Whatever happened to the heroes?

Whatever happened to the heroes?

Some of the great whisky brands have remained popular, others have all but disappeared. Why? Tom Bruce-Gardyne investigates

News 07 Apr 2003 | Interviews | By Tom Bruce-Gardyne

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When The Stranglers first growled the words “Whatever happened to … ” in their hit No More Heroes, they could have been singing about Scotch. For just as punk destroyed many older bands in the late ‘70s, some of the great names in whisky were beginning to get pushed aside.Twenty-five years on, it seems a good time to ask the same question of those once great whisky brands that helped build an entire industry.At the start of the ‘70s, Haig Gold Label became the first brand of spirits in the United Kingdom to sell more than a million cases in a year. With its closest rival a long way behind, Haig felt supremely self-confident.It came from the oldest whisky dynasty in the world and had been Britain’s favourite Scotch for a generation. It was unfazed by the retail revolution sweeping the high street and was about to enter the supermarkets for the first time.By the decade’s end, Haig was in serious trouble, fatally wounded by Bell’s, which had come from almost nowhere to seize poll position.With its 40-year-old slogan – ‘Don’t be vague, ask for Haig’ – and its dumpy, dark glass bottle with a plain label, it was looking old and tired.All the usual tricks were tried – Haig was dressed in a clear bottle like Bell’s, it was backed with a new advertising campaign.But it was too little too late. In 1986, the United Kingdom rights to Gold Label were sold to Whyte & Mackay by its parent company DCL. It is now back with DCL, or rather Diageo, who currently sell less than 1,000 cases of Haig in the UK per year.“I always think a whisky is like a pop star,” says Richard Paterson, master blender at Kyndal (owners of Whyte & Mackay). “If you don’t maintain your status or your up-keep you just fall away from the public eye – there’s just so much competition out there.”In which case, John Haig was the ultimate ‘70s rocker, falling from sold-out arena tours to occasional supports on the pub circuit. Meanwhile, its long-time stablemate, Johnnie Walker, who joined Haig at DCL in 1925, has simply refused to die. And, more to the point, it remains the biggest brand of whisky in the world. It is, to continue the rock star analogy, whisky’s answer to Sir Mick Jagger.So why does this flagship brand appear immortal while others just f-f-f-fade away?For Richard Paterson, it is because Johnnie Walker has retained its respect from day one and is still considered “the life blood of Diageo”.But isn’t the logo of the striding man with his top hat and tails, created in 1908, pretty Edwardian?“Yes, but is it perceived as old?” counters Paterson. “It’s got a distinctive bottle and a slanting label. It’s reliable and it’s a fabulous blend.”When the Johnnie Walker brand was invented, there were hundreds of other makes desperate to join the stampede in the great Victorian
whisky boom.Names matter. It’s not entirely surprising that whiskies like ‘Robin Oig’ or ‘Gulliver’s Scotch Gravy’ soon fizzled out.Yet for all its worldwide success, one can ask, whatever happened to Johnnie Walker Red Label in Britain? It was a big-selling whisky here in the late ‘70s when DCL decided to pull it in order to protect its lucrative European market. This followed an EEC ruling which meant it couldn’t prevent a distributor buying the brand in Britain, where it was cheaper, and undercutting the company’s agents in Europe.The board at DCL were probably not used to being told what to do, and, to quote Alan Gray, a respected analyst of the Scotch whisky industry, “used a sledgehammer to crack a nut.”British Red Label drinkers were given a replacement whisky in a similar square bottle called John Barr, which sunk without trace. Then, after 10 years’ absence, Red Label tried to sneak back in, but it was too late – the consumers had moved on.Back in the ‘60s, sharing the same DCL stable were White Horse, Dewar’s White Label, Buchanan Black & White and VAT 69. Together, the six brands had the British market more or less sewn up. Today they have all virtually disappeared from it. Yet if you ask that trusty tabloid question ‘where are they now?’, the answer might easily be ‘alive and well and living elsewhere.’Haig, for example, still sells more than a million cases a year, primarily as Dimple, the 12-year-old deluxe version, known as Pinch in the States. Its biggest market is now Korea, followed by