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Scotch Whisky’s Identity Crisis

I have already written extensively about the perpetual effort of the Scotch whisky industry to “demystify” the category and attract younger people two years ago in the second part of this article. Not very surprisingly this quest has still not ended. The latest reiteration is Diageo’s Haig Club campagin with David Beckham in polka dot trousers.

haig_club_clubman_beckham

In a Spirits Business article we find this all too familiar sounding gem:

“Our first advert for Haig Club Clubman aims to disrupt people’s pre-conceived notions around whisky,” said Ronan Beirne, global marketing director for Haig Club.

“With Haig Club Clubman, we are purposefully and assertively inviting consumers to make their own rules on how to enjoy this versatile Scotch whisky.

“This progressive approach aligns with our long term ambition to recruit new whisky drinkers by breaking down the barriers for entry, continuing to drive the vibrancy and relevancy of the category.”

While the Scotch whisky industry is desperately trying to modernise its image by embracing millenial hipster bargoers its members are celebrating themselves as Keepers of the Quaich at Blair Castle in front of stag heads, historic weapons and paintings of Highland nobility, an exclusive invitation-only circle with a visual apperance somewhere between freemasons and a folkloristic costume group.

Distillery managers and brand ambassadors proudly wear kilts at whisky shows and other events while the marketing departments try to overcome the dusty “kilt and bagpipe” image of Scotch whisky. And only last year Diageo reinforced the dreaded “old man in a comfy chair in front of a fireplace” stereotype by having Nick Offerman sipping Lagavulin for 44 minutes straight on a promotional “Yule Log” video.

I could cite more examples of this schizophrenia but I think you get the picture.

The attempts to “demystify” Scotch whisky are certainly not helped by the recent trend of releasing no age statement bottlings with fancy names, preferably Gaelic, that very often leave the potential buyer without any clue about the content of the bottle, let alone how the name is pronounced.

Instead, the current trend of post-factual politics finds its analogy in whisky advertising that lulls people into a world of fairy tales about mysterious beasts and myths about the heritage of a brand in order to sell completely interchangeable products. Whiskies of entry level quality are stylised to luxury items with the hope that fancy packaging and outrageous pricing might fool the palates of the buyers.

Oh, the pricing, everybody’s favourite topic. I’ve ranted more than enough about it myself. But it is also another symptom of the disease that Scotch whisky is suffering from. Whisky is supposed to become more approachable, but at the same time it is becoming less and less affordable.

The industry wants to introduce new audiences to Scotch, but the affordable introductory bottlings are becoming less and less an advertisment for “the good stuff”. Both because their quality is often mediocre and because most of the good stuff is now priced beyond the financial capabilities of people with a modest income. Can Scotch whisky really be approachable, if anything but the cheap stuff of is out of reach?

And finally, mere mortals are told that age is nothing but a number. Meanwhile, precious liquid from the oldest casks is filled into crystal decanters, put on a pedestal, and producers, investors and oligarchs dance around the 50 year old golden calves.

The whisky industry is doing the splits. I just hope they don’t strain their legs.

 




{ 3 comments… add one }
  • kallaskander December 7, 2016, 10:59 am

    Hi Oliver,

    a good summary of the state of things.

    The whisky industry as a whole is suffering from the Macallan syndrom. To successful in too short time for their own good. And all that footing on false predictions.

    As the boom went on everything was easy but now the wave is not far away from the sea defences anymore and it gets harder to sustain the success that came so easily during boom time.

    That means whisky as a category had no trouble to gain a wider and wider audience in the past year but now everybody knows whisky and it is very hard to keep a wave about to break going.

    The whisky industry is desperate to stay in the flow not the least because some severe mismanagement went on and false perdictions that did not come true have been made.

    Expansion in distilling and production capacity footed on three main assumptions.

    whisky’s momentum will go on forever

    The BRIC nations or all those emerging markets have unlimited capacity to buy whisky

    blended whisky will grow ever more

    None of that is true at the end of the year 2016. Ian Buxton wrote somewhere the dirty little secret of the industry was that they have grown fond and accustomed to high prices but they do not have the old casks anymore to sustain ever higher prices. Or in that sense.
    The industry has grown fond of many more things.

    The hunt for new customers and the ever increasing numbers of „approachable“ whiskies is the desperate attempt to squeeze new profits out of a whisky market that is sattisfied on the side of demand.

    When the boom began there were 4 different Johnnie Walkers – Red Black Gold and Blue label. How many are there today?

    I believe that the demand for whisky has reached its zenith and from here it can only go the other way no matter how many millions are poured in new products more marketing or fancy story telling.

    Greetings
    kallaskander

  • Christian December 8, 2016, 9:22 am

    Oliver,

    Nick Offerman is a legend amongst some young people. Especially when it comes to comedy. So I think him sitting there should be seen in this light of making fun of these old school traditions and well Lagavulin is a proper whisky for true man, right?

    Won’t comment on the Haig perfume thing though.

    Hope you will post more often here

    Seasons greetings
    Christian

  • kallaskander January 4, 2017, 11:30 am

    Hi Oliver,
    reading this
    https://scotchwhisky.com/magazine/in-depth/11957/scotch-finds-a-new-path-in-korea/
    reminded me of your text about the identity crisis of Scotch. Connections between high costs for Scotch and an image problem (again?) are mentioned.
    Shareholders would just hate to lose a market like South Korea so Scotch turns to prostituting … once proud an full of passion… now chumming up to save the profit.
    Small wonder the identity gets lost on the way….

    Greetings
    kallaskander

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