Drink less but better

Drink less but better

Ian Buxton delves into the world of premium aged blends

Production | 01 Nov 2007 | Issue 67 | By Ian Buxton

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It’s been a mantra for the global spirits industry for some while – but at last it seems to be coming true, especially for Scotch whisky.Single malts have been growing at around 8.5 per cent per annum for the last decade, with the trend accelerating to around 12 per cent annually in the past five years.Premium blends are also on a roll, creating a sense of optimism and buoyancy in the whisky industry that has not been seen for many years.Behind this lies the increasing affluence of the so-called BRIC markets (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and growth in statusdriven consumption in Central and South America and South-East Asia. There the distilling industry has been delighted to find consumers who want only the best, and are prepared to pay for it.That’s the reason for the recent development of premium and superpremium offerings, especially those attached to an established and successful brand that’s seen to reflect well on the drinker.As David King, marketing director of Cutty Sark puts it: “The market splits into those who know and those who show.” Take Johnnie Walker, for example. You might have thought that JW Blue, with a typical United Kingdom specialist price of £150 a bottle, was enough for anyone.But in recent months Walker has launched its King George V Edition, at around three times that price. Based on whiskies and a blending style dating back to the 1930s, stocks are so limited and it’s consequently so rare that only a very few specially selected retailers will be permitted to carry it.Predictably, most of these will be in the Far East.But that seems modest when set against Johnnie Walker’s 1805 blend. Only 200 bottles were created and now they’ve seen fit to release limited quantities of 1805 into very restricted on-trade accounts at a staggering £1,000 a dram. I’ve been fortunate enough to taste this and it was very, very good – but £1,000 a dram?After all, that would buy you 43 bottles of Johnnie Walker Black, 20 of Gold or nearly seven bottles of Johnnie Walker Blue, and that’s hardly slumming it.But of course, it isn’t worth £1,000 a glass, it’s for people who want to pay £1,000 a glass. It’s a trophy.There’s so much money sloshing around the world, or so we are told, that all kinds of extraordinary products are being created just to hoover it up: £250,000 wristwatches; £1m motor cars; £10m space tourism trips.Because someone will buy them, they’re created.It’s the new world of ultimate luxury brands apparently, and everyone wants in on the act. Glasgow-based but Indian-owned Whyte & Mackay, for example, recently launched its new Rare and Prestige Collection in the following terms: “Seen as the ultimate masculine status symbol, these whiskies will be admired, purchased and gifted by the seasoned and well-travelled elite. It will not only be the whisky collector who will seek out these fine and incredibly rare bottles but true connoisseurs of the finest things that life has to offer.“The Whyte & Mackay 40 Year Old will appeal to those who demand the highest quality in all their pursuits, be it the watch they wear, the car they drive, the suits they have made to measure or the whisky they drink.” It may sound all a bit like an episode of Dynasty, but they’re not alone: Dewar’s has recently developed Signature, a direct nonaged luxury competitor to Walker Blue; Cutty Sark have launched an aged deluxe range that runs up to a 25 year old expression and from Diageo’s Canadian blended whisky Crown Royal comes Cask No. 16, aged in rare Cognac casks.Crown Royal Cask No. 16 is a blend of more than 50 different and individually aged whiskies that, once blended, completes its ageing in French oak casks from Limousin.It’s just another attempt to differentiate brands as the sector gets more crowded and, in this case at least, steal some of the clothes from single malt ‘finishes.’ Meanwhile, other long-established brands are breaking into new markets. Created in 1953 as a tribute to HM Queen Elizabeth II in her coronation year, Chivas Regal’s Royal Salute is claimed to be the world’s best selling 21 Year Old Scotch Whisky.Now it is backing China’s first ever international polo tournament. The Royal Salute Polo Gold Cup, an invitation-only tournament, promises to be a social and sporting spectacle unmatched anywhere in China, where Chivas Regal has been making giant strides in recent years.Han Zantingh, marketing controller for Royal Salute, explains: “Polo tournaments are exceptionally exclusive sporting and social events attracting high-ranking, powerful and wealthy individuals. The polo sponsorship is a strong platform for Royal Salute, giving us the chance to engage with high society Chinese to whom this luxury whisky with distinctive Royal connection really appeals.” Such activity makes it absolutely clear that, while the whisky is excellent, these premium aged expressions are often used as status symbols. One consequence is the development of brands unknown here in the UK, where the market is driven by multiple grocers with a mission to offer consistently lower prices and single malts have taken on much of the ‘showing off’ role.Take Windsor, for example, reportedly the best-selling super-premium Scotch whisky in the world and growing fast. There’s a 12 and 17 year old. Never heard of it? Not surprising, it’s largely confined to South Korea, the world’s fifth most valuable Scotch whisky market is dominated by premium and super-luxury brands, with not a supermarket cheapie in sight.No wonder the distillers love these markets and, as pressures increase on aged stocks, the implications are clear: after all, if you had the choice between selling your scarce product here in the UK, at a reduced profit, or for much higher margins abroad, would you really think about it for very long?Cutty Sark’s David King has a clear view on this: “Premium blends are a vital piece of our armoury. Smaller companies dealing with independent distributors must have a coherent range to be taken seriously by the trade.” In other words, you won’t even get your product on shelf without the support of a premium aged range.Accordingly, Cutty’s deluxe selection now comprises 12, 15, 18 and 25 year olds, this latter being the highest scoring of all in Whisky Magazine’s Best of the Best competitive tastings. As King explains, the emphasis will be on the older stocks: “Competition from other super-premium spirits such as luxury vodkas disadvantages the whisky category where we have to carry the costs of ageing.“But we’re massively excited about markets such as Russia where we get value from our aged stock. We’ll concentrate on the older expressions which combine real quality for the informed consumer and realistic profit for the trade.” The impact of these aged blends on the global whisky can hardly be over-estimated.Because of the need to build stock, new distilleries are being built and prices are rising. The industry giants are investing ahead of sales in many of the developing markets and, on present trends, the strong will grow stronger whilr others will have to be content with crumbs from the rich man’s table.It will be a fast and furious ride, and there will be casualties. But it promises to be exciting. However, for all the hype, don’t imagine we haven’t been here before – as Tommy Dewar, an ace salesman and great blending pioneer who died in 1930, was wont to say: “We have great respect for old age – so long as it is bottled!” What could put it better?
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