As reactions go, it was, perhaps, entirely predictable. Scarcely had the news broken about The Glenlivet’s new line of ‘Twist & Mix’ ready-to-serve bottled cocktails when my phone pinged with a message from an industry stalwart who will simply be known as ‘Outraged of Glasgow’.
He had no quarrel with the essential concept, he emphasised… “But why Glenlivet? [Chivas] Regal maybe, but seems awkward and brand-DNA-ignorant to choose TG?” He added: “It’s a great idea but the wrong brand.”
It would easy to dismiss the criticism as the outdated views of an ‘old-school’ Scotch insider, but ‘Outraged’ is a sensible, level-headed chap who isn’t typically afraid to move with the times. So is he right? Is Twist & Mix the right idea, but the wrong brand? Let’s examine the evidence.
The Glenlivet is one of Pernod Ricard’s crown jewels, and since it got hold of the single malt via the Seagram deal back in 2001, it’s made great play of the distillery’s heritage and status, with the post-acquisition relaunch centred on the eye-catching (if questionable) strapline: “The single malt that started it all.”
Next year will mark the distillery’s bicentenary – well, the anniversary of its acquiring a licence, anyway – and you can bet the company will make great play of its colourful back story when celebrating that milestone. But having a long and distinguished history doesn’t mean that you have to be entirely ruled or defined by it.
The Glenlivet is emphatically not a boutique single malt. The brand sold 1.6m cases in the year to June 2022 (this year’s figures will be out at the end of the month), and the logistics behind assembling its flagship 12-year-old expression are every bit as complex as those for a top-selling blend.
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Rather like Glenfiddich, it’s a single malt that increasingly behaves like a blend, simply because of its volume, scale and reach. In a way that has echoes of Johnnie Walker or Ballantine’s, these brands span multiple price points and demographics, and are very different things to different people.
What that means in practice is that they are not defined by one single characteristic. Is The Glenlivet a historic, heritage-laden single malt with a great back story? Yes, of course it is. Is it a mass-market single malt at home in the supermarket aisle, the pub and the bar chain? Again, yes. Is it, in its loftier and higher-priced bottlings, a luxury single malt sought-after by wealthy collectors? You get the idea…
Nowhere is this multi-faceted brand personality more apparent than in the US, the single malt destination par excellence and, for many years, The Glenlivet’s number one market. It’s no coincidence that Twist & Mix is, for now at least, a US exclusive – although I’d expect it to be rolled out to selected other markets if all goes well.
The focus on the US is not just because of the status and scale of The Glenlivet there, it’s also an illustration of how the local RTD/RTS market is evolving in the post-Covid era.
In announcing the Twist & Mix launch, Chivas Brothers referenced the fact that the RTD market nearly doubled in volume between 2017 and 2022. Well, yes – but that stratospheric growth was largely the result of the hard seltzer boom, which has famously fallen rather flat since then.
Instead, it is the trends that have emerged over the past year that are likely to prove most beneficial to Twist & Mix. Generalisations about a market as large and diverse as the US always come with a health warning but RTD consumers are increasingly gravitating to, among other things, spirit-based products, RTS cocktails and the reassurance offered by marquee brands.
The Glenlivet Twist & Mix emphatically ticks all of those boxes, adding a rather funky-looking bit of gadgetry (the Vessl closure) into the mix. I suspect it won’t be long before we see more of the same, both from Chivas/Pernod and from the company’s rivals.
There’s also a post-Covid element to the thinking behind the launch. The idea that everyone became an expert mixologist when stuck at home during pandemic lockdowns is rather fanciful but the appetite for making cocktails at home has outlived the crisis – with the crucial difference that most people now don’t have the time to create their favourite drinks from scratch. So they’re looking for convenience.
When it comes to innovation, Scotch – and perhaps single malt most of all – is damned if it does, and damned if it doesn’t. Brand owners are accused of complacency and falling behind rival whisky origins when it comes to fresh ideas – but if they pursue them, they are all too easily accused of sacrilegiously undermining the heritage of the category.
With Twist & Mix, it’s hard not to be reminded of the furore surrounding The Glenlivet Capsule Collection back in 2019 – a range of edible/drinkable cocktail capsules filled into a biodegradable casing made from seaweed extract.
What started out as a fun tie-in with a London style bar to mark the tenth anniversary of the city’s Cocktail Week morphed into a full-blown social media storm, with commentators queuing up to accuse the company of irresponsible marketing, endangering underage consumers and even – look away now – tempting young drinkers to insert the capsules into a non-oral orifice.
Can a backlash have a nadir? If it can, this comment from Nina Caplan on The Guardian website was it, including a memorable quote that manages the neat trick of being simultaneously po-faced and wrong-headed: “Multinationals such as Pernod Ricard (which owns the [sic] Glenlivet) are fixated on novelty, which has nothing to do with the slow enjoyment of good whisky.”
I hadn’t realised there was a required pace at which you should enjoy ‘good’ whisky; still less that novelty was an inherently bad thing for the category.
It isn’t. The capsules were a lighthearted, intentionally short-lived pushing of the envelope in terms of Scotch in cocktails; The Glenlivet Twist & Mix, however, is a perfectly-pitched idea that taps precisely into current consumer trends while exploring the changing role of single malt in the marketplace. And for that it should be praised, not condemned.