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All that glisters is not gold

Ian Buxton looks at the recent ultra premium releases.
By Ian Buxton
A 40 year old Glengoyne for £3,750.Johnnie Walker 1805 at £1,000 a glass. Glenfiddich doubling the price of their latest 50 year old release to £10,000 and, coming soon, Macallan Finest Cut in a Lalique decanter. 57 years old it must be admitted – but $15,000?Have we all gone mad? Is this where we thought whisky would end up? Is whisky in danger of over-reaching itself and forgetting the drinkers who made it fashionable in the first place? Or, like Shakespeare’s Prince of Morocco, do drinkers risk opening golden packaging to find disappointment and the moral “all that glisters is not gold”?With the ‘credit crunch’ now taking us to the edge of a global recession is the conspicuous consumption of the last decade was now at an end.Apparently not, according to Ken Grier of The Macallan. The Macallan it was, you’ll remember, who decorated a limited release of bottles of their 30 Years Old with photographs from fashion photographer Rankin.Some controversy ensued (this was partly the point) but Macallan are unapologetic.After all, it sold out quickly enough despite darkening economic gloom and apparently brought “new users” to the brand. Grier sees it as just one of a number of “entry points” for the brand and maintains that “Macallan is logical luxury. We offer authenticity, provenance, real quality and a real rational benefit that reassures consumers. This isn’t a time to experiment and people are reverting to the tried and trusted.” Leading whisky specialist Sukhinder Singh of London’s Whisky Exchange agrees.“Our high-end whisky business, that’s £500 a bottle and up, is buoyant but people are buying more carefully. They’re looking for reassurance and quality so this will sort out the men from the boys – whiskies not up to scratch will suffer.” According to Singh, some independent bottlers may even be driven out of the market and other distillers may have to acknowledge they don’t have the brand strength or product delivery to sustain really premium prices. “They need to get real. Not everyone can have high-end products.” But the strong will get stronger. According to Singh, the Macallan Rankin edition sold out quickly and he continues to receive orders. And talking to Macallan it’s clear that the trend to luxury will continue: alongside the Finest Cut Lalique decanter, expect further premium and super-premium bottlings over the next year or so.Aconfident Ken Grier draws comfort from the long-term nature of the whisky business.“With a standard 12 Years Old expression we’re turning our inventory just eight times in a century, less frequently with older styles.Time and craftsmanship results in a product where you can really tell the difference and this provides a compelling justification for single malt at a time when people want enduring values, not just ‘bling’.” And he is far from alone in this view. Over at Diageo’s Reserve Brands division, home to Johnnie Walker Blue Label, the mood is also positive.Ken Robertson, corporate relations director for Whisky at Diageo, says: “We know that, despite the economic environment, there are affluent consumers who have the means and the desire for luxury Scotch Whisky. The economic downturn has not affected this desire. These consumers are united by a desire for quality whiskies with a strong sense of heritage and authenticity, and innovation – and that does not diminish in a downturn; in fact consumers turn towards the brands that stand for quality, integrity and that they know they can trust.” “Our luxury Scotch Whiskies sit in our Reserve Brand Group and include Johnnie Walker Blue Label and Johnnie Walker Blue Label King George V. In our half-year results in February 2009, total Reserve volume grew 11 per cent.” “We also have to remember that we are running our business for the long-term - we intend to emerge from the downturn stronger, and believe we have the right luxury brands for the right opportunities in the future. We’re confident that consumers will continue to premiumise in the longer term and this therefore remains a strategic area of focus for us.” So a fundamental divide has opened up here. Some at least of the affluent new consumers are excited by lavish packaging and high pricing and take comfort in the reassurance of a well-known and prestigious brand, whereas long-term whisky enthusiasts, primarily single malt aficionados, value the liquid above all.As brand owners respond to the profit opportunity in foreign markets there is a danger that UK loyalists will be left behind.“Some distillers are over-reaching and concentrating on the developing markets,” says Singh “They’re forgetting their UK roots where their brands were built and forgetting that London is a world centre for style and cutting-edge bars.” Faced with limited allocations of products that once were relatively freely available independent retailers such as The Whisky Exchange and Royal Mile Whiskies are becoming bottlers. By sourcing single casks and bottling their own expressions they’ve been able to offer great value to buyers who want to drink the whisky, not use it to reinforce their own lifestyle image.It’s clear that some brands at least can command markedly higher prices, backed up by lavish packaging and heavy advertising budgets but the independent sector can still offer great value, provided you carefully check out the quality.