Comment - Spirits - Scotch: Age Ain't Nuthin' But a Number?
An online row broke out among the Scotch whisky fraternity earlier this month. It all kicked off with the launch of The Macallan Gold from The Edrington Group, and its cousins Amber, Sienna and Ruby, all set to follow next year. But wait, asked some observers; how old are they? Ian Buxton is equally quizzical.
Things have got rather confused here at the Trend Distillery. Every week, we process raw public relations material in the hope of producing a quality spirit.
But, the wires have got crossed.
We’ve received badly mixed messages from the Scotch whisky industry: “Age matters” they cry from the hills and glens; “no, colour counts” comes the reply as the clans gather under their multi-coloured (and suitably aged) battle standards.
We can’t feed that into the mash without some further study.
Under the banner of age we find Bowmore, hoping this month to find eight wealthy customers with GBP100,000 (US$162,200) each to splash out on a bottle of its 54-year-old single malt. Does it matter what colour it is? Seems about as likely as anyone actually pouring some into a glass, so that’s 1-0 to Team Age.
And, Bowmore is getting some strong support from its friends at Chivas Brothers who earlier this month restated its fervent belief in age as the key discriminator for discerning whisky consumers. This firm, almost messianic conviction dates back to June 2010, which in terms of PR history makes it almost an article of faith. Back then, the message was that “age matters” although this has now ‘matured’ into “great things take time” – a message that references the “historical and cultural icons we treasure most”.
Even by spinmeister standards that’s some claim.
But then, Chivas Brothers claims to hold the industry’s largest inventory of aged Scotch and has a volume share of 85% of Scotch aged 21 years and over. Armed with its consumer research showing that 90% of Scotch consumers don't understand what the age statement actually means (and in the purest spirit of altruism) ‘Great Things Take Time’ has been launched to help those rich but ignorant consumers to appreciate the value of what they’re buying.
It’s noble work.
"We know whisky drinkers care about the age of the whisky, yet most don't know exactly what the age means," explains Christian Porta, chairman & CEO of Chivas Brothers. "In a world which demands transparency, it’s never been more important for consumers to be able to navigate and recognise value in simple terms,”
That seems fair enough and, if more than 90% of consumers believe that an age statement is a badge of quality, hardly earth-shattering.
Except that their rivals at The Edrington Group apparently don’t agree.
According to malts marketing director Ken Grier: “In our opinion, the single most important factor in making great single malt is the quality of the wooden cask it is matured in... Undoubtedly the right amount of maturation is key, but you can have great tasting 12-year-old whiskies and less pleasing products carrying an older age statement if they have been matured in a lower quality cask.”
Hence the launch this month of the 1824 series from Edrington's The Macallan brand, where age statements have been dropped in favour of colour descriptors. Henceforth, UK drinkers will be calling for a Macallan Gold, Amber, Sienna or Ruby because, according to Macallan’s Bob Dalgarno, “Using colour to drive and define a whisky allowed us to explore different casks and base our choices on aromas and flavours. We have been able to work creatively with the full range of matured stock available, rather than working to a pre-determined character based on age”.
Ah, stock, the elephant in the room. I'm glad you mentioned that. Naturally, as soon as The Macallan announced they were dropping age statements for the UK, the blogosphere lit up with conspiracy theories that may be summarised as “they’ve run out of old whisky”.
Not at all, maintains Grier (I asked him). “This introduction is not simply a response to the pressure on stock from the unprecedented growth of The Macallan over the last decade,” he said. "[Rather] this approach gives us the long-term ability to make the best use of our stock in the most appropriate and effective way to ensure that we are able to offer The Macallan to more consumers in more markets and to grow the brand's position globally.”
Or, to put it another way, it IS about stock - and how you manage it. The folk at Macallan say they felt “compelled and confident” to create their new range. Meanwhile, Chivas will be using historic icons such as the Taj Mahal, Angkor Wat and the Chinese Terracotta Army to draw attention to the fact that these took the same amount of time as their Scotch whisky.
While The Macallan can surely be trusted not to reach for the E150a (spirit caramel) bucket, the risk must be that not everyone will exercise such restraint. For colour, being adjustable at will, is surely not a reliable indicator of quality.
But then, neither is age alone a sure and certain guide. You pays your money and you takes your choice.
Here at the Trend Distillery, we’ll be issuing shade cards with our next release.
This month, Ian Buxton takes a look at an idea that, should it come to fruition, will send shockwaves through the Scotch whisky industry. In Scotland, he notes, there seems to be water, water everywhe...
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