Ian Buxton

Comment - Spirits - Adding a Touch of Flavour to Scotch Whisky

By | 25 March 2013

Earlier this month, Bacardi announced the launch of Dewar's Highlander Honey in the US. The move has ruffled feathers in Scotland, where the heritage and provenance of Scotch whisky is almost an obsession. Here's Ian Buxton with his take on the storm in a nosing glass.

Now that the dust has settled on our exclusive story on the pending arrival of Dewar’s Highlander Honey, let's take a closer look at the product.

It’s the latest in a long line of ‘flavored whiskies’ (to use the US definition), which, in the European Union, labours under the unglamorous title of ‘spirit drinks’. Not that anyone could be in any doubt about what the bottle contains: Described as “Dewar’s Scotch Whisky infused with Scottish Heather Honey filtered through Oak Cask Wood” the packaging seen by just-drinks is quite clearly and deliberately part of the Dewar’s whisky family of expressions.

The official press release goes further, describing it as “an extremely versatile Scotch whisky speciality.” And Arvind Krishnan, vice president, brand managing director for Dewar’s, adds: “We figured it was time to create an offering that is still truly Scotch, but gives those who play with flavor trends an option to play within Scotch.”

‘Truly Scotch’ – that’s fighting talk that may go some way to explain the Scotch Whisky Association’s evident concern.

There is a long history here. Back at the 2007 World Whiskies Conference, Dewar’s then-global brand director, Neil Boyd, argued for a EU category of flavoured whiskies. (Two months later, he abruptly left the company.)

Now, back in May 2012, as I considered a raft of flavoured whisky arrivals from Diageo (Bushmills Irish Honey; Crown Royal Maple Finish; Seagram’s Seven Crown Dark Honey and Stone Cherry), Beam Inc (Jim Beam Black Cherry and Jim Beam Honey) and Brown-Forman (Jack Daniels’ Tennessee Honey), I asked: “How long before we see a Chivas Regal Spiced or a J&B Honey?"

It now appears that I only had to wait ten months. Indeed, smaller producers such as Phillips Distilling (Revel Stoke Spiced Whisky from Canada) and even Spencerfield Spirits (Sheep Dip Amoroso Oloroso) have also piled in.

But, for all that activity, Dewar’s Highlander Honey represents something new, ground-breaking and important; the first significant play in this sector from a substantial Scotch whisky brand. With this release a major taboo has been broken and a line has been crossed. The significance of this should not be under-estimated, and there can be little doubt that the performance of Highlander Honey will be carefully tracked by rival brands.

Some may have set their public face against this, with Diageo stating in no uncertain terms that it has “no plans for ‘flavoured’ variants of any of our Scotch whisky brands” while recognising “a strong consumer demand in the US for flavoured whiskies”.

However, contacted today by just-drinks and speaking in a personal capacity, Neil Boyd was unrepentant. “We should trust the consumer,” he said. “Whisky and ginger is a flavoured bar call, as is whisky and Coke. It’s how many consumers enjoy the product and, provided the bottle is clearly labelled, I can’t see the problem. Let the market decide.”

So, whether all producers will be so fastidious as Diageo remains to be seen. It’s unlikely that, if Highlander Honey proves popular, Dewar’s will be allowed to build brand share completely unopposed, especially if it is seen to pull new drinkers towards whisky as a whole.

Assume, then, that some rival plans are being dusted off right now. While, for Diageo, there is apparently more than enough scope for innovation in tweaking distillation techniques, maturation regimes and wood policy, others may not take so sanguine a view.

But, scrupulous attention to the detail of the Scotch whisky regulations is clearly required. Indeed, it is still not yet clear if the Dewar’s launch is out of the wood on this front.

But, be sure that the Highlander has more up his sleeve. Buried away in Dewar’s briefing notes is the following tantalising sentence: “Dewar's Highlander Honey marks the first offering in the new Dewar's Highlander range that will include never-before seen—or tasted—blended Scotch whisky infused with local Scottish ingredients, sparking an entirely new range of strikingly modern yet refreshingly traditional Scotch whisky specialties.” [the italics are ours]

“Never-before-seen” innovations in an “entirely new range” – now that’s a promise to excite even the most jaded of palates and enrage the lawyers at the SWA.

Like it or loathe, it I believe we’ve just seen something very important.

Expert analysis

Global market review of blended and single malt Scotch whisky – forecasts to 2017

This latest global Scotch whisky report from IWSR and just-drinks is the most comprehensive edition we've published. It features 135 data tables covering the consumption volumes of the top malt and blended brands in each of 30+ countries, plus forecasts for Scotch by quality category globally and in each market.

Sectors: Product launches, Spirits

Companies: Bacardi, Diageo, Scotch Whisky Association, Crown Royal, Beam Inc, Brown-Forman, Jack Daniels, Chivas Regal, Coke

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