Making whiskey and designing innovative products are very similar processes

I present to you: The Bourbon Process of Innovation and Product Design

After another tour at the Tennessee Stillhouse (where Chattanooga Whiskey is made), it hit me: the process to make whiskey is very similar, metaphorically, as the process to innovate, come up with new products users will love, design them, and iterate. Let’s dive in:

Malt the grain

Whether you’re iterating on an existing product, or coming up with an entirely new one, the grain represents all of the inputs:

  • What problems do people currently experience that are worth solving?
  • How do they think about these problems?
  • What is it they want to achieve?
  • Is there a subject matter at hand that is philosophically inconsistent (with Mail Pilot, it was: the way we think about our email doesn’t match how email clients actually work)?

The malting process involves tricking the grain to germinate, then stopping the process so that there are lots of starches present that will be converted into sugars (which will later be converted into alcohol).

For product design, we want to do the same thing: get lots of people and conversations to just sprout — we want those buds that we can take and convert into something useful. And just like stopping germination before a sprout grows, we don’t want to have our conversations at this stage grow beyond these buds; without going through the full process with more than the one input, the result would be as different as a new barley plant is from a fine bourbon.

Gather as many inputs as you can. Do your own research, and have lots of conversations about the problems people need solved in their lives, or the potential that exists.

Grind the grain

Once we have taken all of the problems people experience, user’s thoughts, concepts and inconsistencies, etc., we grind it down to its essence. We find its why.

For example, when coming up with Mail Pilot, I was trying to figure out what email was to us, philosophically (so I could find the mismatch between how we think about it, and how it actually works). This meant grinding the concept down to its essence (I had eventually decided its essence was that email is just messages that require some sort of further action — a key distinction to design the perfect email client for people to interact with).

You might be iterating on an existing product, taking various thoughts, complaints, or reasons for some down metric, and grinding these things down to their essence so you can do something with what you have.

You’re taking the inputs from the last stage and grinding them down to what’s important; what’s needed for the rest of the process.

Mash (or brew)

During mashing, the ground malt is boiled in water to convert the starches to sugars, and to extract the soluble sugars into the water, which is now ‘wort’.

Just like in mashing, this is the stage where you synthesize everything you have together. Taking just what you ground down to before, you can look for patterns and inconsistencies. How do they go together? What do they shape together? What sticks out at you as a valuable area that needs exploration?

Pull from the grist any useful sugars that you find, and leave the rest behind.

It’s in this stage that we convert the data points and information we ground down to in the last into potentials for brainstorming. We pull the good, and leave anything that doesn’t serve us behind.

Ferment

Once the wort is cooled and yeast is added, fermentation begins. This is the process of converting sugars into alcohol and CO2. You know fermentation is going well when you start to see a lot of activity: bubbles rise to the surface, the contents tend to swirl around, and they emit quite a lot of heat.

We’ve got all of our sugars in our wort from the last step, and now: we ideate like crazy. We’ll turn all of that sugar into the good stuff: great ideas.

Brainstorm. What could we do? What’s possible? How could we serve an observed mismatch? How do we reconcile a certain need with what is available? What can we do to solve the root problem that we observed causing users some struggle?

It’s in this step that we convert the potential we found in the last step into many, many ideas. Some are great, some are just good. No idea is a bad idea when brainstorming.

Distill

Now we have fermented wort, known as distiller’s beer (because this very closely resembles beer at this stage). The alcohol content might be around 10%, but we want it to be much higher than that, so we essentially boil the alcohol off (water has a higher boiling point that alcohol, allowing us to easily separate the two), and condense it back into liquid, leaving us with something closer to 70% alcohol by volume.

This is where we pull out just the best, purest ideas and leave the chaff behind. Some of what we leave behind might be good elsewhere (just like the spent grain in whiskey making is great as farm animal feed). But for the most part, we really want to purify.

Purifying and simplifying is painful but necessary after a great brainstorm. You end up with a lot of incredible material, ideas, and perceived opportunities. But unless you distill it down before executing, there will be too much to execute elegantly.

That’s not to say you’re throwing stuff away for forever. At a distillery, you might end up making tons of different recipes, and barrel them into smaller barrels so you can find out which are the best ones sooner. With products, it’s the same thing: we figure out how to go lean, test out many of our ideas, and then go big on the ones that turned out as good as or even better than we had hoped.

In this step, we distill our many ideas we came up with down to only the best.

A new rickhouse at Jim Beam for aging barrels of whiskey

Barrel & age

Barrels are stored in rick houses which are not climate-controlled, except by mother nature. The barrels experience temperature swings every day and every season for years, causing the whiskey to move in and out of the wood (which has been charred, creating a natural filter much like your charcoal water filter at home).

After all of this work coming up with the ideas you want to execute on, based on the input you gathered, it’s easy for newcomers to believe all you have to do now is build your product and sell it. But this is where the whiskey making metaphor becomes extremely apt.

For years, you’ll continue to purify your idea, move it in and out of your processes for iteration that, much like the charred oak barrels, give it a lot more color and flavor. You’ll discover things you never expected. Product design is not done when development begins; it has only just begun.

Just as a “straight” whiskey can only be called such after 2 years of aging, we were still iterating hard and discovering all kinds of new things 2 years after beginning to sell Mail Pilot publicly.

We’re lucky, in digital product design, that we can try out the product as it ages. Master distillers aren’t so lucky. They have some tricks here and there, but for the most part, their business requires a massive investment down, then waiting for nature to take its course. Beyond appreciating how iterative, agile, and fast we can be — we ought to leverage that in every way possible.

In this stage, we iterate — often for years — as we test the product, refine it, and repeat.

Branding & packaging

When there’s so many options on the shelf, whiskey makers need to stand out. If you ever get the awesome opportunity to tour Maker’s Mark, you’ll see their brand all throughout the campus: red and black buildings, everything handcrafted, bottle shapes in between the shutters.

They even still use their old school press to make each and every label. Each bottle is hand-labeled, and hand-dipped in their signature red wax, just like their very first bottle. On the shelf, you can see all this care that was taken back in Kentucky and brought to you.

Their specialty bottles feature different wax to highlight their origin and culture, and the things they care about.

Make your own whiskey

Hobbies unrelated to digital product design can unlock your thoughts on the process. Personally, I love woodworking and home brewing. Each have made me a better product designer.

While home distilling is illegal most places, you can go through the process on this awesome minisite that Buffalo Trace put together to make your perfect bourbon (they’ll even tell you which bourbon comes closest to what you made — mine was Blanton’s, the original single barrel, and a fantastic bourbon).

Knowing the process can expand your thinking on what we do as digital product designers. Admittedly, most of this article is just for fun, but coming at things from other perspectives can help us consider better processes for ourselves. And ultimately the best process, repeated and iterated on, will eventually birth the best products.

Perfecting your process might just be more important than perfecting your product.

Thanks for tuning in, and if you wouldn’t mind, hit that 💚 button below if you enjoyed the article so others can see it too. And don’t forget to follow me to catch more articles I publish in the future!

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