Single Malt Recommendation App

Life is too short to drink whisky you don’t like.

How often have you found yourself in a duty free shop in an airport, wondering which whisky to take back home? Unless you are a pro at this already, you might want something you haven’t tried before, but don’t want to end up buying something you may not like. The names are all grand, as Scottish names usually are. The region might offer some clue, but not so much.

So I started on this work a few years back, when I first discovered this whisky database. I had come up with a set of tables to recommend what whisky is similar to what, and which single malts are the “most unique”. Based on this, I discovered that I might like Ardbeg. And I ended up absolutely loving it.

And ever since, I’ve carried a couple of tables in my Evernote to make sure I have some recommendations handy when I’m at a whisky shop and need to make a decision. But then the tables are not user friendly, and don’t typically tell you what you should buy, and what your next choice should be and so on .

To make things more user-friendly, I have built this app where all you need to enter is your favourite set of single malts, and it gives you a list of other single malts that you might like.

The data set is the same. I once again use cosine similarity to find the similarity of different whiskies. Except that this time I take the average of your favourite whiskies, and then look for the whiskies that are closest to that.

In terms of technologies, I’ve used this R package called Shiny to build the app. It took not more than half an hour of programming effort to build, and most of that was in actually building the logic, not the UI stuff.

So take it for a spin, and let me know what you think.

 

Caffeine kick

Until June or July this year, I firmly believed that well-made South Indian filter coffee was the best form of coffee ever. This belief possibly had to do with my conditioning, having been exposed this to this coffee form from an extremely early age, and the belief sustained even in the face of pretty excellent coffees from quite a few artisanal “Aussie style” cafes here in London.

Then, around then, I decided to embark on “intermittent fasting”, which meant no calorie consumption from 8 in the night to the next noon (each day). The diet permitted me to drink coffee or tea in the mornings as long as no milk or sugar was added to it, and that presented a problem.

For South Indian filter coffee can’t be drunk black. The addition of the chicory, which slows down the pace through which water/steam filters through the beans in order to maximise flavour, adds its own flavour, which when unmasked by milk can be pretty revolting. Though I must mention that chicory powder is sold as a separate “health drink” here in the UK (maybe it needs to be marketed such because its taste is most revolting).

That I couldn’t add milk to my coffee meant that I needed to explore other ways of making good black coffee. Counter top space (or the lack of it) ruled out contraptions such as an espresso machine or even a Nespresso machine. There was an old Braun “coffee maker” (which my mother-in-law reportedly procured two decades ago) at home, but that dished out pretty bad coffee (which only Americans might appreciate).

And so I started exploring, asking around coffee-geek friends (not to be confused with the cafe of a similar name in Victoria). The French Press was quickly ruled out on account of taste. I strongly considered the Aeropress and the Hario V60, and in the spirit of “try before you buy” or even “learn before you buy”, I asked baristas at my favourite local artisanal cafe to show me how to brew in these methods.

I quite liked the output of both methods, but found the aeropress apparatus a bit cumbersome and hard to clean (one reason I didn’t want to use my trusty Bialetti Moka Pot to make non-South Indian coffee as well). The V60 on the other hand offered simplicity of making process as well as extreme ease of cleaning. So quickly after I had tried, I had bought the pourover cup from Amazon, and a bag of beans from Electric (they ground it for me) and I was ready to go.

I’ve since fallen in love with this form of coffee, though when I go to a cafe I order an espresso-based drink (Cortado/Piccolo or Flat White depending on the cafe). And though I gave up on intermittent fasting a month and half after I started it, I continue to make this (I’m sipping on one such cup as I type this). And this is because of the caffeine kick.

I think I had this realisation for the first time back when I was still fasting – I drank a cup of pourover coffee just before I hit the gym (on an otherwise empty stomach), and I was astounded by my own energy levels that day. And I have since tested this in several other situations – before meetings, while doing an important piece of work or simply to stay awake. The caffeine kick from pourover coffee is simply unparalleled compared to any other kind of coffee I’ve had (though espresso-based coffees in cafes come very close).

South Indian filter coffee optimises for flavour at the cost of the caffeine. The decoction is frequently stored for a long time, even overnight. The large amount of milk added means that a given amount of beans can be used to make several more cups. And the chicory addition means that brewing is slower and more flavour gets extracted from the beans, though it’s unlikely that the amount of caffeine extracted is proportionally large.

And all this together means you get incredibly tasty coffee, but not something you can get that much of a caffeine kick out of. And that is possibly why we are conditioned to drinking so many cups of coffee a day – you need so many cups to get the level of caffeine your body “needs” to function.

