In part two of my The Making of the Dram series, I’m going to be looking at the early states of creating a whisky blend. But first, to recap, my background is in brand strategy which means I work with distillers, blenders, bottlers and startups to help them develop liquid briefs and set the strategy for brands to position their products in the hearts and minds of the right people, in the right place, at the right time.
Last time I explained how the driving force behind the creation of a new whisky product is a combination of market demands, consumer demands and excess stock that needs to be traded through. After a lot of research, the strategist (like myself) and the brand teams putting the plan together for any new releases will have drafted usually three territories that detail out:
- Draft concept title; think codename.
- One liner to explain the idea briefly to senior stakeholders.
- Concept narrative that tells the story of the release; what it is, why it is being developed and who it is for.
- Why it works; a statement detailing why the core team believes it will work.
- Launch strategy; an outline of how to take the new product to market.
- Timeline; how long it will take to create, market and get into stores, and bars around the world.
- Territories; where the product will be launched and where it will be sold.
Now the fun of part of liquid creation process starts.
First comes spending time speaking to consumers in the region this product will likely launch in, to ascertain their preferences and their unspoken wants from the flavours of whisky, be it sweet, spicy, challenging (i.e. high ABV), smoky, smooth, oaky, fruity and many more, then through researching the history of flavours that are present in the food and drinks in that market. This all gives people who do what I do the inputs needed to form a ‘flavour brief’.
A flavour brief is a summary of the points above and around a hundred words describing the expected flavour notes, the mouthfeel, the sensations for when consumers drink this product. Then kicks off discussions with the blenders and distillers to see what is possible, and what liquids would work to create these different liquids.
The big question then comes; do we target an age statement or roll with a non-age statement release, and it is a lot harder than most appreciate to make that decision.
Somes brands always have an age statement on their premium products, others are more interested in exploring the pushing of flavour boundaries through blending older and younger whiskies to create a premium product that does not have a number on the front. Both are fair, expected and legitimate ways to approach the whisky creation process.
Where consumers shop by flavour, experience and want to know what to expect, then age arguably becomes less relevant
A great example of this not too long ago was Laphroaig Lore, dubbed, "the richest of the rich,” Laphroaig releases. Its master distiller John Campbell, in his typically amusing way at the launch, told the assembled media that, “it would have been easier to chuck an age statement on there then throwing it out, but we took 18 months to develop this to be the richest of the rich”, and later revealed on Twitter that Lore is a vatting of "seven to 21-years-old liquids with three more ages in between.”
Yet it does not carry an age statement – is this right or wrong? In this day and age where consumers shop by flavour, experience and want to know what to expect, then age arguably becomes less relevant, not to mention strains on aged stock that we all know about.
With all of this now being agreed, the pilot blends can be created which Alex Chasko, the Teeling master distiller, explained to me some time ago when I asked him about how they test whiskies and go about NPD. “We essentially categorise the stock then take 100ml of x amount of casks to blend together. So, for example I might like the nose on the white burgundy but want to add a bit of the port character to the palate so I pick an appropriate cask to build the taste, then if I want to add sherry to bring out a more elegant finish I again choose the cask I think will work.”
He went on to say that, “this concoction is then left in a glass or bottle for the weekend to see how it develops. If that works nicely the same blend will be made in a larger quantity, say six or seven bottles and left for longer to see the reaction and development of flavour and consistency.”
The final process is to, "send samples to people in the industry, such as the Irish Whiskey Society and bloggers from time to time to get their feedback on which I may or may not act on ahead of signing off the final blend and selecting the right amount of casks, i.e. 20 of component x, 25 of component y and 65 of component z which then go into full production, all in all, the whole process takes around nine months start to finish."
Next time I will be looking at naming and story building for whisky products ensuring it is all on brand and makes sense to the consumers when they are buying these new creations.
Laphroaig Distillery on Islay