In the beautiful Kingdom of Whisky, the story was that water elevated malt whisky into a noble dram. It sounded so evocative and romantic that we could have lived with this happily ever after. But water’s superpower was redefined (and reduced) when the Warriors of Science settled in the Kingdom. They told other stories – of fermentation, distillation and maturation – to crowds who listened in wonder and awe.
Storytelling has always been the most effective way to communicate the history, mythology and (more recently) science of whisky. But what makes a good story? Being in possession of the facts, of course, though facts in themselves don’t make a good story.
“Storytelling has been very technical and functional, but people don’t want a story that is simply a lesson – real storytelling also requires emotional attachment that goes beyond technicalities,” says Claudia Falcone, Glenfiddich’s global brand director.
Exactly how a production story is imbued with emotion depends of course on the narrator. “Whether it’s Glenmorangie or Ardbeg the story also reflects my own personality, and a good story needs a personal element and the right tone. Personal memories and anecdotes really bring a presentation to life, and I want people to feel I’m telling them something that no one else knows,” says Dr Bill Lumsden, director of distilling, whisky creation and whisky stocks for Glenmorangie.
The accelerating rate and range of innovative bottlings provide continual opportunities for storytelling. “Whisky lovers want to know why the whisky tastes as it does – this is the cue for a story and it’s up to us to explain,” says Graeme Cruickshank, distillery operations manager at Chivas Brothers.
Personal memories and anecdotes really bring a presentation to life, and I want people to feel I’m telling them something that no one else knows
This in turn raises a philosophical question: what is the relationship between the story and the taste of the whisky? An intriguing production story can generate interest and certainly prompt a purchase prior to the whisky being tasted. There is no need to know the story in order to appreciate the taste of a malt whisky, although knowing the story beforehand can have a significant effect.
“Too much knowledge in advance of tasting can influence your enjoyment and the tasting,” says Simon Coughlin, CEO of Remy Cointreau whisky division, which includes Bruichladdich. “With Octomore, if you tell people they’re about to taste the most heavily peated whisky in the world, it can make some people very wary or put them off while others will be really excited.”
Ronnie Cox, brands heritage director for Berry Bros & Rudd, continues the theme. “Flavour and the production story are of course inextricably linked, but I think it’s best to taste first and hear the story second, and use the story to back up what you like about the whisky,” he says.
We live in a knowledge economy and this will be even more pronounced in the future. The production story is one of the key discriminators between buying one whisky and another
An integral element of any production story is the distillery of origin. Graeme Cruickshank says, “Every distillery has a story relevant to the malt whisky it produces, the history and characters that have brought the distillery to where it is today. The distillery story is the foreword in the book, followed by chapters that tell the story of each new release.”
While distilleries follow the same production principles, each one has an individual curriculum vitae. Knowing for example that production at Benromach excludes computerisation is a great opening line for a story – and this can be a shorter or longer story, as preferred, when visiting the distillery.
“We offer three levels of tour which offer the opportunity to sample more drams but also to spend a bit more time with the guides,” explains Andrew Hannah, Benromach’s head of brand.
“We have a team of very experienced guides who have the ability to tailor the presentations to fit the requirements and expectations of visiting groups, and that is really important. If tours are too tightly scripted then it becomes less personal and enjoyable for all involved I think.”
Acquiring knowledge is very fulfilling, while also perpetuating the desire to learn even more. Does this mean production stories are destined to become ever more detailed?
Claudia Falcone says, “We live in a knowledge economy and this will be even more pronounced in the future. The production story is one of the key discriminators between buying one whisky and another.”
Whether a story is posted in printed form through a letterbox or in a digital form online, the range of communication channels open to companies enables the same story to be told with different levels of detail to suit beginners, intermediates and super-geeks.
“Instagram is a great opportunity to post an image with a caption, but you can also provide a link for more information, making it clear this is available if you want it. Our job is to make information available and transparent, and served up in digestible chunks,” says Simon Coughlin of Remy Cointreau.
Needless to say, websites provide the space required to serve up an ‘all you can eat’ information buffet.
James Saxon, assistant whisky maker at Compass Box, says, “There’s more space to play with on the website, where we provide fact sheets to explain our whiskies. For anyone who wants to know more we also offer the option of sending an email with follow-up questions, and quite a few people do.”