Germany, Greece and the USA.Faced with a hostile tax regime and a disloyal fan-base, these whiskies simply chose to leave home.But in truth, they had always lived abroad.In under 20 years after Sir Peter Mackie created his White Horse blend in 1890, he had established agencies in Korea and Japan. It is still popular among the Japanese and in markets such as Latin America.White Horse used to be strong in the States, though nothing compared to Buchanan’s Black & White, which had become the country’s most popular Scotch by the outbreak of World War II.It went on to become the largest selling exported whisky in the world, peaking at more than 2.5 million cases in 1981. By then, only a tenth of this was being drunk in the United States.It is still a big-selling deluxe whisky in South America, while as a standard aged blend in countries such as Belgium and Germany, it has sought to reinvent itself as young and hip.As for VAT 69, rumours of the blend’s demise are quickly squashed by Dr Nick Morgan, marketing director for the Classic Malts.“Four years ago, I would have been able to give you a wonderfully spurious statistic, that VAT 69 was the fastest growing brand in the world, though I don’t think that’s still the case,” he says. Even so, it continues to rattle off Diageo’s bottling lines in Scotland’s central belt at a rate of up to 15 million bottles a year, almost entirely for export.In Britain, under the old regime at DCL, these brands were run as separate fiefdoms with their own sales force. They each had a London HQ occupying a prime piece of real-estate, and because they dominated the market here, they competed in a gentlemanly fashion with each other.The arrival of outside competition, the rise of the supermarkets and the wave of mergers and acquisitions that swept the industry brought all that to an end.When DCL raised the price of its non-killer brands – Dewar’s, Vat 69 and Black & White – by £6 a case in 1978, their UK sales collapsed within a few years.For visiting Americans, it has always appeared strange that the number-one Scotch back home barely exists in Britain.This is set to change under Bacardi, who bought Dewar’s four years ago and are slowly rebuilding sales in hotels and restaurants here. In time, US tourists will be able to move seamlessly from Dewar’s World of Whisky at Aberfeldy to the golf coast of St Andrews without ever running dry of their beloved whisky.Another name that has migrated overseas is 100 Pipers, which, according to Geoff Parmiter of Chivas Brothers, was the number four whisky in Scotland until 10 years ago.Its image may have become a little too ‘Scottish’ for the Scots themselves, but in Asia it is still a big brand, and sells a million cases in Thailand alone.Somehow, the further from Scotland you go, the greater the need for the label to emphasise its Scottishness. Not for nothing are Royal Stag and Bagpiper two of the most popular Indian-made whiskies in India.All sorts of garish, tartan labels of locally-bottled whisky line the shelves in the supermarkets on the Franco-Spanish border. And 100 Pipers remains the most popular Scotch in the Canary Islands.People’s tastes also change. J&B is a light whisky that happens to work well with Coke. So-called old-fashioned whiskies like White Horse and Teacher’s do not.“Some blenders have said to me that these types of blends were slightly heavier and more rugged in character,” says Richard Paterson.“With the rise of the supermarkets in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the whiskies they sold tended to have a lower price, and therefore a lower malt content.”People’s taste in single malts has moved in the other direction, given the popularity of big, phenolic whiskies. There is no real reason for the success of other brands, and they seem to be popular on a whim.Among the lesser-known brands in Geoff Parmiter’s portfolio are White Heather, number one in New South Wales, Australia, and House of Lords, the top-selling whisky in Ecuador.Why? Do they have a special regard for the British system of government? Almost certainly not.There are parts of the world that have become ‘retirement homes’ for distressed and ageing brands.Where you have a loyal importer and a stubborn band of consumers who refuse to drink what the rest of the world is drinking, anything is possible.Such places range from Paraguay to Portugal. It is in these places that the spirit of yesterday’s heroes lies gathering dust.With special thanks to Christine Jones and Christine Gillespie in Diageo’s archive department.
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