Spirit and celebrity: how whisky brands are partnering for success

Spirit and celebrity: how whisky brands are partnering for success

With increasing frequency, whisky brands are pairing up with kindred spirits

Whisky Focus | 28 Mar 2022 | Issue 181 | By Liza Weisstuch

  • Share to:
This past September, Gordon & MacPhail (G&M), the family-owned whisky company based in Elgin, Scotland, released a single malt Scotch whisky distilled in the 1940s. G&M’s Generations 80 Years Old from The Glenlivet Distillery is the oldest single malt Scotch whisky ever bottled. This being such a milestone, no ordinary bottle would do; nor would a fancy crystal decanter with a label embossed with ornate lettering. Such a momentous, record-setting occasion required an equally significant, impressive vessel. So, the team at G&M extended its reach far beyond the food and drink industry to tap a designer of a different sort, someone known for creating very grand works indeed.

An award-winning – and knighted – architect whose work includes countless homes, civic buildings, products, furniture, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, Sir David Adjaye OBE developed a magnificent decanter for G&M with a uniquely curved core. This unusual bottle is housed in a so-called ‘pavilion’, with sides made of oak slats that do tricks with the light reflecting off the bottle. The packaging has been designed to evoke sunlight filtering through trees in a forest, and the slats symbolise the all-important casks used to mature the whisky. It’s this aspect of the whisky-making process that gives the product its name: Artistry in Oak.
The cask end from the butt that held the world’s oldest bottled whisky

“This product was 80 years in the making; we really wanted to celebrate that. We want to communicate the values of artistry and craftsmanship and create a sense of legacy as well,” said Ian Chapman, Gordon and MacPhail’s director of marketing. “We looked for a creative partner who shared those values. Adjaye responded to that when we briefed it to him. As a designer, a lot of his works are clearly rooted in legacy and craftsmanship and created for the long term. Buildings stand the test of time.”

Whisky does not exist in a vacuum. While to some collectors and aficionados it’s a lifestyle of its own, whisky is a small part of life to the majority of people – though it encompasses social life, pop culture, ritual and celebration. Whisky brands understand this, and they want to make use of the drink’s broad appeal beyond tasting notes and cocktails. Teaming up with individuals and companies in other industries to create a product, experience or occasion is an increasingly popular way for a whisky company to stand out and align itself with iconic names known far beyond the bar. If it’s done right, it comes across as thoughtful, not contrived, and a little thought-provoking, too.
Producing the G&M Generations 80 Years Old decanter

Last year, Dennis Malcolm, master distiller at The Glen Grant, celebrated his 60th year in the whisky industry. As he was born on the distillery grounds, it’s unsurprising that much of his career has centred on Glen Grant. In October, the company threw a bash for him at the Rolls-Royce showroom in London to release a commemorative 60-year-old bottling. Choosing Rolls-Royce was not random but nods to The Glen Grant’s history: the distillery’s founder, Major James Grant, was the first person to own a car north of Glasgow – it happened to be a Rolls-Royce. As it happens, the upscale automobile maker and the whisky company are in fact congruent in a deeper way.
Producing the decanter

“There’s so much that goes into perfecting a spirit and making it as consistent as possible in terms of quality and harmony,” said Robin Coupar, global whisky advocate for Campari Group. “Dennis and I talk about the analogy – we’ve said the whisky is as finely tuned as a Rolls-Royce engine. There’s such an interesting connection that goes deeper than the history of the distillery.”
The decanter

The Glen Grant isn’t the only whisky to highlight the ties between premium whisky and luxury cars. In December 2019, Beam Suntory’s Bowmore single malt Scotch whisky announced a partnership with Aston Martin. The following November, the Islay distiller unveiled Black Bowmore DB5 1964, a rare 31-year-old single malt. The first launch in partnership with the British luxury auto-maker, the release was made all the more alluring by a bottle that integrates an actual piston from the Aston Martin DB5. The 25 bottles each fetched a cool USD$65,000. Later in the year, classic Bowmore expressions were released in bottles for travel retail with images of Aston Martin cars on their labels – far less extravagant, but more affordable than the Black Bowmore.

