Friday, February 4, 2011

Is Marketing Killing Authentic Whisky?


I have been thinking a lot about Whisky recently. I am a keen (to keen if you ask Mrs Colonel) drinker of the dram, but increasingly I am becoming unsympathetic to the Whisky industry. By way of explanation, I should point out that I am a  habitual listener to the weekly WhiskyCast, though over the  last couple of months I have not been able to listen to them on a regular basis. Fortunately, since Christmas I have found some time, and have been able to download and listen to those episodes that I had missed. Sadly, I have become disenchanted. Not in the WhiskyCast mind, but in the Whisky industry itself.

As regular listeners would know, WhiskyCast is composed of pretty much the same elements each episode. Some industry news, tasting notes, emails from listeners and usually a feature interview or two with a member of the Whisky industry*. I suppose this is as  comprehensive a coverage as you could have in a weekly podcast and I don’t fault WhiskyCast. To be honest I am rather envious of Mark Gillespie who has probably got one of the best jobs in the world and I think he does a great job. I hope readers don’t think this post is a criticism of him or his efforts, its not. It is a wider criticism of the industry, but much of my understanding of the industry comes from listening to the show.

Having listened to numerous interviews with members of the industry over the last month or so during my WhiskyCast catch up phase, what has struck me more than anything is the repetitive sameness of the all the interviews. It seems that every distiller is doing the same thing; trying to crack the duty free travel market, and trying to produce an expression for every potential constituency. This saturation approach to the production of whisky nauseates me.

I should point out that I am not some kind of left-wing, anti-capitalist Ellsworth Toohey**. I am a supporter of the market system, and I believe that markets and property ownership are the foundations of the liberal democratic society that we enjoy in Australia. (Reader, if we were chatting in person now, you would at this point probably be subjected to a semi-regular tirade on political philosophy that I am prone to give, literally, at the drop of a hat. But today I’ll forgo that pleasure, to spare readers from the hectoring tone I frequently employ. Suffice it to say, that I support the right of Whisky producers to do as they please, to fill niche’s in the market and to sell to whom ever will ever buy their product). I understand the need for any business to have customers and to try to differentiate their product from other producers. Despite this, I have concerns about the trends I see in the industry.

My impression is that despite all the companies attempts to differentiate themselves from their competitors, they all turn out the same. When I listen to the interviews with industry insiders they all sound the same, they all say the same things, and they all use the same catch phrases, marketing ploys and gimmicks to sell whisky.

It seems is that marketing departments are trying to associate their product with what I suppose their focus group boffins define as essential characteristics of the Scottish (or Canadian or Kentuckian) character. This results I think in terrible clichés being used to advertise and sell whisky. And since there are so many companies doing it, the same cliché’s are repeated again and again and again. Listen to the interviews consecutively and this becomes very obvious.

My own view of whisky is that the flavours come from the character of the ingredients, the process and the natural surroundings where the whisky is aged. Cool climates for example or the Scottish coastline, or traditional oak casks each add their own elements of flavour to the casks as they age. I don’t claim to be an expert and I don’t intend to labour this point; but Whisky’s character is defined by these processes. This seems to be to me to be an admirable quality of whisky; a character defined by natural processes. This I suppose reflects my own sense of aesthetics rather than an objective view, but I like to think of whisky as somehow pure. This is I guess the root of the problem.

The themes that I picked up in the interviews are not of purity though, they emphasise that every distiller wants to adulterate their natural product, so that they can sell a separate product in every market. It seems that every distiller now produces a peated whisky, a whisky finished in wine casks, whisky for the duty free markets, a special edition celebrating any number of focus group selected characteristics  (such as particular years or particle locations, or former malt masters, or some obscure historical association) or a range of other reasons that their marketers believe will sell. It seems every company is taking this approach. I think there is a certain irony in this, since Toohey famously described his project as “‘Enshrining Mediocrity”. By their endless desire to conquer new markets and recreate their own product, I tend to think that whisky companies are doing the same.


* The DTWC and The Baron have been regular features of recent WhiskyCast episodes.
**  Toohey is the main antagonist in the Ayn Rand novel The Fountainhead. He is an avowed socialist and he seeks to destroy the hero of the book, the individualist Howard Roark. 


  1. doh! I love a good piece of commentary, but will have to re-read this when I am has proper footnotes.

  2. My fist impressions after reading this is by the sound of it you have reached the limits of your own marketing saturation. Your starting to switch off because you know too much about whisky now and your requirements to buy have moved past the basics of marketing itself. This is a most common trait encountered in marketing in general so the reinventions of the same things are simple tricks of the trade. Your self awareness of the problem ensures your not fooled over again but it does add a certain level of boredom when reading, listening, or watching media about the subject at hand.

