The re-launch of Diageo's Johnnie Walker Pure Malt brand as Johnnie Walker Green Label has further raised the profile of vatted or blended malts in the market place. In the context of the growing popularity of malt whisky, Ben Cooper asks whether blended malts will have more of a role to play.

The recent launch of a new brand in the Johnnie Walker Scotch whisky line-up is more in the way of a re-launch. The company has re-named and re-packaged its Johnnie Walker Pure Malt brand as Johnnie Walker Green Label which will complement the existing Red Label, Black Label, Gold Label, Blue Label offerings, as well as one or two other variants.

But the move shows that the company is keen to tap into the potential offered by vatted or pure malts, which are effectively blends of different single malts rather than a Single Malt which is the product of one distillery marketed under that distillery's name. The recent re-launch also marks the global launch for Green Label, whereas Johnnie Walker Pure Malt was only available in selected markets, though according to Diageo has grown rapidly since its original launch in 1997.

Diageo is keen to tap into the growth potential of malt whisky and extend the Johnnie Walker brand franchise to consumers who are looking to discover malt whisky. "We know that this special whisky is already extremely popular," says Stephen Morley, global brand director for Johnnie Walker. "Consumers are increasingly keen to explore different types of whisky and identify the best within each category. With its inclusion in the Johnnie Walker family we hope to bring this wonderful blended malt Scotch whisky to millions of consumers globally."

The term blended malt Scotch whisky means that no grain whiskies are used in the blend. Johnnie Walker Green Label, which had apparently often been referred to as "Green Label" by consumers prior to the name change, contains four "Signature Malts", Caol Ila, Talisker, Linkwood and Cragganmore, along with other island and Speyside malts.

The 15 Year Old whisky will be priced at between £26 and £28 in duty-free markets though it will now be available globally. The largest markets for the existing brand are global duty-free and Taiwan.

The Green Label move is also significant because of the furore created by Diageo's decision last year to change its Cardhu brand from a Single Malt to a pure malt under the same brand name. Diageo has recently announced that Cardhu will return to being a Single Malt but the company suffered a significant amount of negative publicity over the issue. The decision to change the Pure Malt name to Johnnie Walker Green Label is not controversial in the way as the Cardhu move, but in recent experience the blended malt area has proved delicate for Diageo so it was clearly keen to get this re-launch right.

The exact product descriptor on the label is Blended Malt Scotch Whisky. Diageo has been involved with the Scotch Whisky Association in standardising the term for blended malts which had generally been known as pure malts or vatted malts. Although it has not been formally announced, this form of words may end up being the standardised term to describe such whiskies. "Blended Malt Scotch Whisky should be the new Pure Malt, agreed by the Scotch Whisky Association," Stephen Morley told just-drinks, adding that Diageo was keen take a leading role in discussions regarding consistent naming and defining of Scotch whisky categories.

Regarding Diageo's decision to return the Cardhu brand to a single malt, Morley simply said: "This was done after a series of discussions with the SWA which resulted in migrating our business in Cardhu Pure Malt to a Single Malt business."

The decision to incorporate a blended malt into the core Johnnie Walker family and more importantly to extend its distribution suggests that Diageo sees potential in this type of product. There are also practical considerations in terms of pricing and supply, which make pure malts attractive to whisky producers, as indeed Diageo demonstrated with its Cardhu move when it was not able to meet demand for the brand from just one distillery. But vatted malts - as this somewhat prosaic term implies - have never had the cachet of Single Malts so the key is to be able to produce blended malts which are sufficiently attractive to consumers.

However, a blended malt marketed under a world-famous premium brand would be a different matter. Morley believes that blended malts - led no doubt by Green Label - will have a role to play in the expanding malt whisky sector. "The malt segment in Scotch whisky has been growing in the last four to five years," Morley told just-drinks. "I think as the category matures people are looking to explore the category more and more, and pure malt will have a role to play within that."

Green Label also has a role to play within the Johnnie Walker family. It will be positioned between Black Label and Gold Label but the relationship between the different whiskies in the Johnnie Walker stable goes far further than just price positioning. Diageo has developed sophisticated consumer models for the drinkers of the various product variants and developed advertising and innovative marketing programmes to fit those consumers, whilst also retaining core elements representative of the Johnnie Walker brand itself.

The work has clearly paid off. For in addition to being a giant brand, Johnnie Walker is showing strong growth. Diageo reports that the brand recorded 9% growth in 2004 against 2003. Since its "Keep Walking" campaign was launched in 1999, the brand as a whole has grown from around 9.7m cases to around 11.7m cases.

The change of name for its blended malt offering brings it more closely into the core Johnnie Walker family, which coupled with expanded distribution should certainly increase sales. It gives the Johnnie Walker family a further string to its bow but should also raise the profile of blended malt as a category.