In July 2021, The Macallan launched a global brand partnership with Bentley Motors during an event at The Macallan Estate, during which Bentley announced its new Flying Spur Hybrid. These days, visitors to the Estate can sign up for an experience called ‘An Extraordinary Journey in Speyside’, which involves cruising the area in a bespoke Bentley vehicle.
Behind the scenes at Glencairn Crystal

“There is a genuine commitment from both brands to create a space for the open exchange of knowledge, particularly around our sustainability ambitions,” Paul Condron, brand director for The Macallan, wrote in an email to Whisky Magazine. “We are excited by the opportunity to learn more about Bentley’s progress with carbon neutrality, advances in electrification and the use of sustainable materials. At The Macallan, we are focused on nurturing our 485-acre Speyside Estate for future generations, progressive packaging, giving back to our communities and developing a network of sustainable suppliers. Between us there is rich territory to accelerate our journeys.”

Meanwhile, Tennessee whiskey brand Jack Daniel’s has a different sort of shared essence with a vehicle and a different campaign. In October, Jack Daniel’s, the first registered distillery in the US, announced its seventh year of collaborating with Indian Motorcycle, the first motorcycle company in the US, with the unveiling of a 2022 limited-edition motorcycle. Jack Daniel’s Rye logos are stitched into the seat and engraved in the bike’s floorboards. A message created to promote responsibility – ‘Bottles and throttles don’t mix’ – is emblazoned on the fender. (For the record, other brands are clearly communicating responsibility messages alongside their respective auto partnerships, too.)
The finished decanter in its ‘pavillion’

“Jack Daniel’s and motorcycles have a real similar DNA of independence and living freely, living boldly and enjoying the ride,” said Tobey Roush, global licensing manager for Brown-Forman, which owns Jack Daniel’s. “They’ve gone together for a long time, but there’s a tension for Jack Daniel’s because we’re very much about responsibility marketing when it comes to drinking.”

The bike comes with a USD$36,999 price tag, but plenty of brands are collaborating on products that are much more accessible to people not looking to remortgage their homes to fund their whisky passions. Woodford Reserve, a Brown-Forman bourbon, teamed up with William Sonoma, a kitchenware and home furnishings chain, to create a cocktail syrup exclusively for the store. Now, instead of sitting on the shelf amid dozens of other bourbons, as is the case in conventional whiskey retailers, the Woodford name leaps to attention by virtue of it being the only one appearing in these up-market kitchenware stores.
Red Bay Coffee’s Oakland Irish Roast, made in collaboration with Slane Irish Whiskey

Food, drink, kitchenware, and cooking-related items are easy arenas for collaborations. Slane Irish Whiskey tapped California-based Red Bay Coffee to develop a custom blend for National Irish Coffee Day last January. Red Bay’s founder, Keba Konte, crafted a blend designed to stand up to what he dubs “the powerful sensory impact of whiskey”, as well as cream, which he said can be challenging. No stranger to collaborations, having designed coffee blends for on-demand streaming service Netflix and the popular burger chain Shake Shack, Konte sees this project as distinctly fitting.

“We love doing collaborations – that’s the beauty of coffee. It’s the type of beverage that brings people together to catch up, chat or break up,” he said. “It’s on-brand for Red Bay and the spirit of coffee culture to come together, be creative and collaborate with a whiskey. It’s no mistake that coffee shops are run by artists and people that come from creative fields. There’s just something cultural that’s brought thinkers and creatives together in the coffee world. It goes back centuries. I think that’s one of the reasons why Irish whiskey is such an easy fit and an inspiring project.”
The Jack Daniel’s Indian Motorcycle bike

Last summer, Beam Suntory’s Knob Creek took a different direction when it teamed up with The Boardsmith, a company known for expertly crafted butcher boards, to create grilling planks made with branded barrel staves.