And this explains why South Indian filter coffee in the evenings has never interfered with my sleep, buy any coffee bought in a good cafe after 5pm has invariably led to sleepless nights!

Do you have anything else to add to this theory?

PS: The first time I made pourover coffee, I used Indian beans from Chickmaglur (that I bought here in the UK), so it’s not to do with the beans. It’s the extraction method.

Speaking of yellow

Last night, we needed to distract the daughter from the play-doh she was playing with so that she could have dinner. So I set up a diversionary tactic by feeding her M&Ms while her mother hurriedly put away the play-doh.

Soon we figured we needed a diversionary tactic from the diversionary tactic, for the daughter wanted to continuously eat M&Ms rather than have dinner. I tried being the “bad dad” by just refusing to give her any more M&Ms but that didn’t work. So another diversion was set up where the put on TV, and in that little moment of distraction, I put away the yellow packet of M&Ms behind some boxes in its shelf.

Evidently, it wasn’t enough of a distraction, as the daughter quickly remembered the M&Ms and started asking for it. I told her it’s “gone” (a word she uses to describe my aunt¬†who passed away recently), but she wouldn’t believe it. Soon she demanded to inspect the shelf by herself.

Her mother held her high, and she surveyed all three shelves in the cupboard. I hadn’t done a particularly great job of hiding the M&M packet, but thankfully she didn’t spot the yellow top of the packet from behind the masala box.

Instead, her eyes went up to the top shelf of the same cupboard where there was the only visible yellow thing – a bright yellow packet of coffee powder (from Electric Coffee). She demanded to inspect it.

Both of us told her it was coffee powder, but she simply wouldn’t listen. I opened the packet to make her smell it, and see the brown powder inside (we get our coffee ground at the shop since we don’t have a grinder at home, else it’s likely she might have mistaken a bean for a brown M&M). She still wasn’t convinced.

She put her hand right in and pulled out a tiny fistful of coffee powder, which she proceeded to ingest. Soon enough, she was making funny faces, though to her credit she ate all the coffee. It seems the high was enough to make her forget the M&Ms. And suddenly she started running around well-at-a-faster-rate. Fast enough to go bang her head to the wall a minute later – I suspect the caffeine had begun to act.

By the time she had finished crying and recovering from the head-bang, she was ready to belt curd-rice with lime pickle.

And if you want to ask, she fell asleep an hour later. Unlike us oldies, caffeine doesn’t seem to interfere with her sleep!

PS: The title of this post is a dedication to Sanjeev Naik, for reasons that cannot be described here.

We’ll miss sushi

One food item that my daughter and I will really miss when we move back to India is sushi. It is not that it is not available in Bangalore – restaurants such as Matsuri and Harima make excellent quality sushi, just that the transaction cost of procuring it will be far higher.

I grew up vegetarian, and didn’t eat meat until I was twenty eight. The decision to try meat was ad hoc – at a restaurant in Monastiraki square in Athens, the meat looked fantastic and the vegetables looked sad. And I decided that if I were losing my religion, I would lose it all the way and started my meat-eating career by eating beef souvlaki.

It wasn’t until a year later that I tasted fish, though – from childhood the smell of fish had put me off. As it happened, I first ate fish at a restaurant in Karwar, en route to Goa. Then, a consulting project in Mumbai happened, with a fish-loving client who took me to the best fish restaurants in that city (sometime during this time, I discovered I’m allergic to prawns).

It would take another year or two before I would have raw fish, though, in the form of sushi and sashimi. The first time was a trip to Matsuri, where my wife was treating me. I quickly grew fond of it, and would have a Japanese meal (at either Harima or Matsuri) at least once in six months (these are easily the best and most authentic Japanese restaurants in Bangalore. Edo is good but overpriced).

My love for sushi really took off during the three months I spent in Barcelona in 2016. That city has loads of sushi shops (it helped we were living in a dense district), mostly run by Korean immigrants. it is not too expensive either, which meant I would have it once a week at least (I might have eaten more often, but the wife was pregnant then, and hence off raw fish).

London doesn’t have the same density of sushi shops as Barcelona, but there are some chains that make pretty good sushi (Wasabi and Itsu, though I prefer the latter). Like other things London, it is not cheap, but we end up eating it reasonably often (it helps that the daughter loves sushi as well, though she only eats salmon nigiri – which also happens to be my favourite kind of sushi).

While craving sushi and planning a sushi run for dinner earlier this evening (finally we ended up eating at a Korean restaurant), it hit me that I won’t be able to have sushi so regularly in Bangalore. I started wondering what it would take for the likes of Freshmenu to be offering sushi on their menu. And I remembered a chapter in my book on specialty food.