    In the end I think if they all did truly say the same things or walk the same walk we would still be left with JW Red label and probably never have experienced a single malt at all. The industry is edging forward bit by bit and with each generation comes a new market needing to know all those things we seasoned consumers already take for granted.

  3. No, I don't think so. I think that much of what the industry is doing today is fake. Its not authentic; they are driven by marketing concerns. Why else does Ardbeg make a Blasda? Why make an unpeated whisky if your on Islay. Why are so many non-Islay whiskies making peated bottles. They are all just trying to get a bottle in every market. That's sustainable now - there is a global surge in interest in Whisky.

    Ultimately all this means is that we get lots of JW Reds. Its all the same...

  4. Fake in comparison to what? I don't get the logic saying it is all fake. Business is all about marketing concerns ad change. It is like saying a photographer should not use digital because it is not authentic. I knew many a photographer 10years ago that flatly refused to go to digital and touted the brilliance and authenticity of film. Now you will be dashed to find one that does not use digital as a primary business tool and film second let alone one with an operational developing room. If they refused to try something new and stick with the line 'people will buy because I am authentic' they would have one job a week and go broke.

    Not that I was aware of whisky 30 years ago but according to accounts the single malt industry was all but dead in the water itself. Without distilleries reinventing themselves and marketing themselves how many would be left now?

    On the note of peat you will find though it was used everywhere throughout the greater UK for firing ovens, fireplaces as well as for whisky. Abundance of natural resources drove distillers in certain directions in order to make product and in time it was found certain resources to give better qualities desirable by the market. I believe some distillers still use coal to fire and some natural gas each imparting a certain flavour (potentially with gas not imparting flavour at all).

    I can say that though personally I do not mind Ardbeg 10yo (as an example) but I also cannot be bothered buying it because I find it pretty ordinary. I actually cannot wait to try the Blasda to see what Ardbeg is like without peat firing. It might be bloody fantastic and right up my alley so I really look forward to the experience. So taking that into reason I am a potential customer to Ardbeg that I would not have been otherwise. Distilleries like Ardbeg that were almost gone only a few short years ago so they would be right idiots to not look for bread and butter markets to keep them afloat while they continue to maintain some of the more traditional styles.

    To me it does not make a lot of sense. Your argument though raises many valid underlying points such as the qualities of whisky flooding the market. Our experience has shown many single malts can be downright crap for price showing a good reason for this whisky club to try before we buy to see what is to our tastes before outlaying hard earned cash. Remember the Ballechin, or the Finlaggen, or the Loch Lomond, or the Hart Brothers Macallan.

  5. I think that choice has always been around, but it is becoming more prevalent as the industry re-invents itself. Recently, distillers are getting more involved and increasingly marketing savvy, so instead of relying on independents to create new expressions, they are taking initiative. It seems most major brands now have their standard product stable, then experiment on the side. This is good as we get some rye whisky, single-grain whisky, plus the myriad of cask finishes. I will agree some of expressions annoy me, the 'limited editions', but that's mainly because (1) we don't get them in Australia and (2) we can't afford them anyway.

    Choice has got to be a good thing, otherwise things could start to get a bit ho-hum. I wish I could drink more whisky at a faster rate, as there is so much to try now...I guess that's what the distillers want?

    I tend to agree with The Baron's prescription, you might be feeling a little whisky-saturated at the moment...I am sure the whole new element of social media (Twitter, Facebook) is also creating pressure on consumers never felt before.

    it is interesting as you have probably had more independent bottlings than anyone in the group. In any case, hang in there Colonel, no one said being a member of D.T.W.C. was going to be easy!?! Great thought-provoking post BTW.

    The Diplomat (formerly Secretary)

  6. Gents,
    I've thought long and hard over the last week about your comments on this post, and I'm afraid I havent changed my mind.

    I do concede you point htat one of the costs of haveing a strong whisky industry is large marketing departments, and the consequent advertising that focuses on filling consumer niches.

    But let me give you an example of what I think is a problem:

    In a recent WhiskyCast episode (can't remember exact one, it was between 299 & 302) MG repoted that a whisky lable (again can't remember which one. Sorry) was releasing 12 new expressions. These new expressions would only be available in 12 airports around the world and the expressions would be a homage to .....

    The airports.

    WTF??? Whisky expressions celebrating airports? Surely this is marketing gone mad!