial print run is at the bottom of the ocean. Chef Mason Hereford, T&tW founder and the book’s author, announced this week that due to maritime mishap the book’s February 15 release will be pushed back. I’ve included the post below, but TL;DR: Something referred to as a “container collapse” occurred aboard the ship ferrying the books across the Atlantic, and apparently some containers were lost overboard, including (probably) one containing lots and lots of Hereford’s books. Takeaway: The supply chain is truly f*cked, and a new release date is set for June.