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Heady days as drinkers seek out quality

These are very special days indeed for whisky
By Dominic Roskrow
These are very special days indeed for whisky. We might well have laughed at the marketing men in the 90s when they told us about the way consumers were moving from standard products to premium ones.We might have jeered when they told us about ‘portfolio’ and ‘repertoire’ drinking – the growing habit of consumers to cling loyally to one brand and to tart themselves about instead.And let’s be honest, we never really bought in to that view that two marketing theories would come to dominate the way that we all approached purchasing decisions: one, globalisation, which drove consumers to two or three heavily marketed brands to the detriment of other also-rans; and two, ‘premiumisation’, which squeezed middle brands by encouraging either top of the market quality purchases or bottom of the market quantity ones.But that’s what’s been happening and the premium end of the whisky market is benefiting as a result.Not convinced? Then watch the market behaviour of a giant such as Diageo in the coming months as it seeks to address the problems facing standard brown spirit brands such as Bell’s; and ask yourself why Allied Domecq is making such a commitment to the malt whisky sector (see the Scapa feature).Across the world industry figures show that the middle ground is being squeezed as own label brands at the bottom end and premium single malts at the top end continue to flourish.And as each month passes it becomes clearer and clearer that this isn’t a passing fad – it’s part of a conscious change in the way drinkers make decisions about their purchases.It’s certainly the case in Europe, but increasingly it’s the case in America, too. And for the bourbon market the continuing interest in premium bourbons is fuelling an interest in American whiskey that will almost certainly bring in new drinkers.But any short-term growth has to be managed carefully so that the medium and long term reputation of bourbon is preserved. In Louisville, Kentucky, heartland of American whiskey, they’re acutely aware of moon-shiners and bandits, and they’re not all rushing to embrace the marketeers and fashion folk.It’s not surprising, either, given the fact that bourbon is almost as old as America itself. It is positioned at the country’s old frontier, and it has fought hard over the years against all manner of adversity to survive and prosper. Once the preserve of the hard-living American male, the sector has been in decline ever since the Second World War, and now commands sales about half those of the early ‘50s.It has had to battle with a schizophrenic image: that of its heritage at the heart of American history; and that as the staple fuel of the stereotypical red neck. How else could a brand such as Tennessee whiskey Jack Daniel’s advertise itself with black and white good ol’ boy imagery while being the chosen tipple of every American heavy metal band to strut stages across the planet?With alcohol consumption increasingly under the spotlight across the world, getting the balance right is essential, and while new drinkers in any sector should be encouraged, the bourbon makers are watching the increase in attention with a degree of antipathy.So is bourbon looking forward to a golden age? On the eve of what will almost certainly be the most successful Kentucky bourbon festival yet, Editor Dominic Roskrow talks to some of the biggest players about where their market is going, and on page 31, visits Maker’s Mark, where the modern premium bourbon story pretty much started.