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On Drinking Well

I got this press release from Diageo and Zagat last week and was only able to glance at it because of some article deadlines, and I also saw that Stan Hieronymus wrote about this over at Appellation Beer. The two companies have launched a new website, Drinkwell, that uses the Zagat survey format but for restaurants serving drinks.

From the press release:

In an innovative industry collaboration, Diageo, the world’s leading premium drinks business with hallmark brands including Smirnoff, Guinness, Johnnie Walker, Baileys, J&B, Cuervo, Captain Morgan and Tanqueray, announced today that it has joined with Zagat Survey, the world’s leading provider of consumer survey-based content, to launch drinkwell(TM) (, the first online resource guide to restaurants that are dedicated to serving the highest quality drinks and drink service.

“When people go out they often start the evening with cocktails, and that experience — good or bad — can set the mood for the entire night,” said Steve Wallet, vice president of Channel Marketing for Diageo. “At Diageo our leadership and knowledge in the area of spirits, beer and wine is second to none. drinkwell(TM) combines Diageo’s expertise with Zagat’s, and the industry’s foremost mixologists, to create a one-of-a-kind online resource for consumers seeking a complete quality dining and drinks experience.”

Visitors to will have free access to the ratings that Zagat surveyors have given to the hundreds of drinkwell(TM) establishments across the country, based on the quality of drinks, service, atmosphere and cost.

“Eating is only one part of the consumer experience when visiting a restaurant,” said Tim Zagat, Co-chair and CEO of Zagat Survey. “The creation of drinkwell(TM) gives consumers a new way to make informed decisions about where to find the best drinks and service.”

drinkwell(TM) has partnered with several world-renowned beverage experts including Dale DeGroff, Steve Olson, Paul Pacult, Dave Wondrich and Doug Frost, to develop the drinkwell(TM) Academy Staff Training Program for participating establishments. drinkwell(TM) — accredited establishments are identified by a special black and brushed metal plaque, in the same way the burgundy Zagat Survey decal denotes a Zagat-rated restaurant.

That’s all well and good, but apparently by “world-renowned beverage experts” they mean people who know wine and spirits but precious little about beer. You’d think that would not be the case given that Diageo also owns the Guinness brand, but since acquiring it they’ve essentially squandered away all its respectability. I’ve never been entirely sure why Diageo bought Guinness, because they seem to have little feeling for the original Irish Stout, its history or even its customers. They’ve insulted consumers everywhere with such abominations as the widget-bottle, Red Guinness and Extra Cold Guinness.

Stan knows a lot of the initial fifteen cities that Drinkwell launched with better than I do and he notes that the Chicago listings are missing some of the Windy City’s best beer destinations. His nutshell take on Drinkwell?

The good news is it free. The bad news is there’s dang little beer.

Their listings for my local area include not just San Francisco but the entire Bay Area. Only 61 places are listed — I know they’re just getting started but that still feels like an infinitesimally small number — not one has much of a beer selection, though the cynic in me is willing to bet they all carry Guinness. In California, there are two main types of restaurant alcohol licenses, a Type 41 allows a restaurant to carry just beer and wine and a Type 47 allows beer, wine and spirits. There are others, of course, but for discussion purposes that’s the main difference: just beer and wine or both with spirits, too. All 61 of the Drinkwell’s Bay Area listings are “full bar” places, meaning they sell all three kinds of alcohol.

It would take forever to list what’s missing here but what’s wrong will take considerably less time. It’s not a bad idea to rate drinks selection, service, and the like but “drinks” should really mean all of the drinks, not just cocktail-friendly places. There’s more than a whiff of this being a self-serving promotion by Diageo to sell more of its spirits portfolio, which ends up cheapening Zagat, in my opinion.

Zagat bills itself as “the world’s leading provider of consumer survey based content about where to eat, drink, stay and play. With more than 300,000 surveyors worldwide, Zagat Survey rates and reviews restaurants, hotels, nightlife, movies, music, golf, shopping and a range of other entertainment categories and is lauded as the “most up-to-date,” “comprehensive” and “reliable” guide ever published.” Maybe, but I can’t help but thinking pairing with Diageo makes them much less independent. This “partnership” probably means Zagat is trading on their unbiased reputation for a large fee from Diageo to increase their business. That may be untraditional or even cutting-edge but it still smacks of old-fashioned crass advertising and marketing. Plus, there’s no reason I can think of why Zagat couldn’t include drinks information as a part of its regular survey information without Diageo’s biased assistance. If, as Tim Zagat says in the press release, “[e]ating is only one part of the consumer experience when visiting a restaurant,” why didn’t he conclude they should have added that to their current survey model? Why would they need to “partner” with a company that has such an obvious agenda?

But the real tragedy is beer is once again ignored as a part of a fine dining experience. It may be that many or even most of the 300,000 Zagat restaurant reviewers are biased with regard to their perceptions of beer, wine and spirits and it seems Diageo’s rationale for doing this is perfectly transparent: it’s to increase their business. Zagat had an opportunity to make their ratings more complete and with a broader appeal, including people looking for good beer in a restaurant setting along with wine and spirits. Instead it appears they decided to take the money and run. Maybe I’m overreacting as I’m so often accused and things will improve with time, but with Diageo driving the bus, so to speak, I can’t see how they’ll ever include good beer destinations as one of their stops. And that makes Zagat ultimately less useful to me, and perhaps many other lovers of great beer. In the end, the experience of eating and “drinking well” should be about all of the available choices to enhance that culinary adventure.


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