by Jack Robertiello
Yes, the Scots’ standard bearer, blended whisky, has continued to under-perform during a decade of exceptional spirits growth. And yes, most popularly priced brands have continued to lose share, showing few signs of life. But, hints of a stronger, more lucrative business continue to emerge, as both established and new customers show a willingness to spend more for higher quality products.
“Blended whisky is a difficult category, since consumers in the 1980s and 1990s grew enamored of vodka,” says Gerry Ruvo, CEO of Skyy Spirits, importer of Cutty Sark and four single malts. “The rite of passage was always Scotch – Cutty, J&B and Dewar’s–and then all of a sudden it was Absolut.”
Larry Neuringer, brand director of Chivas Regal and Ballantine at Pernod Ricard also sees the challenges facing blended whisky. “The overall large blended whisky category has been negatively impacted by years and years of poor recruitment efforts,” he says. Neuringer points out that brands investing in new customers reap dividends.
Scotch marketers agree. Premium, super-premium and ultra-premiums, blended and single malt, are growing internationally at a healthy rate, and the U.S. market has fueled that growth. Value brands will continue to sink, but consumers have wholeheartedly accepted pricey brand extensions, making a whole new target market within reach. Johnnie Walker Black, which surged past less expensive Johnnie Walker Red a few years ago to become the second largest selling blend here, is a prime example. “We have been very consistent in our approach of activities to support the strength of the Johnnie Walker trademark and to contemporize the brand, making it relevant to today’s consumer,” says Bill Topf, vice president of the Johnnie Walker brands for Diageo. Topf believes focusing on the “Keep Walking” campaign has helped to identify Johnnie Walker as more than just a Scotch brand. Johnnie Walker Black benefits as ultra– premium Johnnie Walker Blue (made from very rare malts), Johnnie Walker Gold (made from malts at least 18 years old) and pure malt Johnnie Walker Green make an impact, enhancing brand image, giving loyal customers another choice and providing a path into Scotch for new consumers, notes Topf.
Another blended whisky that is relatively new to the scene but has already gained a loyal following, is McIvor Finest Scotch Whisky from BerNiko LLC. “The last four years have seen amazing growth for McIvor,” says Alberto Beraha, Berniko’s vice president. “What makes us unique is our blend. Only the finest whiskies are selected, and that has been our key to success. With our customers and the end consumer sure that McIvor has the best quality in the lower tier whisky category, it was the perfect time to add the new lines.” The McIvor 12 Year Old and McIvor 17 Year Old, which features Highland whiskies blended at the time of distillation, are launching nationwide this month, to further expand McIvor’s share and distribution. “I foresee that single malts will continue to grow strong, but blended scotches will always have a niche for everyday whisky consumers,” Beraha continues.
PUSHING THE BRAND IN MORE PROFITABLE DIRECTIONS
Other blended whisky makers have worked this same field, like behemoth Dewar’s White Label, which introduced super Dewar’s 12 Year Old and Dewar’s Signature in the past few years. “When you extend a brand you want it from a brand management standpoint to grow your business and cast a bigger quality halo on your brand,” says Fannie Young, Dewar’s brand director. While the two blends have experienced respectable growth, they haven’t created anything like the Walker impact–yet. “Young consumers are all about luxury brands and that’s where our higher marques are positioned, so we need to do that harder,” she says.
White Label’s performance is already impressive; at just under 1.4 million cases, it towers above other brands, already up 4.3% year to date through July, says Young. This has encouraged brand owner Bacardi to invest $250 million in Dewar’s production, creating new supply facilities, warehouses and bottling lines in Scotland.
Leveraging brand extensions is the way to growth for Chivas Regal, says Neuringer. Marketers will concentrate on personal contact with consumers on-premise through Chivas 18 Year Old, which he believes has received insufficient support although it grew 21% over the last 12 months. “At $60-$70 a bottle, that’s astonishing, given recessionary pressures. Now we’re going to push it hard on-premise. Brands are built on-premise but not overnight; it takes some discipline and some perserverance,” explains Neuringer.
THE PROOF IS IN THE TASTE
Sampling is key at all levels. Charles Ho, VP of Scotch whiskies, Rémy Cointreau, importer of The Macallan, Highland Park and blend Famous Grouse, says there’s an advantage when trying to sell a blend made with such well-respected malts. “We know that the product is great, so what we need to do is get more consumers to taste the spirit.”
But blended whisky’s mature market means there is sensitivity concerning price, says Caspar MacRae, group marketing director for Scotches, at William Grant & Sons: “I think the cause of our success has been providing a strong value proposition based on the fact that the brands are highly authentic and high quality, and we’re presenting them to customers at a reasonable price.” Grant’s two blends, Grant’s and Clan MacGregor, both are doing well, he says.
Ruvo, who says Cutty Sark will focus its efforts on major urban areas, believes consumers are starting to move towards robust flavors, and cocktails could help. Skyy put Cutty Sark into a 3,000 account cocktail program this summer, built around the movie Sex and the City; four cocktails featuring Skyy were named after female characters, while the “Mr. Big” was made with Cutty Sark.
“Blended Scotch needs to go on drink lists. I think the way they have got to go is promote them to consumers and create really interesting drinks in the on-premise to get them to sample these whiskies,” Ruvo says.
And that’s not true only for blends; Charlotte Voisey of William Grant & Sons developed the Sweet Solera cocktail for NYC bar Shorty’s 32. “Scotch cocktails like that can attract new consumers to the category,” says Caspar.
However marketers build blended whiskies, single malts provide the action today; the sub-category has grown almost 33% since 2002. “It’s a good place for malts,” says Robin Coupar, Glenrothes brand manager for the U.S. “We make up about 11% of the total category in volume but much more in terms of value, since we tend to be higher priced.”
