Production

A matter of art in a glass

What makes a great blend,and why do the biggest brands command such loyalty? Ian Buxton reports
By Ian Buxton
I can buy blended Scotch whisky at Tesco for £6.86. It’s called Horseman. A full 70cl bottle and the proper 40% ABV strength it carries the claim ‘Distilled, Blended & Bottled in Scotland.’ That means it’s at least three years old and contains some single malt whisky. The name of the proud producer is given as Wauchope Moodie with a postcode which, curiously enough, is shared by Whyte & Mackay (“same initials as well, Holmes”). The name Wauchope Moodie does not appear in the two important trade reference books I consulted whilst a search at Companies House indicates that it is a ‘non-trading’ company (“curious, Watson”).It’s certainly a non-profit making company because, as Dave Broom pointed out in issue 48, a retail price of £6.86 leaves around 37 pence after tax to cover the cost of the bottle, label, closure, carton, distribution – and the whisky itself.But I’ve got a glass beside me as I write this.Unsurprisingly, Horseman is not the greatest whisky I’ve ever tasted. But then I didn’t expect it to be.More importantly, it’s not the worst whisky I’ve ever drunk. I can imagine that if you were serving this over ice, or with a strongly flavoured mixer, or late at night to some not very close chums who’d had a few, it might well find a useful role in your drinks cabinet.In fact, in a recent tasting at a sumptuous private club I served it blind to some wealthy merchant bankers who reckoned they knew their whisky. No-one voted it their favourite but no-one turned their nose up either.So what does that prove? Well, one conclusion that you can draw is that the United Kingdom market for blended whisky is a tough one, with ‘multiple grocers’ in the driving seat. But, encouragingly, if you look at the figures the top four out of the five bestsellers in Britain are what we might term ‘recognised’ brands. We’ve obviously concluded it’s worth paying a little more than £6.86 for extra age, malt content and the prestige of a known name.The lesser known ‘value’ offering of High Commissioner (from Glen Catrine, who are not at all anonymous) trails Bell’s (Diageo), The Famous Grouse (Highland Distillers), Teacher’s (Allied Domecq, now Fortune Brands) and Grant’s Family Reserve (William Grant & Sons) by some distance.Internationally, it’s a similar story with the volume leaders being, for the most part, brands of stature for which consumers are happy to part with a few extra dollars. The world’s best-selling whiskies include brands such as Johnnie Walker (Red and Black both feature in the top five); J & B and Grants. Coming up fast is Pernod Ricard’s Chivas Regal. In fact, since the French group acquired this brand, it’s made remarkable progress and worldwide sales are back to more than three million cases. That’s a lot in anyone’s book.City analysts quietly speculate that Pernod has a four million case target in its sights and, with double digit growth in some demanding markets, that may not be so far off.As Paul Godfrey, brand director for Chivas Regal 12 Year Old explains: “Chivas Regal is a quiet success in the United Kingdom on the back of a global move to quality. With the market growth found in malts and the better standard and premium blends, we feel Chivas Regal is ideally placed.” Chivas has certainly been an established quality offer for as long as I can remember.Godfrey sees its appeal lying in what the product delivers.“It’s a smooth, easy drinking whisky that offers a step up in both smoothness and complexity,” he says. “We encourage drinkers to try it as they like it – it’s precious, but they don’t feel they have to be as serious as they might be with single malt.” With its purchase of Ballantine’s, Pernod has now acquired the world’s number three seller, particularly popular in Europe where it is the largest brand of Scotch whisky. Under Allied’s stewardship Ballantine’s seemed to have marked time. The dynamic Pernod style may well change that and competitors will be watching with interest.In the UK too, Allied had the number three brand in Teacher’s (look elsewhere in this issue for more on its 175th anniversary) and this must be set for a revamp under new management. Though Pernod picked this up, it has quickly sold this brand on to Fortune Brands of the United States.In fact, changes in ownership seem to re-invigorate some brands. Dewar’s is a case in point. It always languished in the Diageo stable, playing second fiddle to Johnnie Walker.Its new owners, Bacardi, has launched a string of new Dewar products – all aiming at the higher ground. This year, Dewar’s will make a small but welcome return to the UK market, where it