Why the spirits category needs to rethink its future positioning - Comment

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Our spirits commentator, Neil Ridley, is all riled up. Again. This time, it's about the positioning at the higher end of the spirits category.

Question for you: What does 'luxury' mean? Does the word conjure up images of gold, jewels and hefty price tags? Or, is it more a way of life? Using one's time to explore truly enriching experiences that money can't buy, ultimately creating a 'better you'?

The more time I spend writing on dark spirits, the more I witness the prevalence of the former, but the more I yearn for the latter.

Earlier this week, I learned of the latest luxury effort in our category; one so gratuitously overblown that I believe the dark spirits segment really needs to refocus its efforts - and fast. A company called Lux Coin has unveiled what it claims to be "the world's first Whisky Coin", a legal tender coin that contains a tiny amount of "the oldest vintage whisky, Old Vatted Glenlivet 1862".

Say what?

"The Whisky Coin is the only coin to feature a capsule containing such a rare spirit, and the first ever to encapsulate such valuable aged liquor in precious metal of the highest quality," the company said.

Still not getting it. Sorry?

The coin is made of two ounces of pure gold, issued as legal tender of the Government of Tuvalu (a remote Polynesian island in the Pacific Ocean) and is limited to 300 units. A further two coins have been lined up, this time containing old rum and Cognac.

Want to buy one? The Whisky Coin comes in at a cool EUR7,900 (US$9,210).

In short: A gold coin that, according to the current gold pricing index, is worth EUR2,055, with a drop of very old, very expensive Scotch in the middle. That you'll never, ever be able to taste.

That's got to take some swallowing.

I realise that I am not the intended 'consumer' of this particular whisky trinket. But, it got me thinking: Who the hell is, and what on earth would they do with a coin like this? Would they gaze longingly at the small glass bubble, secretly hoping for it to spring a micro leak? Would they be more devil-may-care and use it to decide who kicks off in a game of footy down the park? Perhaps it's destined to end up as the trolley token to shame all others at some uber-exclusive supermarket for the hyper-rich.

Either way, this is a bizarre, baffling piece of whisky memorabilia that exists simply to objectify the rarity of the whisky inside in the most gratuitous way possible. It's also the continuation of a worrying trend currently dominating the world of dark spirits.

A while back, I asked Ken Grier, The soon-to-retire creative director at Edrington's The Macallan Scotch brand, what 'luxury' means to him, given that The Macallan has gone further than most to tap into the domain of the High Net Worth Individual. "New consumers demand more experiential, more limited, more intimate and constantly-changing experiences," he replied. "We must comply to keep Scotch as interesting and in-demand as we need to."

Whilst The Macallan has undoubtedly established a luxury packaging precedent that some may be critical of with its series of Lalique decanters, the brand has backdropped these with a genuine tangible fusion with the art world. The decanters, revered in their own right, will always remain functional and highly-collectable art pieces long after the whisky has been consumed. Similarly, the brand's Masters Of Photography series places as much attention on the selection of the liquid to that of the photos. The collection is tasteful, stylish and, as Grier points out: "You must push all the time to do things that fit with the brand's ethos that are interesting, outstanding and aesthetically stunning, but which never overshadow the liquid."

When the packaging becomes more important than what's inside, then something has clearly gone wrong

When the packaging becomes more important than what's inside, then something has clearly gone wrong. First and foremost, it mocks those who have spent a lifetime learning to craft and then select a truly fine spirit. What's wrong with allowing the liquid's story to shine brightest and demonstrate why it is the star of the show?

I'm reminded of a recent collaborative project called 2 Masters by Columbian rum brand Dictador, where master distiller Hernan Parra selected a series of rare vintage rums, which were then sent to a series of other collaborators - esteemed distillers and winemakers from around the world (including Cognac, Bordeaux and the Highlands of Scotland) - to complete an additional maturation. The packaging is functional, perhaps even slightly anodyne, but it serves its purpose perfectly, allowing the liquid - and the story - to take the lead.

Whilst there may be a segment of hyper-wealthy consumers out there, particularly in the Far East, who favour a more conspicuous kind of luxury, looking to the future, it feels like the next generation of drinkers - tomorrow's entrepreneurs, CEOs and power players - are beginning to value 'luxury' in a different way. As Grier mentioned earlier, brands need to focus on less tangible assets, but more intimate experiences, embracing the fact that time and knowledge are far greater luxuries to those who have all the money in the world, but little time to actually spend it. 

If there are any high-flyers reading this, with a spare EUR8,000 in your account, why not have your assistant book you a trip to Tuvalu? Googling the place, it looks stunning and the wholesome cuisine you'll no doubt enjoy, as you sit in a beautiful beachside villa sipping a fine vintage rum, Cognac or single malt that won't leave such a cold, depressing taste in your mouth as sucking on a gold coin.

Sectors: Spirits

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