Review - World Whiskies Conference 2007
Bringing together the great and the good of the world's whisky distillers, The World Whiskies Conference - which ran this week in Glasgow - saw just-drinks out in force. Chris Brook-Carter looks back at the two-day event, which saw both fur and sparks fly.
The presence of Vijay Rehki, the president and managing director of United Spirits, loomed large at this year's World Whiskies Conference. Not in the physical sense - Rehki is not a particularly big man, and he was both approachable and seemingly unaware of his celebrity-like status at the show. But there is no doubt that the growth of the business he runs and its aggressive international aspirations propelled him into the spotlight.
Journalists had hoped that his keynote address on the first morning would include an announcement on UB Group's attempts to acquire Scotch whisky company Whyte & Mackay. There was not so much as a mention of the issue, and perhaps the absence from the conference of the Scotch group's CEO, Bob Brannan, should have been hint enough that would be the case. Nonetheless, the audience were not left disappointed, as Rehki delivered the sort of controversy every good industry conference needs.
"There should be no definitional barrier [for whisky] based on geography that can lead to constraints on consumption," Rekhi told delegates. "Whisky cannot ring-fence itself. I think we need to broad-base the definition of whisky in all parts of the world."
Much to the chagrin of the Scotch Whisky Association, he then went on to link the issue of tariffs on the Indian market for imported whisky brands with his call for a relaxation on the rules of what constitutes Scotch and whisky in general.
"If you want to dismantle barriers, let's dismantle intellectual barriers - let's have a level playing field," he said, before denying that he was in any way suggesting a deal could be struck to reduce tariffs if international laws on what constituted whisky were relaxed.
Unsurprisingly, given Rehki's presence, the issue of India reared its head at regular intervals over the two days, but it was far from the only issue to court controversy or grab the attention.
The polarisation of the industry, pricing in the UK, the lack of innovation in the blended market, alcohol policy - all were debated with candour. But two other speakers in particular stood out, Neil Boyd, global brand director of the Bacardi-owned John Dewar & Sons, and Mike Keiller, CEO of Morrison Bowmore. Though their presentations were radically different in approach, they both focussed on the increasing financial pressure that is being placed on the standard blended market by falling volumes and price erosion.
Boyd bravely called for the industry to rethink its approach to innovation at this level and wondered whether the definitions for Scotch could be broadened to include a flavoured Scotch category.
"Is it protecting anyone that we cannot experiment with natural ingredients, botanicals and natural flavours…Perhaps it is time to consider widening our rules?" he asked.
Keiller, meanwhile, announced that Morrison Bowmore has taken the decision to pull out of the UK as a blended and own-label supplier altogether to focus solely on the company's malt brands. "The UK market is a disastrous mess and we should learn the lessons of that," he said before asking why any company would deploy valuable and scarce stocks in the UK. Value, not volume was his mantra.
Of course these were far from the only highlights of the two days and here are a few quotes that sum up what else was going on:
"The balance of power has moved towards the giants of the industry and the retailers. If you are not part of one of these groups you have to rethink your position in the industry." Arend Heijbroek, Rabobank.
"Is there a future for the independents given this environment with the growth of the giant companies and retail chains? New models will emerge that will allow the mid-sized players to survive." Heijbroek
"If you put malt whisky advertising into the wider world of advertising out there today it starts to look arcane." Neil MacDonald, brand director malts, Chivas Brothers
"Advertising doesn't cause people to consume more, it causes people to make brand choices," Frank Coleman, DISCUS
"You will see that our CEO and the whole of the board recognise that this [alcohol policy] is the single most important issue facing the business." Ken Robertson, Diageo
"I think Jameson's has revitalised the [Irish whiskey] category. Our reaction to that is 'thanks very much'. Bushmills coming into the Diageo fold will open that up." Gordon Donoghue, Diageo
A final thought from the last two days. I have always found the Scotch industry to be one of the more open and candid sectors in the drinks business. And this conference was all the better for it. Real issues of importance were addressed and debated and as such it was a shame that there were still major figures from some of the leading companies absent. The organiser Ian Buxton says he has a five-year vision for this conference. I hope that in year three of the show, the whole industry will buy into the importance of this sort of forum as a hot bed for discussion and debate.
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