Comment - Spirits - Scotch: Hoist by its Own Petard?
A recent product extension in the Scotch whisky category has caught Richard Woodard's eye this month. While the move is certainly a positive in its use of innovation, it also shows how difficult it is for such innovation to make a breakthrough in the category. It's also got a rubbish name, says natural brunette - albeit with silver flecks - Woodard.
The name’s awful – absolutely awful – but an apparently minor on-trade launch in Scotland this month taps into arguably the most crucial issue currently facing the whisky industry. The Ginger Grouse – I told you it was bad – is a pre-mix of The Famous Grouse blended Scotch and ginger beer, delivered via a branded bar tap in nine bars across Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Premixes? Hardly ground-breaking stuff, is it? And yet, relative to much product-related innovation with the Scotch sector, it’s so far outside the box that the box isn’t even in shot any more. After all, this is the sector where it’s considered daring if you launch a 14-year-old instead of a 12-year-old – or finish your whisky off in a Burgundy barrel for six months. Steady now.
I don’t mean to be (too) critical. The age statement thing, whatever my reservations about Chivas Brothers’ The Age Matters campaign, has been a singularly useful piece of consumer signposting for Scotch for years. So what if consumers don’t fully understand what it means or that it isn’t necessarily a guarantee of quality? It gives them a rule of thumb for price, if not excellence and, most important of all, it’s easy to understand.
But, anyone in the spirits world can stick an age statement on a bottle – rum and Armagnac do it all the time, and even Cognac has got in on the act recently – so it can scarcely be argued that Scotch has this territory all to itself any more.
In mature markets like the UK, where the Ginger Grouse has been launched, blended Scotch in particular badly needs to come up with a reason for someone other than greying men in suits to buy the product. Young people. Women. People with a pulse.
And, this is where I can’t help feeling that the extremely strict rules governing Scotch whisky production aren’t doing the industry any favours – as if the lengthy lead-in times and need for long-term stock planning with any aged spirit didn’t make things hard enough.
I find the comparison with rum instructive here – because it illustrates both the flexibility that looser regulations can give in terms of innovation, as well as the inherent dangers.
The rules governing age statements in rum are bewilderingly inconsistent, so that’s a black mark to start with. And, I think the frankly bizarre assortment of fruit-flavoured rums prevalent in the US especially don’t do either the category or their parent brands (step forward, Bacardi) any favours at all.
By contrast, Scotch can point to its “purity of production” rules – basically, you can’t add anything – as a tried and tested means of preserving the sector’s authenticity, provenance, consistency and sheer honesty.
That's a fair point. But then, consider spiced rum, which research tells us is currently pulling so-called 'new consumers' – that’s people under 35 and, shudder, women – to the broader rum category. Lured in by the approachable flavours of, for instance, Morgan’s Spiced, these consumers then embrace the broader rum category in all its glorious variety, or so the argument goes. And, has spiced rum in any way compromised the identity or authenticity of the rum sector in pulling this off? I can’t see it.
The trouble is that Scotch can’t do the same thing – or at least not in the same way. The result is the Ginger Grouse. It sounds like a perfectly good idea to me (but the name… okay, I’ll shut up); however, I’d argue that it would be a bit less, well, clunky in innovation terms if it was a self-contained new whisky product, rather than a pre-mix whisky-plus-mixer product.
Nonetheless, I’m open to persuasion and, on the broader point, many will maintain that the risks in tinkering with Scotch’s rules outweigh the potential benefits… Either way, more experienced heads than mine are considering the issues, not least through a survey of the whisky industry (not just Scotch) recently launched by just-drinks.
This squarely focuses on innovation and asks some of the searching questions I’ve attempted to address here, as well as exploring just how high a priority innovation is to the global whisky industry.
We’ve had hundreds of responses, and our survey said…
Well, I’m afraid you’ll just have to wait until all is revealed at next month’s World Whiskies Conference. I will say this: The results are very interesting indeed.
Aren’t I a tease?
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