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.