Whisky creative partnerships: In search of a spark

Whisky creative partnerships: In search of a spark

In 2023, artists from all disciplines are partnering with whisky brands to hone creative partnerships. What’s driving the trend, and how effective is it?

Whisky & Culture | 28 Apr 2023 | Issue 190 | By Kristiane Sherry

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"But does whisky ever make you sit up and think anymore?” I’m on a Zoom call with a big-name collector, one who will remain anonymous. He
has seen his fair share of so-called whisky partnerships. Designers, artists, car makers, watch brands, crystal makers, chefs – he’s reached newness fatigue. Jaded and bored, he sighs into his laptop. “It’s just all been done, and it doesn’t mean anything.”

It’s a sentiment some agree with. Whisky prices seem to only be going in one direction, and every week there’s a new limited-edition bottling to try and tempt us to spend. Bright colours and luxury names are ten-a-penny in premium whisky, but not all of these collaborations go beyond the bottle. Whether it’s the likes of The Macallan and Bentley or a small-release partnership with a local artist, and whoever the intended audience, from the enthusiast to the career investor and everyone in between, it is unclear how much these whisky creative partnerships resonate – if at all.

“If the collaboration is authentic and means something, and they’ve explained it clearly, it means more,” another whisky collector says. In her words, sharing – in real life, and online – whiskies resulting from such partnerships can be fun. Especially if the liquid itself is distinct in some way, too. “But sometimes I think they’re just not released with me in mind.”

It’s an interesting point to consider. When you’re already into whisky, it’s easy to miss some of these partnerships for what they are: a consumer recruitment drive.

“We work in partnership with creatives regularly across our brands and see it as a hugely important strand within our overall marketing and communications mix,” says Mathieu Deslandes, Chivas Brothers’ director of marketing for prestige brands. He cites recent activity with Royal Salute and Ballantine’s as particularly exciting. For him, it’s about “pushing the boundaries of Scotch whisky and inviting new audiences into our brands’ world.”

The Ballantine's Moxxi's Bar Edition

Take Royal Salute. Last year it released ‘The Art of Wonder’, a series of whiskies celebrating creativity in art and design. It’s about pairing “exceptionally high-aged Scotch” with “the magic of art”. Featherwork sculptor Kate MccGwire created 21 unique pieces in a body of work called Forces of Nature to accompany a 53-year-old Royal Salute blend. Another, perhaps more unexpected, example is Ballantine’s’ work with Gearbox’s franchise, Borderlands the Game. It’s a long-term partnership which sees the brand ‘hire’ a video game character called Moxxi. As well as a responsible drinking message, there’s an accompanying Ballantine’s Moxxi’s Bar Edition limited-edition bottle.

The creative work serves a dual purpose, Deslandes continues. “We’re able to ‘open up’ Scotch by engaging the audiences of the partners we work with in innovative ways, which is vital to protecting the future of the category and our industry at large.”

Driving growth by looking to other categories is a staple for Johnnie Walker. To celebrate the Year of the Rabbit, the blended Scotch partnered with Shanghai-based fashion designer Angel Chen to create Johnnie Walker Blue Label Lunar New Year Limited Edition Design. Chen, who studied at prestigious arts college Central Saint Martins, sought inspiration for her design from Johnnie Walker master blender Emma Walker.

“My work is often inspired by different generations, different genders and cultures coming together to create something fresh and new,” Chen said as her design was unveiled. “These ideals echo the craft of Johnnie Walker, taking different types of whisky from different distilleries, with differing ages of maturation and blending them together perfectly to create a masterpiece – that is something I can relate to.” It’s another example of knitting together different facets from seemingly distant worlds to find meaning.

Angel Chen with her design for the Johnnie Walker Blue Label Lunar New Year Limited Edition

Time honoured

It’s that sense of meaning, that authenticity, that is the difference between a collaboration resonating or just seeming a bit… forced. And one ingredient for that credibility is time. One-offs aren’t inherently less meaningful, but when brands align for years – or longer – the mutual benefits for all parties can be realised. And that includes us whisky lovers, too.

When asked what whisky partnerships excited them most, Bowmore’s Aston Martin tie-in and The Macallan’s aforementioned Bentley partnership were all name-checked by whisky lovers. So too was The Balvenie’s 2015 campaign with classic car maker Morgan. All time-honoured tie-ups. But beyond motors, Glenmorangie’s vibrantly striking ad campaign with artist and photographer Miles Aldridge also stirred up conversation. “It just feels… fresh,” one whisky drinker told me.

