From the editors

Not every whisky can be a Macallan

  • How did you greet the news earlier this week that a collection of Macallan single malt had smashed the world whisky auction record, fetching close to HK$8m (US$1m)?

    Bemusement? Disbelief? After all, even the most optimistic prognosis from auction house Sotheby’s had suggested it might make roughly half that figure. How about annoyance? Anger? Envy?

    To some whisky fans, Macallan is a sell-out. A once credible single malt ruined by some kind of Faustian pact to chase the big money, ‘iconic’ status and the kind of consumer that – to jaundiced eyes – knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

    For these self-appointed cognoscenti, each Lalique-clad luxury launch is another harbinger of the passing of Scotch whisky’s golden age, to be greeted with a tut, a sigh and a dismissive shake of the head. How much? Seriously? For that?

    In short, Macallan encapsulates all that’s wrong with the 21st-century Scotch whisky industry. Style over substance. This Tellytubby-esque swanky new distillery. That cynical, colour-oriented move into NAS to eke out stocks and keep the Asian markets happy.

    In short, Macallan is the anti-Glenfarclas.

    Like most views based on prejudice as much as reason, I find that this school of thought has some serious flaws, even though I may bemoan the use of the dead language of luxury to communicate the brand.

    But, however great the disapproval of the whisky geek, that hasn’t stopped rival distillers from casting green-eyed glances in Macallan’s direction, or indeed from directly attempting to follow its example.

    Just a few days before that Macallan auction in Hong Kong, a press release landed in my inbox trumpeting the luxury credentials of another Speyside malt, which shall remain nameless (this isn’t a witch hunt, and I could cite numerous other examples).

    Macallan Lalique Legacy Collection

    Ow much?!: This Macallan single malt collection fetched nearly US$1m at auction

    Distillery X offers, we’re told, ‘an exquisite range of handcrafted single malt whiskies, capturing the elegance of the 19th century’. Which is nice.

    Just in case we didn’t get that, here’s the follow-up: ‘X is a boutique range of single malt whiskies, born in a time of true elegance, capturing a historic moment in time and the essence of the Victorian reign.’ Lovely.

    And there’s more: ‘From its birth, X was the pinnacle of exquisite taste and the answer to Scotch enthusiasts that have a hunger for unbridled luxury.’ (True enough: I don’t know about you, but I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve felt a hunger for unbridled luxury.)

    I could go on. In fact, I will: the range of ‘precious’ whiskies was ‘realised in the dream of pioneer, <name of distillery founder>, who dedicated his life to creating single malt whisky that would be appreciated for generations and achieve cult status for their unparalleled finesse’.

    Well, sort of. He built the distillery to supply the blenders, then had to sell it a few years later when the late Victorian whisky crash happened. Distillery X wasn’t bottled as an OB single malt until roughly a century after it was established, and long after its founder’s death.

    The abundant use of cliché and taking of liberties with historical fact make this press release an easy target, a ready source of the kind of journalistic sneering that regularly attracts the #prfail hashtag on social media.

    (By the way, I might suggest that some of my colleagues take a serious look at their own profession before aiming pot shots at PR people, but we can have that discussion on another occasion.)

    We all have bad days at the office (only yesterday I missed a reference to one ‘Jonny Walker’ in one of our features, but thankfully an eagle-eyed colleague spotted and amended it). What concerns me here is not so much the writing as the thinking behind it.

    I can’t become Lionel Messi by lacing up a pair of boots and putting on a replica Barcelona shirt; distillery X can’t just automatically become the new Macallan by simply adopting the brand’s cliché-ridden vocabulary and rewriting its own history in that image. Particularly when it isn’t even among the world’s top 50 best-selling single malts.

    Love it or loathe it, but Macallan has earned its right to – borrowing another hideous piece of marketing jargon – ‘inhabit the luxury space’ by first building an unequalled reputation as the single malt for collectors and (yes, that word) investors.

    As one seasoned observer of the whisky scene puts it: ‘Macallan will always fall back on the glorious bottlings of old. You need credibility in your sector, I think, before you play the luxury game. Otherwise you are Dalmore.’ Ouch.

    Instead, be distinctive, be individual. Don’t tell me that you’re great – tell me why you’re great. Better to explore quirkiness, like Ardbeg, no-nonsense credibility, like Glenfarclas, or gentle self-deprecation, like Laphroaig.

    Above all, be yourself – not an unmerited facsimile of who you want to be.

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