hasn’t been seen in 15 years, with the recent appointment of a domestic distributor.The emphasis will be on the flagship Dewar’s White Label and more premium expressions such as the 12 year old Special Reserve. However, it’s unlikely that Dewar’s return to the UK will stretch as far as your local supermarket – the price pressure is just too intense.Dewar’s argues that the extra malt content of its blends, together with an emphasis on marrying, justifies the cost premium and, like the other majors, it has no intention of getting involved in some suicidal price war.Generally, however, it’s noticeable that the really big world brands are hardly to be found in the UK, certainly not on the scale that you might expect. The reason is largely historical, dating back to the years after the Second World War.With barley for malting being rationed, Scotch whisky was in short supply and producers naturally directed supplies to where prices and profits were highest.The UK offered poorer returns and so the global brands concentrated their efforts on the wider market. By the time supplies eased and they tried to re-enter the home trade, other brands had built a loyal following that was hard to convert.The Diageo stable is a case in point. While it has three of the world’s top brands in Johnnie Walker Red and Black and J&B, its lead UK offering is Bell’s, which is predominantly a domestic brand. Of course, it was developed to that position under independent ownership but, such has been the pace of acquisition and rationalisation, it’s now part of a global drinks business.Bell’s traditional status as Britain’s best-selling whisky has been under threat for some time from The Famous Grouse, from Highland Distillers. It’s been around since 1897, but with innovative marketing such as sponsorship of Scottish rugby; the Famous Grouse Experience at Glenturret and ground-breaking advertising they have created something really memorable that consumers want to buy and enjoy.Worldwide, too, it’s now in the top 10 and new launches such as The Famous Grouse Malt (that’s one of those blended malts that you’ll have to get used to) are keeping up the pressure on competitors.But Diageo brands such as J&B with its new -6ºC are also trying hard to break new ground. Launched just six months ago you wouldn’t immediately know it was whisky. The very pale colour and distinctive bottle says ‘premium vodka’ but then this is a blatant attempt to appeal to drinkers in their 20s who aspire to some of Scotch’s values but are intimidated by some of the product’s mythology.J&B -6ºc is a lighter-tasting whisky with a smooth, subtle flavour, reminiscent of pears and apples. At a recommended £17.99 a bottle it competes with single malts and is attempting to build a new category. As a reader of Whisky Magazine, you probably won’t drink it, but then it’s not designed for you. However, look out for a rash of imitators – then you’ll know it has worked.In another attempt to reach out to nontraditional whisky drinkers Johnnie Walker have just embarked upon a major global sponsorship of F1 Grand Prix racing, which they launched at the recent Hungarian Grand Prix (sadly, my invitation seems to have got lost in the post).Formula 1 has got a lot more interesting now that Schumacher has started losing and Johnnie Walker, recognising that a global audience of two billion follow the sport, has decided that its values align with those of the brand. As spirits and motor sport have long been considered uncomfortable bedfellows it’s certainly a bold throw.In fact it’s a £15 million commitment, for which the iconic Johnnie Walker Striding Man and Johnnie Walker wording will appear on the air intake of Kimi Raikkonen and Juan Pablo Montoya’s Team McLaren Mercedes MP4-20s as well as on the drivers’ overalls and team’s race suits. That’s £15 million annually, by the way.Interestingly, though, Johnnie Walker links this activity to its increased efforts on social responsibility. A further £2 million will be invested in programmes designed to promote responsible drinking with the global message; “Take The Lead, Drink Responsibly”.“As a company, we have made a long-term commitment towards promoting a shared understanding of what responsible drinking means and it will be at the heart of our Formula 1 activities with Team McLaren Mercedes,” Charles Allen, Johnnie Walker’s marketing director, told me.So you can pay £6.86 if you want, but mainstream blended whiskies are upping the pace, hoping to convince us that the cheapies aren’t the bargain they seem.They’re accelerating into the fast lane, hoping to lap a few competitors and there’s no sign that they will run out of road just yet.After all, an F1 racing car will generally overtake a man on a horse.