This sense stretches back to when the campaign first launched in 2020. “We decided to use colour as a metaphor to open up the whisky’s world,” Alexander Kalchev, chief creative officer at ad agency DDB Paris, said at the time. “Of course, as a master of colour, Miles Aldridge was the obvious talent to bring our vision to life.”

Fast-forward to late 2022 and there’s no doubt that the extension of the campaign has been near-universally celebrated. It’s clever. There are ‘easter eggs’ – coded messages and references – throughout. It’s a creative partnership that feels more like an invitation to join a club. “They instil consumer engagement with what’s going on,” Aldrige himself says.

Is it different because it’s an ad? Maybe. Perhaps that makes its popularity even more surprising. We don’t usually like being ‘sold to’. The subtlety of this creative partnership, and its inherent cleverness, are what set it apart.

An image from the most recent instalment of Glenmorangie"s It"s Kind of Delicious and Wonderful campaign, shot by photographer Miles Aldridge

Back to The Macallan, and one of its longest-running partnerships away from cars has been with the Roca brothers. The sibling trio run the three-Michelin-starred El Celler de Can Roca just outside Barcelona. It’s a flavour-led tie-up that, since 2014, has spanned whisky releases, charitable partnerships, and menu development at the distillery itself.

“The philosophy of El Celler de Can Roca reflects The Macallan’s core values of creativity, innovation, and craftsmanship – the grounds for a strong partnership,” The Macallan’s global creative director Jaume Ferràs says. He describes the partnership as one that’s forged “new visions” in the crafts of whisky making and cooking. The ambition is to “push the boundaries of the worlds of whisky and cuisine”.

For Ferràs, this partnership is about working towards a common goal, which comes to the fore when elements such as creative control are being negotiated. “We place a lot of emphasis on sharing common values with our partners and doubling down on this to remind ourselves of each one’s admiration for the other – we’re all looking for the same, mutually beneficial outcome.” Trust, transparency, and knowing how to complement each other creatively are the most important elements.

An altruistic partnership?

At the other end of the ‘sold to’ spectrum are programmes such as Glenfiddich’s Artists in Residence. The output isn’t measured in sales – or even whisky. Started back in 2002, the programme sees up to eight artists every summer descend on the Speyside single malt distillery for three months. They are fully funded to the tune of £15,000 and given free rein to create. Some are selected via open call, others, such as in Taiwan, via a long-term partner. In the UK, artists are recent graduates from art schools.

“Did the artists turn up? Did they have a positive experience here? Did they make some work here that they couldn’t make elsewhere? Did they engage with the opportunity offered? Did they display the work in our on-site gallery? Did it get people talking?” says Andy Fairgrieve, curator of the Glenfiddich Artists in Residence programme. “If we tick those boxes then it can be considered effective.”

The idea came from Glenfiddich’s late life president Charles Gordon. He felt the company should invest in the arts and build a collection, Fairgrieve explains. It was his nephew, Peter Gordon, who evolved the concept into the residency model.

The ARC-52 Mokume Edition, released in April 2023 as part of an ongoing creative partnership between Bowmore and Aston Martin

Projects to come from the residency programme include Canadian Dave Dyment’s ‘A Drink To Us (When We’re Both Dead)’ from the 2008 season. “The artist was inspired by the fact that, in genealogical terms, when you drink a whisky that is over 30 years old you are drinking a spirit that was made by the previous generation, many of whom may no longer be working at the distillery or indeed even be alive,” Fairgrieve says.

The project saw a full 500-litre butt of new make buried underneath Warehouse 8, like a time capsule, not to be surfaced until 2108. It was an “earnest attempt” at crafting 100-year-old whisky. A series of symbolically empty caskets were then sold to both art and whisky collectors.
“As no one involved in the project will be alive in the next century, any purchasers of the caskets will need to pass them on to the next generation,” Fairgrieve adds. The idea is that those that inherit the caskets will be able to share the whisky between them. It feels radical now – imagine what the reception could have been like back in 2008 when these types of partnerships were in their infancy.

The creative arts are a broad church – this feature hasn’t touched on music, fiction, or many other disciplines. It’s safe to say that whisky is an established part of the congregation. Distilling and blending itself is an art form. It makes sense that shared passions resonate in creativity, and it’s exciting that new opportunities are emerging. Just look at Ballantine’s and gaming.

A mark of meaningful success, then, is neither commercial nor magnanimity. “It’s important to us that the partners we’re working with have the freedom to express themselves. Otherwise, you run the risk of diluting what made them so special in the first place,” says Chivas Brothers’ Deslandes. As long as there’s a spark of special, that partnership can be a success. Without that magic, it’s just another collaboration.
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