Hello Neil...' began the random Facebook message, as I sat idly playing with my phone recently.
'Can you help me for obtain these mini only for bloggers please?' was the next, slightly garbled line. Fortunately, it was accompanied with a picture of a miniature Ardbeg bottle, a sample of Supernova, the latest release from the Islay distillery.
'Can you obtain one for me please?'
'Help me friend.'
'Please my friend.'
'I'm desperate for obtain these mini for my collection minis whisky.'
'Is it possible obtain please?'
These, and the other 38 direct messages I received soon after, gave me a fairly detailed insight into the rather, shall we say 'intense' world of the whisky miniature collector; a realm where only those bold enough to pester the living daylights will prosper.
To be fair, collecting anything is a fairly intensive process. From stamps to Star Wars figures (yes, rather embarrassingly, I collect the latter) the thrill is mostly in the chase. Locating a rarity before your contemporaries do, for a wholly reasonable price ('Man Maths' can often apply here though) is the shot of adrenaline, the hit or buzz that keeps one going until the next acquisition.
However, the issue I have here directly relates to whisky brands capitalising on such a scenario. Clearly, all publicity is good publicity and brands go to great lengths to develop the radiance of fame around them. When promo miniatures and other items fetch exorbitant prices at auction they give a brand the ultimate seal of collectability. Nothing wrong with this per se, but when these promo items are sent out to writers, bloggers and other whisky commentators, the emphasis appears to shift away from their purpose. The question is, do brands really care about actual 'liquid' reviews? Do they in fact secretly wish for their especially packaged and sealed promos to simply be passed on to collectors and whisky auctions, gaining instant fame and kudos?
No brand would openly admit to this, but if it is solely about the liquid inside, why not simply send out nondescript, unsealed bottles with a generic label; worth nothing to a collector?
Allan Little, Senior Brand Manager for Ardbeg has an answer for this. "To be openly blunt, the reason we do things like the special miniatures, and perhaps a better example, the gold Auriverdes bottle, (a small run of 'gold dipped' bottles of the brand's limited summer release, one of which recently sold for over £2,000 on a whisky auction site) is to get writers, journalists and bloggers aware of and excited about the whisky and to get them to write about it. We have no interest in them being collected. We want them to be open and drunk and written about. When we see these things going on auction sites, there's a massive internal groan at the brand."
But arguably, doesn't this just reinforce that perceived 'halo effect' around the brand, creating something for the haves and have-nots, premiumising everything in the process and justifying the inevitable price rises in the future? "Yes, it throws a halo to a certain extent," thinks Allan Little, "but also a cloud as well. The last thing we want consumers to think is that we're personally orchestrating this hype build. Yes it gets you more coverage, but isn't necessarily that constructive."
In their defense, Ardbeg attempted to curtail the trade of the miniature mentioned above by attaching a unique code to the bottle, (traceable to each recipient) but the exercise was a fairly half-baked solution, given that anyone could simply peel off the sticker. It also gave the impression that those who received them were perhaps not to be trusted, rather assuming that the potential allure of a fat cheque from an auction site would be simply irresistible for some recipients.
Needless to say, our friend from Facebook was left frustrated. Still, the taste of a decent limited edition peated whisky, accompanied by the sound of breaking glass, as the empty promo miniature hit the recycling bin, more than made up for it.