The problem with low demand products is that the volatility of demand is high relative to the average demand. This means that for a retailer to stock items with low demand, either the margin needs to be high, or the inventory levels will be so low that customers might be disappointed rather often – neither of which is sustainable.

Making matters worse is the fact that fresh fish is an integral part of sushi, and it has an incredibly short shelf life. So unless demand can be aggregated to a high level (which Harima and Matsuri do, by being located in the middle of town and especially catering to the Japanese population in the city. In fact, I’m told the Chancery (where Matsuri is located) is the hotel of choice for Japanese visitors to Bangalore), it is not feasible to run a sushi restaurant in Bangalore.

Oh, and in the same chapter in the book, I discuss why people like to live with other people like themselves – others demanding the same thing you demand is the only way you can ensure that there is supply to meet your demand.

Linearity of loyalty rewards

So I’ve taken to working a lot in cafes nowadays. This is driven by both demand and supply. On the one hand I’ve gotten so used to working for my current primary client from home that I’m unable to think about other work when I’m at home – so stepping away helps.

Also on the demand side is the fact that this summer has been incredibly hot in London – houses here are built to trap in the heat, and any temperature greater than 25 degrees can become intolerable indoors. And given that cafes are largely air-conditioned, that’s an additional reason to step away from home to work.

On the supply side, there are three excellent hipster cafes within 200 meters of my house. Yes, I live in a suburb, though my house is very close to the suburb’s “town centre”. And all all these cafes make brilliant coffee, and provide a really nice ambience to work.

So far I’ve discovered that two of these cafes offer loyalty cards, and given my usage, neither makes a compelling reason to be loyal enough. The “problem” (in terms of retaining my loyalty) is that the loyalty card at both these places offer “linear rewards”.

Harris+Hoole has an app, which offers me a free drink for every six drinks purchased. Electric Coffee has a physical card, which offers me a free drink for every ten drinks I purchase. Now, the rate of reward here (I’m writing this sitting in Electric) is lower, which suggests that I’m better off patronising Harris+Hoole, but some variety doesn’t hurt – also I’m queasy about ending up and parking in the same cafe more than once in a day.

Even when I was writing my book in Barcelona two years ago, I would never go to the same cafe more than once a day, alternating between Sandwichez, Desitjos and this bar whose name I could never figure out.

Ordinarily, if I were a low intensity user, one drink for every N drinks ($math 6 \le N \le 10 $) would have been a sufficient reason to be loyal. Given my rate of consumption, though, and the fact that I go to both these cafes rather often, the incremental benefit in staying loyal to one of these cafes is fairly low. I can peacefully alternate knowing that sooner or later the accumulated ticks on my card or app are going to provide their reward.

It wasn’t like this last year, when I was briefly working for a company in London. Being extremely strapped for time then, I hardly patronised the cafes near home, and so the fact that I had an Electric card meant that I stayed loyal to it for an extended period of time. At my higher level of usage, though, the card simply is not enough!

In other words, rewards to a loyalty program need to be super-linear in order to retain a customer beyond a point. The current linear design can help drive loyalty among irregular customers, but regulars get indifferent. Making the regulars really loyal will require a higher degree (no pun intended ) of rewards.

PS: Given the amount of real estate hours I occupy for every coffee I buy, I’m not sure these cafes have that much of an incentive in keeping me loyal. That said, I occasionally reward them by buying lunch/snacks or even a second coffee on some visits.

PS2: As a consumer, loyalty card versus app doesn’t make that much of a difference – one clutters the wallet while the other clutters the phone (I don’t like to have that many apps). A business, though, should prefer the app, since that will allow them to know customers better. But there’s a higher fixed cost involved in that!

 

Beer Gardens

A lot of “local” pubs in London advertise that they have a “beer garden”, which is usually a grassy backyard that has a few outdoor tables. Having been to Munich, though, I would claim that these guys (in London) don’t know what they are doing, or at least that they can’t do it at scale.

On Friday evening we met a friend from IIT who has recently moved to Munich. Considering that there would be “a lot of kids” (three of his, along with Berry), he suggested that we meet at this particular “beer garden“, which was on the outskirts of town, a small distance away from the Isar river.

We got there following a ride in the metro followed by a tram ride and then a ten minute walk. And what a place it was. It was a massive ground in what appeared to be the middle of a forest, with one massive screen set up in one corner to show the Football World Cup. The entire ground was filled with long tables (eight of us (four adults and four kids) could easily fit in on one of the smaller tables), and on the edges there were play area for the kids.