“It’s an example of partnering with another brand that reaches like-minded individuals. Drinkers like to grill,” said Dan Cohen, senior director of public relations for Beam Suntory. “It’s an interesting way to disrupt and to engage consumers in the grilling occasion.”
The Macallan has teamed up with car manufacturer Bentley

When it comes to engaging with everyday life, that’s where fashion comes in. Clothing is a realm into which Beam Suntory ventured in early 2019, via its collaboration with American fashion designer Todd Snyder. The partnership came about to mark the release of Legent, Beam’s classic Kentucky straight bourbon that’s further aged in wine and sherry casks then blended with more Kentucky straight bourbon by Suntory’s chief blender, Shinji Fukuyo. That East-meets-West sensibility manifested in the limited-edition Bourbon Selvedge Denim Jacket, a version of Snyder’s signature Dylan Jacket made with Japanese denim dyed a whiskey-inspired amber hue, then cut and sewn in the US. In fall of 2020, a second limited-edition collection was released; this time, 50 per cent of proceeds supported Stop AAPI Hate, a national group addressing anti-Asian racism
in the US.
The Macallan has teamed up with car manufacturer Bentley

“It’s a collaboration that helped drive awareness for Legent and inspire Todd Snyder fans who might not know about Legent to experience it,” Cohen explained. “But most important is it tells Legent’s story in meaningful way, tapping an iconic partner who can take an American tradition like denim and add Japanese inspiration to it.”
The Dubliner Irish Whiskey also looked to fashion to bring attention to its whiskey in the US, teaming up with New York–based streetwear company B Wood to design a jacket. As Martin Peters, trade marketing director for the whiskey’s parent company Quintessential Brands, puts it, B Wood exemplifies an ideal partner.

“The Dubliner is an ode to the city of Dublin – to the spirit of the city. For the American introduction, we want to find brands that are representative of where they come from: cool, trendy, edgy companies or artists or performers who are all about their locale and where they come from,” said Peters, explaining that the Dubliner team has an eye on skateboard companies out west and musicians in other parts of the country. “We’re less about the geeks talking about barrel programs and more about tapping the younger generation that’s driving Irish whiskey trends. It’s about something much more inclusive.”
Knob Creek’s barrel-stave boards

It’s certainly not unusual for a brand to team up with an entertainer or musician, but William Grant & Sons, which owns The Balvenie, Glenfiddich, Monkey Shoulder, and other brands, stepped it up in October with the premier of ‘Quest for Craft’, a digital series hosted by superstar musician and all-around music scholar Questlove. In the trailer, Questlove describes the series as highlighting “the obsessive, never-ending, whatever-it-takes journey to create something extraordinary.” Featured guests talk about their own creative processes, with punk legend Patti Smith, best-selling author and thinker Malcolm Gladwell, and Saturday Night Live writer and comedian Michael Che appearing on the show.
Designer Todd Snyder enjoying a glass of Legent

According to Greg Levine, American VP of marketing for William Grant & Sons’ single malts, The Balvenie’s obsession with craftsmanship is evident in it being one of the last distilleries in Scotland to grow its own barley, use floor maltings and employ an on-site team of coopers and coppersmiths.
The Glen Grant’s master distiller Dennis Malcolm and a Rolls-Royce

“We’re rooted in a traditional approach, but we seek new processes and variations with innovation... That’s the creative curiosity that led us to Questlove. He’s a scholar of creativity,” Levine said. “The intent is to explore the convergence of ultimate craft and creativity.” However, The Balvenie didn’t simply hire Questlove to be the face of a brand, as is common with many celebrity partnerships. Instead, the musician had a very active role. As Levine puts it, his team didn’t have a concept of what the show would look like until they spoke with Questlove; in the final product, he sees parallels between the artist and the single malt beyond the vague notion of craft.
The Glen Grant has collaborated with Rolls-Royce

“He’s looking at all the thought and all the time and all the things that go into a final product ,” Levine said. “If you go a little deeper, you see interesting nuances. Our whiskies are ones that our fans love and come back to again and again... just as they go to a favourite musician for a song that opens them up to the rest of the music catalogue.”
Magazine Archive

From the archive

Select an issue

Subscribe Now

Subscriptions for
Whisky Magazine are available
in print, digital or as a
complete package

The Benefits

8 print editions a year

Enjoy the convenience of home delivery

Full access to every digital edition via desktop, iOS or Android device

Latest Issue Subscribe Now

The Whisky Encyclopedia - Coming Soon 2024

Discover the world of whisky with our comprehensive encyclopedia
Featuring companies, distilleries, brands, glossaries, and cocktails

Join The Community

Sign up to the Whisky Magazine
newsletter letter and get access to the latest
in all things whisky

paragraph publishing ltd.   Copyright © 2024 all rights reserved.   Website by Acora One