Looking to the future

Looking to the future

In this issue we look at how other spirits have far more flexibility to experiment and are therefore able to reinvent themselves to appeal to new drinkers,and ask is this damaging the future of whisky?

People | 30 Aug 2006 | Issue 58 | By Rob Allanson

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Alex Turner, Woodford Reserve (AT)
John Glaser, Compass Box (JG)
Richard Paterson, Whyte and Mackay (RP) Q:Scotch whisky is bound by some pretty tough rules when it comes to production. Are these in essence right, or should there be scope for more flexibility?AT: As with all things consumers look for reassurance in what they buy, hence why people pay for wines and Cognacs over less known but equally good products as they are not certain of the integrity of the production. There is very little flexibility in Cognac production as this ensures a consistent product time after time, this is very important in luxury markets where a lot of Scotch whisky is aimed at. Protection of the ‘Scottishness’ of the whisky is very important to consumers, rules are there to protect the quality of the spirit and therefore protecting the taste which is essentially what people are buying it for.JG: The basic elements of the law are right, I believe, and in my company’s view do provide flexibility. I’m referring to the Scotch Whisky Act of 1988, The Scotch Whisky Order of 1990 and the EU Spirits Regulations, all of which can be found and read by anyone on the internet who will see that these are pretty basic pieces of legislation which provide flexibility.The tough rules I think you’re referring to are the regulations of the Scotch Whisky Association based on its and its lawyer’s interpretations of the laws. Some of the SWA regulations I think are good and right, and protect Scotch whisky, others I think are needlessly binding, and don’t serve the best interests of Scotch whisky.RP: Listen – let us be quite clear here; we are not talking about some kind of jungle juice – this is Scotch whisky renowned for its heritage and true authenticity. A unique product respected all around the world. Upholding its integrity must remain sacrosanct. If we were to ‘bend the rules’ and allow other ‘additives’ out with our traditional values – the floodgates of abuse would surely follow and we would then become just another flavoured spirit. We are respected in more than 200 countries. Let’s keep it that way.Q:Are the rigid rules that apply to Scotch whisky its unique selling point or are they an obstacle when it comes to attracting new drinkers?AT: The rules are what make Scotch different in taste to other spirits so therefore they directly affect the flavour.There is a double edged sword when it comes to attracting new and generally younger drinkers, palates change with age and experience as does an increase in earnings.Scotch will never be vodka and will always have a highish price point. Scotch is also considered ‘strong’ by many drinkers and is perceived to be higher in alcohol than vodka and rum. Mixing Scotch will always attract new drinkers which is why single malts will never appeal to a 20 something drinker.JG: I don’t think that attracting new drinkers is the only issue here. I think a bigger although perhaps related issue is the ability of Scotch whisky makers to use new and evolutionary techniques to make even better quality whisky.RP: When the subject of attracting younger drinkers enters the fray this always stirs my emotions simply because the wider picture has been seriously overlooked. Therefore the wrong message is frequently misinterpreted.The United Kingdom is just one country, just one out of 200 who supports Scotch whisky.Although the UK could perhaps attract a better following from the younger consumers towards Scotch whisky, it is not as serious and dramatic as some would like us to believe. Again what is young ? They have to be of an age when they can appreciate the excellent qualities of a single malt or a blended Scotch. Until then let them ‘experiment and experience’ with the other fun drinks.The so called younger generation for Scotch whisky are certainly making their mark in other countries such Spain, Greece, Moscow, China and Japan to name but a few.At the same time I would like to record at every Scotch whisky festival that I attend around the world there are not that many zimmers in sight. Why? Because the vast majority are sensible young whisky drinkers.The other side of the coin should be borne in mind that the older generation are not the strongest supporters of vodka.Q: Does constant innovation in a drinks sector devalue it or do people expect it from some drinks categories (such as vodka) but would be suspicious of it if applied to whisky?AT: With vodka and rum, new flavours and colours are easier to pass into the mainstream drinker’s area of experience as they tend to be more heavily marketed and specifically targeted at these consumers.The market is so overwhelmed with new brands that any new one needs such marketing behind it to be successful.Some whisky drinkers would be open to innovation in whisky especially in other countries such as the United States or Canadia to see how it works with them first.JG: It depends on what you mean by innovation. Given carte blanche in anything, you do have to be careful how far you stretch it. But usually common sense can be a good guide here. If an innovation helps to build on the inherent quality of something, that’s a good thing.But trying to morph something good into something it’s not meant to be, simply for commercial reasons, is crass.RP: During the years we have seen the rise of many innovative presentations which have encouraged and motivated the consumer. Single malt is a classic example and has become the envy of our other brown spirit counterparts. But we cannot stop there, we must continually strive to educate not just the younger generation but everyone.In essence we must maintain the integrity and quality of Scotch whisky but at the same time we must remain tirelessly committed to educating and extolling the virtues of whisky at every level. With more than 2,500 different brands of Scotch, including a vast array of single malts to select from, the consumer is truly spoilt for choice.Q:Is it possible that we will see the growth of innovative products in a new category of whisky-influenced drinks such as Orangerie?AT: Hopefully, anything that increases consumers’ exposure to Scotch is a good thing, cocktails will definitely help with the promotion of blended Scotch and some malts. Whiskies that are produced to help the cocktail bartender mix them are always a welcome addition to the bartender’s armoury as there not many Scotches produced specifically aimed at the mixer, unlike some of the new expressions of Cognac and gin we have seen lately.Most Scotch whiskies also suffer from a lack of knowledge of how to mix them with other mixers except soda, cola and water.Having knowledge of recipes help bartenders recommend Scotch mixed drinks over other spirits to guests that would normally not drink a Scotch cocktail.This then allows the consumer to try other Scotch drinks and brands with a little more confidence.JG: I don't think many companies will copy our infusion “Orangerie” when they see the cost of the organically-grown oranges we use!Q:Is it enough for whisky to be innovative in terms of presentation (J&B Whisky Caviar, Monkey Shoulder Solid Manhattan etc) rather than in terms of production?AT: New presentation and serving styles are always good for adding interest to any drink, however can be thought of as gimmicky by a number of traditional consumers. They also tend to stay in a very small section of the market and not reach the public domain. Producers need to be aware of the changing market for their brands but innovation and change is very often seem as a way of covering up inadequacies in the core brand.JG: To paraphrase Bill Clinton: “It’s the product, stupid!” Q: Is Scotch whisky’s future secure even if it doesn’t attract new and younger drinkers?AT: Yes, but younger drinkers in the UK will generally start drinking JD and coke way before ever drinking a Scotch, it is important to innovate in terms of advertising and promotion of the brands.Young drinkers need a reason to drink something: their mates drink it; people they aspire to drink it; they get one for free; or they tried it once and liked it. It is important that producers realise that in the UK Scotch whisky is seen as a ‘grown up’ drink but not in a good way, this has to be changed to attract new younger drinkers. Personally, I would focus on the late 20 early 30s drinker who wants to move away from sweet drinks such as JD and coke but is not sure where to go and finds the Scotch category too complex to navigate. Bar staff in this country are also generally poorly educated about the Scotch category so find it difficult to recommend it to their guests and also because they don’t drink it.JG: I think this question answers itself.The real question is what is required to continually bring new drinkers into your category? To do this you’ve got to stay relevant. And this is not just a packaging or image issue, this is about how you continue to make extraordinary product that keeps up with everything else that’s out there, in terms of flavour interest and quality.RP: We have come a long way since the first reference to Scotch whisky in 1494 – unlike ‘other’ spirits, I think we will be around a little longer.
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