The highlight of the place for us was that on a rare occasion of dining out, we didn’t need to worry that much about the kids. There were no high chairs for them to sit on, but we didn’t need to bother keeping them in one place, given the play areas and the gravel-lined ground that made it conducive for them to run around.

There was no table service for food and drink – there were a number of stalls at one end of the garden, where you could buy food and drink and get them to your table. After eating, it was your responsibility to clear your table and deposit used dishes at a central area (this was similar to other “self-service” restaurants in Munich). Food was mostly typical Bavarian fare, and it was pretty good. Once again, I overate.

In one sense, the upside of the lack of table service is that it eliminates the problem of how to split bills. Each person/ family can go get what they want, and eat and drink comfortably without the fear or under or over-ordering, and what others would think of them. And freed from both keeping kids in check and wondering about dynamics, and fueled by beer, you can focus on the conversation!

After dinner, we went down to the Isar river. It was already getting dark on our way down the wooded path to the river, but when we reached the river, it was suddenly bright again! Unfortunately it was getting dark, so we couldn’t spend too much time there, but it was a fantastic experience being there. It was already dark by the time we were walking back to the beer garden, and our path was lit up by fireflies!

We were wondering why this concept hasn’t travelled, not even till Britain. I mean, we have beer gardens here, but none at this scale. And most restaurants here rely on keeping kids tied in to their high chairs, colouring into the restaurant’s advertising material, rather than giving them a run about (which can potentially make them more hungry and make them eat more!).

One reason why beer gardens don’t travel is that they work well at scale, and that kind of real estate is hard to come by in most cities. Another is cultural – in India, for example, a lot of people don’t like drinking with their families, so places that combine drinking with kids’ play areas may be taboo. I can’t think of any more! Can you?

That said, when you visit Munich, don’t forget to go to one of the beer gardens (there are two massive ones in the middle of the city itself, in the middle of the English Gardens). It’s quite an experience!

The skill in making coffee

Perhaps for the first time ever in life, I’m working in an office without a coffee machine. I don’t mind that so much for two reasons – firstly, having to go down 27 floors and then pay explicitly for a coffee means that my coffee consumption has come down drastically. Secondly, there is a rather liquid market of coffee shops around my office.

As you might expected, there is one particular coffee shop close to my office that has become my favourite. And while walking back with my flat white on Wednesday afternoon, I noticed that the coffee tasted different to the flat white I’d had at the same place the same morning.

Assuming that even artisanal coffee shops like that one are unlikely to change beans midway through the day, I’m guessing that the difference in taste came down to the way the coffee was prepared. Flat white involves some effort on behalf of the barista – milk needs to be steamed and frothed and poured in a particular manner. And this can vary by barista.

So this got me thinking about whether making coffee is a skilled task. And this might explain the quality of coffee at various establishments in Bangalore.

When the coffee bar is equipped with an espresso machine, the job of making an espresso involves less of a skill since all that the barista needs to do is to weigh out the appropriate quantity of beans, press it down to the right extent and then pop it into the espresso maker (I know these tasks themselves involve some skill, but it’s less compared to using a South Indian style filter, for example).

When you want milk coffee, though, there is a dramatic increase in skill requirement. Even in South Indian coffee, the way you boil and froth the milk makes a huge difference in the taste of the coffee. In Brahmin’s Coffee Bar in Shankarpuram, Bangalore, for example, the barista explicitly adds a measure of milk foam to the top of the coffee lending it a special taste.

And when it comes to “European” coffee, with its multiple variants involving milk, the skill required to make good milk coffee is massive. How much milk do you add.. How hot do you steam it.. Whether you add foam or not.. These are all important decisions that the barista needs to make, and there is a lot of value a good barista can add to a cup of coffee.

One of my biggest cribs about chain coffee shops in India is that the taste of the coffee isn’t particularly good, with hot milk coffees being especially bad. Based on my analysis so far, I think this could be largely a result of unskilled (or semi-skilled) and inexperienced baristas – something these chains have had to employ in order to scale rapidly.

The cold coffees in these places are relatively much better since the process of making them can be “fighterised” – for each unit, add X shots of espresso to Y ml of milk, Z ice cubes and W spoons of sugar and blend. The only skill involved there is in getting the proportions right, and that can be easily taught, or looked up from a table.

The problem with hot coffees is that this process cannot be fighterised – the precise way in which you pour the milk so that there is a heart shape on top of the cappuccino foam, for example, is a skill that comes only with significant practice. Even the way in which the milk is to be foamed is not an easily teachable task.

And that is the problem with chain coffee shops in India – lack of skilled labour combined with the need to scale rapidly has meant that people have tried to use processes to compensate for skills, and in most parts of coffee making, that’s not necessarily a good way to go.