Single malts tend to attract consumers interested in quality, traditional authenticity and a diversity and complexity of flavor profiles.
Take The Glenlivet, now at more than 250 million cases and growing at a rapid clip. The brand offers six iterations, including The Glenlivet XXV. Glenlivet’s strength is the main reason single malts topped one million cases in the U.S. says Ron Zussman, brand director, The Glenlivet. The expressions – 12 Year Old, 15 Year Old French Oak, Nadurra 16 Year Old Cask Strength, 18 Year Old, 21 Year Old – have helped keep the brand on top. “Glenlivet is the single malt that started it all, and its classic floral, light and easy flavors show through in the various expressions,” Zussman says.
A Scotch drinker’s curiosity to try different expressions has always helped Diageo, whose malts – Oban, Lagavullin and others – are available in limited volume. But Diageo has never had a brand that competes with category leaders Glenlivet and Glenfiddch. Until now that is, as the company introduced the Singleton of Glendullan to compete as a high volume, accessible price point malt, says Chris Parsons, VP of reserve brands for Diageo. Diageo this year will also release limited editions from Oban, Lagavulin, Talisker and defunct distilleries Brora and Port Ellen. “It’s nice to be able to provide variation to our consumers and keep the interest high in the brands,” he says.
Single malt customers are very involved in the category and their favorite brands, says William Grant’s MacRae, who represents Glenfiddich and Balvenie, and engaging with them is crucial. “Single malts continue to reward consumers’ exploration over a lifetime; they are not something they grow out of,” adds MacRae.
To feed that exploration, Balvenie’s malt master David Stewart has crafted two new expressions — The Balvenie Signature, a 12 year old aged in first–fill bourbon barrels, refill casks and sherry butts, and The Balvenie Rum Cask 17 Year Old. Further, Balvenie has named blogger “Dr. Whisky” Sam Simmons its first brand ambassador.
William Grant & Sons also intends to focus on-premise a bit more, launching a series of Glenfiddich-paired dinners at national steakhouse restaurants, starting with 18 this fall at The Palm.
Other single malts have had great success with such brand extensions: the Macallan creatively solved a sherry cask crisis by introducing the Fine Oak range a few years ago, effectively doubling the number of expressions it offered. But in a recent campaign to re-imagine Glenmorangie, the brand that arguably created the trend of experimental wood finishes, owner Möet Hennessy USA trimmed expressions to four, reformulated each whisky and repositioned and repackaged the brands. Sometimes, it seems, more is less.
Ruvo and others say that shows and events focusing on sampling and education is key to catching consumer interest, which he’ll need to do now that Skyy’s malts include full-flavored brands like Bowmore, Glenrothes and Auchentoshen, as well as Japanese single malt Yamazaki. It’s a strategy followed to good effect by niche brands like Compass Box and others, who have found that the Scotch drinker is endlessly curious, willing to explore and not tradition-bound in the least; sounds like a customer worth having.
NEWCOMERS KEEP THE CATEGORY INTERESTING
The iconic brands might have their stronghold on the malt market, but new and unknown expressions keep making their U.S. debut.
Beam Global this year launched Ardmore Traditional Cask, the first widely available single malt from the Ardmore distillery. The only Highland malt to be 100% peated since its inception, Ardmore is first matured in ex-bourbon barrels, then in handmade 110 liter quarter casks. Only 3,000 cases of Ardmore were introduced into the U.S.
Skyy Spirits introduced Cutty Sark Blended Malt Scotch Whisky in select U.S. markets, a pure malt made from a marriage of single malts offering classic Speyside character. Among the malts used by John Ramsay, Master Blender for Cutty Sark, are Highland Park, The Glenrothes and The Macallan.
Last fall, Pernod Ricard launched Chivas 25 Year Old, what was really the return of the original version of the brand created for the American market in 1909. Produced in limited quantities (only 2500 cases made it to the U.S. at first) Chivas Regal 25 Year Old is a blend of Speyside malt and grain whiskies aged for at least 25 years.
Benromach Organic is the first bottled single malt to be certified by the Soil Association of the U.K. and the first Organic Single Malt to be released in the U.S.
Boutique Compass Box has launched “Hedonism Maximus,” a reserve of the brand’s 100% grain whisky “Hedonism.” Using a blend of 42 year old whisky from Invergordon in the northern Highlands with 29 year old whisky distilled at Cameron Bridge, Scotland’s oldest continuously operating distillery.
Compass Box also released a limited version of its best selling “The Peat Monster” in celebration of its 5th anniversary. “The Peat Monster Reserve Edition” offers a peatier, richer and higher-strength version of the classic bottling.
Diageo’s upcoming limited releases include Oban 18-Year-Old, available exclusively in the U.S. beginning this fall, with only 7,716 bottles of the special bottling. Oban The Distillers Edition has been double-matured in Montilla Fino sherry wood casks and was distilled in 1993 while Lagavulin The Distillers Edition hails from Islay, and was distilled in 1992 and extra aged in Pedro Ximenez sherry wood casks. The Talisker distillery is located off the rugged northwest coast of Scotland, the only one there. Distilled in 1995 and double-matured in Amoroso Sherry casks, the Distillers Edition is the first to be released by Talisker in the United States since 2004. Talisker 30-year-old Rare Edition is one of the oldest and rarest expression from the Talisker distillery. Brora 25-Year-Old Rare Edition hailing from a “ghost distillery” on the Sutherland coast which closed in 1983, any release from Brora extremely exclusive. An allotment of 456 bottles of the 25-year-old Rare Edition will be available in the U.S. Also closed in 1983, releases from the Port Ellen “ghost distillery” are extremely rare, and only 600 bottles of the Port Ellen 29-year-old Rare Edition will be available in the U.S.
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