View from the other side of the bar

View from the other side of the bar

In this issue we asked three people who stand against snobbery in whisky how they view the industry

People | 14 Apr 2006 | Issue 55

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The Participants: John Clotworthy (JC)
Drumchork Lodge, Aultbea, Scotland Mike Hayward (MH)
Nurse, malt collector and Whisky
Magazine reader Dave Robertson (DR)
John,Mark and Robbo’s Easy Drinking
Whisky Company Q: Is the whisky trade doing enough to encourage new drinkers and are different countries better than others at it?MH:In advertising terms, you can never do enough with regard to positive promotion, and so the answer is probably no! However, Famous Grouse has a fresh, new advertising campaign with the animated and humorous Grouse mascot clearly aimed at the younger market. The Glenfiddich has realised the huge potential of linking its products to cooking and fine cuisine.The other producers have a lot to learn. I don’t believe any country is particularly good at attracting new drinkers.JC: I agree. If you mean the distilleries, there are only one or two advertising on television. If the proposed new drinkers are to be encouraged they have to know about the product in the first place. I hear Drambuie is doing a big push towards the 18-35 age group by visiting various premises doing promotions, maybe the big boys in the industry should take note.DR: Well it depends on the market and what the preconceived idea about whisky is in that market. There seems to be great moves afoot with Diageo kick starting vatted malt (JW Green) and looking at blends with J&B -6C; Wm Grants and its funky chunky Monkey Shoulder; Compass Box and its blending for brilliance and balance.Some independents are having great fun with Big Smoke, Smokehead etc and ourselves who try and focus on fun and flavour – it is after all, only a drink for sharing with your mates!Most of the innovations above are testing new packaging and serve concepts but the fact remains that as an aged spirit we choose to be handcuffed and at a competitive disadvantage against unaged, cheap to produce white spirits and in particular vodka.The massive explosion in to flavoured vodkas overseas in addition innovative rums, gins and tequilas mean that the consumer has even more choice than ever before. We need to find a way of whisky being smart, savvy and cute enough to compete on a level playing field.The biggest challenge we (JMR) have faced is driving new distribution – retailers (bars and stores) are reluctant to try new stuff given that their shelves are choc full of other, arguably, more innovative and trendier spirits. Consumers once they get to see and try our hooch love it, but we’re just not on enough shelves.Q: Is the perception of whisky an outdated one and what can be done about it?MH: The fact that there are so many new specialist whisky shops springing up in unlikely places such as Yorkshire, Wiltshire and Lincoln shows that the image and demand is changing slowly in a positive direction. However, I work in a profession dominated by women and a straw poll suggests that most view whisky as an “old man’s” drink or something to be given as a present to dads or grandads.DR: I believe some of the big guys should take a lead and attempt to position some of their blended scotch brands in a more contemporary fashion.Grouse has done this to a certain extent, Bells has tried to make itself cool with some of the recent Jools Holland ads but the serve still seems to be rather dull, boring and traditional. The Ginger Grouse serve seems to be creating a bit of a stir but it faces a long, uphill climb! Q:Is the industry,both in Scotland and elsewhere,getting it about right in terms of promoting itself or is it presenting a negative image?MH: Take a flick through the pages of any copy of Whisky Magazine and you can immediately see one of whisky’s image problems: dull, unimaginative, one page colour adverts displaying only a bottle of the advertised whisky – that’s as exciting as it gets! Therefore, better, innovative and more targeted advertising in magazines such as GQ, FHM and Cosmopolitan will help appeal to a different customer group.DR: But it depends what you want – as an exexcutive of a large brand you would be taking a hell of a risk by radically changing what an existing big brand is doing for fear of alienating your core consumer base. This is why Wm Grants is testing Monkey Shoulder – no risk to Grants Blended or Glenfiddich, this is why Edrington helps fund JMR (no risk to Grouse, Macallan, etc).JC:Yes and I think more could be done at the ‘coal face.’ Distilleries should have open days for bar staff and shop staff to teach them about different expressions and flavours from the casks with some help with promotions.Q: Can whisky promote itself on taste alone, or is the traditional image still important?DR: We have tried to focus on the flavour and for us all whiskies fit in to four key flavour zones – spicy, sweet, fruity and smokey.We need the drinks experts and publications like Whisky Mag to get these messages out there and share the thinking with those that have real interest and passion.From this we would hope that the trade and consumers can understand that explaining the flavour of whisky is fairly straightforward.If you look at the massive growth over the last 15 years from new world wine you can see that once you offer some education on variety and flavour wrapped up in an attractive package at a low risk trial purchase price the consumer will give it a go.MH: It has to be a clever marriage of both taste and image, one cannot be successful without the other. The traditional Scottish whisky image and the associated heritage is still massively important, particularly in terms of tourist/overseas buyers. However, looks and image are no good if the taste doesn’t match. I once bought a very expensive, and well packaged, bottle of Italian Grappa, one taste and the rest of the bottle went straight down the sink. I’ve never bought another!Q:What angers you most about the whisky trade and why?JC: The snobbery, people pushing older more expensive whiskies with the idea that older and more expensive is best. I would rather sell five drams at £3.20 than one at £16. This way the customer can taste a whole range of tastes aromas and finishes than one they might not even like at £16.I also get angry at the presentation of malts in bars and hotels. I was in a bar when someone asked for a Grouse and a Highland Park and watched in horror as they were both served in tumblers. When the customer asked which was which the barperson couldn’t tell.The malt is more expensive so make it look more appealing if you do not have tasting glasses serve it in a wine glass or brandy glass, present a quality malt to the dignity it deserves. I spend a lot of time training bar staff up here on the west coast with great results.MH:Yes, and the obscene prices attached to certain aged whisky, the dominance of certain brands in the market place and the whisky industry’s greedy obsession with producing limited edition bottlings to celebrate almost anything that they can get away with!DR: For me it’s the traditional view that seems to be held and acts as a barrier to anything new. The deep discounts and generous promotions throughout the year – short term, volume building that runs the risk of undermining the value whisky should have in a consumer’s mind – promotional herion – people get hooked!Q:What changes need to be made to guarantee whisky a healthy future?DR: Breakthrough innovation where we can find a way of competing on a level playing field with other spirits producers – let’s face it, the Scots are amongst the very best distillers on the planet and could find a multitude of ways of ‘improving’ taste performance given the freedom and will to do so.MH: Despite what Dave Broom thinks, supermarkets stocking a wider range of malts at reasonable and affordable prices is key to the future of mainstream malt whisky. The whisky experts should be working with, and advising the leading supermarkets, not condemning them for making malt, other than Glenfiddich, available to the common man at a cost that he can afford.JC: From my point of view, it’s training of staff in shops, bars and hotels. More communication from the distilleries to the front line staff. How do you expect us to sell your product if you do not even communicate with us. In our hotel we have more than 700 malts and in the last eight years we have had visits from Maxxium, Isle of Skye and Gordon & McPhail. Where are all the rest? I know of other bars wanting to learn about malts and they come to my presentation classes and ask me to teach their staff. It would just be nice if some of the distilleries sent more representives offering some advice and help.
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