A new frontier

A new frontier

Jonathan McCormick looks at selling bourbon to the Scots.

Production | 16 Jan 2009 | Issue 77 | By Jonny McCormick

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When you contemplate the emerging markets for whisky, you’ll probably think of India or China, but a new frontier has opened up behind our backs,and it’s one of the tougher tasks in spirit sales. Indulge me the cultural insensitivities of an apt phrase “Selling snow to the Eskimos”,but there are those out there championing American whiskey under the noses of the Scottish distillers. Is this Scotland’s guilty pleasure?Marketing bourbon entails educating consumers that it doesn’t start and end with Jack Daniel’s. “Scotch whisky was out of favour because your Dad drank it, so you didn’t want to be seen drinking it,but bourbon is fast attracting a younger generation seeking a whisky alternative” explains Elaine Mitchell who promotes Four Roses bourbons as marketing manager for Glasgow-based EPM brands, “The guys at Jack Daniel’s have done a fantastic marketing job, but it’s a Tennessee whiskey,not a bourbon.We want to emphasise the quality of Four Roses and regard bourbon the way you would talk about the differences between single malts and blends.“Bourbon tends to be sweeter and that different taste profile means a lot of people who drink bourbon don’t drink single malts.Many of the consumers coming up to me at Whisky Live Glasgow were very knowledgeable about Scotch whisky, but had absolutely no idea about bourbon.The malt whisky drinker is educated to calculate the flavour difference between a 10 and 30 year old dram,depending on its distillery of origin and cask type.“With bourbons it’s a different ball game, and we emphasise aspects such as the separate mashbills and yeast strains”.Education is one thing,but the opportunity to sample or buy certain releases is another matter.Stuart Smith has charted the rising popularity of bourbons as the boom in single malts took hold in his role as retail manager for Royal Mile Whiskies in Edinburgh; “It was always relatively difficult to get a decent range of American whiskies, but during the past five years, people have become incredibly knowledgeable about whisky as a whole and want to try out different styles.The revolution for us has been the internet which has allowed us to explore and stock various other spirits. It’s just growing all the time.We’re beginning to see some of the whiskies like Sazerac that used to be very hard to get in Scotland, especially the older stuff.“While we’re principally a shop selling single malt whisky, customers don’t necessarily expect to see a shop selling 40 or 50 American whiskies and 100 different rums and are sometimes pleasantly surprised. We have our regular bourbon customers of course, but we’ll have customers walk into our shop and ask us to recommend a Scotch because their Dad drinks Jack Daniel’s. We’ll explain how they are quite different products and show them whiskies that might be a transition to single malts, but we’ll also add in a couple of good bourbons to encourage them to try different styles of American whiskies. Buffalo Trace, Woodford Reserve and Maker’s Mark are our bestsellers and when we get it,the standard Sazerac Rye is a big staff favourite.” What is the key to these products becoming successful here? “Many of these brands are simply more visible with better advertising and packaging, so for a browsing customer, products like Buffalo Trace, Elijah Craig, Evan Williams and Heaven Hill do very well.We’re benefitting from a positive marketing response, as it’s recognised that there is a market over here.“Production techniques need to be explained carefully but they’re doing a good job at the moment.How they simplify that further in terms of pushing the age differences, the maturation and the production remains to be seen.” The current economic turbulence ensures that price is also a factor. Stuart agrees; “With quicker maturation, you’ve got a well priced product that’s drinking very well at a much younger age than single malts.“There’s a standard Heaven Hill bottled at four years old that we sell for £15.95, which hits the spot in terms of a really good value American whiskey when we did a tasting recently. It’s a good sippin’ whiskey to serve to your single malt friends and hard to beat.“Personally, I love the rye style, that’s where I think the standard Sazerac is great. I almost prefer it to the 18 Years Old, but you’ve got to be in the right mood. It’s quite spicy, quite a forward feel to it, almost a prickliness to it.“After a good meal when you’ve got a lot on your palate, it just cuts through it beautifully. Trying it as a daytime dram can be overpowering. I’d like to stock Old Potrero, a 100 per cent rye whiskey from San Francisco which I think is really interesting but other ryes such as the Pikesville and Rittenhouse are both really good and at a price below most single malts.” Where the category struggles is the paucity of older whiskies. “Customers will see the range of 20 year old malts and wonder why there aren’t similar ranges within bourbon. That’s really looking at the bourbon equivalent of 40 year old malts.Although we’re seeing more premium products coming through such as the Rittenhouse 21 Years Old Single Barrel, the smaller batch Sazeracs and the Thomas Handy bottlings, there are only a few that break the £100 mark. George T Stagg is the main one for collectors and the older Van Winkles are very good such as the 23 Years Old, which is still relatively well balanced.Most of the small batch stuff just doesn’t make it across the pond.” Elaine Mitchell believes we’ll see a growth of entrepreneurial bourbon bars appearing in different cities that discerning connoisseurs should keep a keen eye on, “We’ve launched the Four Roses Small Batch and Four Roses Single Barrel in the UK, but around 100 bottles of the US limited edition Mariage and 120th Anniversary Barrel Strength releases will find their way into high-end bars over here.” If you’re seeking a little experimentation yourself, then pull up a stool at Chinaski’s, one such specialist bourbon bar in Glasgow named after the autobiographical character in Charles Bukowski’s writing. “People don’t know about it until they come in,” remarks general manager Alan MacGregor, “We’ve got to point them in the right direction as we serve around 70 different American whiskies. I tend to recommend Elmer T Lee because a lot of people haven’t tried that one before, but Elijah Craig, Sazerac, Evan Williams and George Dickel are all popular. You may be surprised that we only serve eight different single malts.We tend to leave that to everyone else, you know? It’s done elsewhere and we’re trying to do something a bit different”. Selling snow? No but a job that requires tenacity and passion driving innovative commerce. The brands need to create that great formula which will see the category grow and remain fit as the world changes yet complementing the thirst for single malts. As Bukowski himself wrote “What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.”American whiskeyin Scottish bars
239 North Street,Glasgow,G3 7DL
Tel:+44 (0)141 221 0061
American whiskies:70
213 Union Street,Aberdeen,AB11 6BA
Tel:+44 (0)1224 573530
American whiskies:25
Byres Road,Glasgow,G12 8QX
Tel:+44 (0)141 357 6201
American whiskies:17
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