Telling It Straight

The evolution of single malt Scotch advertising
By Mark Newton
The most widely consumed Scotch whisky brands have always been blends. It's still the case today. Now single malt sales have blossomed to make up 25 per cent of the value of Scotch exports. Because of this contemporary boom, we tend to view their arrival as something of a modern phenomenon. But single malts - that is, malt whisky originating from a single distillery - have been marketed in interesting ways for well over a century, and its marketing suggests much about the modern consumer.

Alfred Barnard, in his Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom (1870), gave us early insight into those distilleries that produced whisky outside of the blended Scotch market. Lagavulin, he explains, was sold not just for blends, but 'as a single Whisky; there are only a few of the Scotch Distillers that turn out spirit for use as single Whiskies, and that made at Lagavulin can claim to be one of the most prominent'. Inchgower, too, was 'pure Highland Malt, is a single as well as a blending Whisky, and is sold principally in England and exported to the Colonies'. Glen Grant commanded a 'high price in the market, alike for use by itself and for blending'.

Early whiskies in Barnard's view were described as 'single whiskies' yet some of the first promotion of single malts did not in fact use the term 'single' at all. This is something that would come into fashion much later. Archive material with regard to advertising and promotion is extremely limited for these early 'single malt' brands. The Glenlivet was advertised as a distillery in the Caledonian Mercury as early as 1825, though merely listed as one of many goods sold by the grocer Alexander McDougal. A little later they are seen in newspapers selling 'pure old malt whisky' direct from their distillery, available in cask and bottle. By 1922, The Glenlivet declared its registered trademark as a full-page advert in The Wine and Spirit Trade Record.

It isn't until the 1930s that we see more interesting single malt advertising, something other than the old-fashioned price lists. Royal Lochnagar was promoted as merely 'old Scotch whisky' in 1931. Interestingly, the 'unblended' Scotch whisky was first used by The Glenlivet, and by the late 1930s this had 'developed into unblended all malt'. This is the first example of the brand distancing itself from blends, rather than explicitly declaring itself as a single malt - something that would later become a more aggressive stance from single malt producers.

It is worth dwelling with The Glenlivet a little further, as their early exports reveal much about the rise of the age statement. During the 1930s in the aftermath of Prohibition and the Depression, which was before any other single malt Scotch was widely available in the US, Bill Smith Grant was sent across the Atlantic to investigate the prospects of selling legitimate exports. Schenky Products sold cases of The Glenlivet in the USA in 1934. In 1935 Bellows & Co negotiated a new agreement to sell The Glenlivet in many US states. However, Bellows' sales representative insisted on marketing it as '12 Years Old' The Glenlivet.

As an essential part of its marketing, the age statement was, he claimed, what the US consumer demanded for a 'high priced liqueur whisky'. It is interesting to note that here the statement was a reaction to consumer demand rather than it being forced on the market by producers, though perhaps this was in part due to premium blends being marketed partly on their age too.

Before the Second World War, in a major piece of brand exposure, The Glenlivet obtained the contract to supply American Pullman carriages with whisky miniatures, reaching affluent customers and businessmen with their whisky. Later the brand reached transatlantic liners United States and America, which were popular with wealthy travellers. So by the 1960s, with the aid of the strapline 'The Scotch that stayed single', the brand was the most popular single malt in the US.

But what about the term 'single malt' in marketing? In 1962 Glenfiddich had approved a label for use by US distributors Austin Nichols & Co, New York. This label stated that the whisky was an 8 Years Old single malt. A few years later in 1966, the Glenfiddich archives reveal a similar style label appearing on an Advertising Age advert for a 10-year-old single malt - indicating the two major brands at a similar time were reacting to US consumer demands for an age statement. This advert declares that 'you may never stand for a blended Scotch again'. This advert continues also with, 'Glenfiddich is straight. Unblended. A single malt whisky… Discriminate. Elevate. Grow up to Glenfiddich.'

These single malts were more aggressively distanced from blended whisky, and contributing to an air of snobbery. Are some modern single malt connoisseurs a product of such old marketing?

For many years 'straight malt' was used instead of single malt on labels and promotion in the UK, as it was before the 1960s in the US, although there are clear references to single malt in the advertising copy of promotions in the National Guardian (later The Guardian). Much of Glenfiddich's marketing in the 1960s continued to focus on familiar themes, as did early blends denoting the ingredients or that the whisky took time to make. The differences were that their straight malt was rare, hard to find and that it was even 'possible you won't like it compared to a blend'. In contrast to blends, single malts were marketed as something special. There was heavy use of the fact that it was bottled at the distillery, too x. Provenance became more of a marketing twist.

By the 1970s onwards, there is evidence of many more brands expanding aggressively into the single malt market. As discussed, Alfred Barnard highlighted Inchgower's 'pure Highland Malt' in the 1870s, and over a century later, in the 1980s, that distillery's whisky was promoted as 'Highland malt Scotch whisky'. However, rather than distancing itself from blends, the label maintained that it was 'from the House of Bell's', seeking the familiarity of such a major brand name in order to connect with the consumer. Dufftown whisky was promoted as an 8-year-old 'pure malt' whisky, also from the House of Bell's. Indeed, this goes against the grain of other single malt promotion as it sought to align itself with the more popular type of whisky rather than distance itself from it.

Cardhu's adverts show clearly that whatever was being used to describe single malt whiskies as we know them today was an ever-changing term. In 1965, in a supplement to the Illustrated London News, Cardhu was promoted as an exclusive 'highland malt whisky' - again, advertising bragged about the rarity, the higher strength - and that it was 8 Years Old. In 1983 it was still advertised as Highland malt whisky but, in 1985, 'single malt whisky' appeared in its promotion, alongside the fact that it was a perfect after-dinner malt.

It wouldn't be until around 1990 that the major brand The Glenlivet finally used the term single malt in its promotion, moving on from 'unblended all malt' to join Glenfiddich's terminology and those of Diageo's (DCL's) brands. By now its promotion had evolved firmly with regard to targeting more affluent consumers. Not only did it muscle into premium blend territory by supporting golf tournaments, but it even began to offer lifestyle accoutrements such as a range of tweed luggage. And as is obvious decades later, this was just the tip of the iceberg of single malt brands positioning themselves as luxury brands - as something different, rare and special. Indeed, this haughty nature of single malt advertising has for over half a century, right through to today, been the way of things.