Ian Buxton

Comment - Spirits - "And, the Winner iszzzzz..."

By | 8 September 2011

Every season appears to be awards season in our industry. And, while Ian Buxton bemoans the number of awards up for grabs in brown spirits, his comments could also be applied to beer, soft drinks, water and wine.

“Everyone has won and all shall have prizes,” cried the Dodo.

Is it just me or is the world of whisky awards increasingly coming to resemble Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland?

After all, we now have awards from (deep breath) the International Wine and Spirit Challenge, World Spirits Competition, International Spirits Challenge, Ultimate Beverage Challenge, World Beverage Competition, Internationaler Spirituosen-Wettbewerb, Monde Selection, International Whisky Competition, World Whisky Masters, Quality Drinks Awards, Whisky Magazine’s World Whisky Awards, Malt Advocate, Scottish Field’s Merchant’s Challenge and, no doubt, a good few more that I’ve forgotten to mention.

I hear Simon Cowell will soon get in on the act. After all, it’s a good money-spinning opportunity.

A typical entry involves submitting two or three bottles (pricey if you want to enter the vintage categories) and a fee of several hundred dollars per bottle. Some competitions ask as much as EUR1,100 (US$1,545) per entry. It pretty quickly adds up and, in a market where aged stock is often on allocation, you have to ask what the point is, if you can sell it rather than give it away with a cheque attached.

“It’s blackmail,” one brand manager told me (on condition of anonymity), “but we’ve got to take part because our distributors regularly ask us ‘what medals have you won this year?’”

Not everyone is so discreet. In fact, Bruichladdich's MD, Mark Reynier, is scathing. 

“There are now as many whisky competitions as there are whisky shows,” he says “with a whirlwind of titles more akin to Monty Python's 'Peoples' Front of Judea' sketch.”

“We don't bother any more. They all merge into one with the grandiose words 'World', 'Whisky', 'International', 'Spirit' and 'Challenge' in the title. There is now even a women-only spirits competition though I can't recall if that is for spirits distilled by, judged by, or designated for women. These events, masquerading as consumer advice, are an out-and-out revenue earner for the associated magazines behind them. The bigger companies flood the entries with pallet loads of samples to ensure winning something.”

Awards, claims Reynier, play to “a crazed industry addicted to squandering vast amounts for more worthless medals than an African despot.”

He might not go quite that far but Ken Grier, director of malts for Edrington Group, isn’t chasing awards either. He’s happy to take the kudos if it comes from independent critics (Jim Murray and Paul Pacult spring to mind) but sees industry awards as more important to smaller brands looking for recognition or seeking something to say. “We’d rather people try our whisky and we aim to build strong brands built on provenance, heritage and a great product; education and trial will be the best proofs of that – we aim to get the product to consumers and let it do the talking.”

Or, put less diplomatically, one might conclude that the likes of The Macallan don’t feel the need to solicit the endorsement of a self-appointed panel of experts - not that they would ever phrase it that bluntly. If the brand’s reputation has grown beyond a certain point, then there’s apparently little to be gained by gathering up heaps of gold medals.

And that’s part of the problem: unlike the Olympics or F1, there is generally no absolute winner. Competitions that award multiple ‘gold’ medals, ‘double gold’ medals, ‘gold best in class’ and so on risk devaluing their own currency, even if the brand managers are (briefly) happy. Cynical journalists have grown accustomed to breathless press releases trumpeting the triumphs of Glen This, That and the Other dropping into the mail box with monotonous regularity – and hit the ‘delete’ button with equally metronomic precision.

So, apart from the promoters, does anyone love awards?

Well, Stuart Nickerson, MD at Glenglassaugh has some good words, but some cautionary thoughts also. 

“We knew the whisky was good, but launching a brand with very limited funds meant the credibility of two IWSC Trophies was invaluable to us,” he says. “ It’s one thing building a reputation if you have lots of money but an unbiased endorsement from expert judges is something that can’t be bought.”

Glenglassaugh followed their 2009 IWSC wins with a double gold from San Francisco and a Merchant’s Challenge Award from Scottish Field. But, even Nickerson has his doubts. “There are too many awards now and, consequently, we think hard about what we enter. It’s not just the cost – sometimes you have to question who is doing the judging.”

Like Reynier, he points out that, with no one award having both industry credibility and real consumer awareness, there are no drinks ‘Oscars’. Consequently, almost anyone can start an award scheme – and, it seems, almost anyone has.

And, that’s the challenge facing the awards industry – step up your marketing and consumer profile to become the ’gold standard’. 

We might even give you an award for it.

Expert analysis

Global market review of non-Scotch whiskies (US and Bourbon, Irish, Canadian, Indian and Japanese)

The non-Scotch whisk(e)y market – chiefly comprising Irish, US, Canadian, Indian and Japanese whiskies – is one of the most dynamic areas of the global wines and spirits arena. Between 2001 and 2010, the non-Scotch whiskies boasted an impressive 6.9% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) to 209.6m nine-litre cases. This latest market research report from just-drinks/The IWSR provides 2010 actual volume consumption data, 2011 estimates, key market analysis for each whiskey origin plus exclusive interviews with the leading brands.

Sectors: Spirits

Companies: Edrington, The Macallan

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