From the editors

Whisky’s rebels without a clue

  • It can’t be easy to launch a brand, especially into as established a category as Scotch. Full credit to the brave souls who try. They are braver than I.

    For it to succeed, or even just be noticed, it has to have a point of difference and, because the market is cluttered, as a brand owner you might just have to shout that little bit harder to get yourself noticed.

    Or you make something with high quality that offers a new spin on flavour. The latter is time-consuming as it involves more explanation and hand-selling. The former is, maybe, easier.

    Behave like a paparazzi photographer trying to get a shot of a celeb. Shout out something rude, get them to turn their head, get the money shot. Success.

    In whisky, that option involves slagging off the industry, calling it ‘clichéd’ and ‘traditional’. You might want to bandy around words around like ‘haggis’ and ‘heather’ and ‘old-fashioned’, and set yourself up as the alternative.

    You are Prince (less than) Charming with your flaming sword of truth (© J Aitken), cutting through the thicket of thorns to rescue the Sleeping Beauty of Scotch. Hurrah!

    I’ve been doing this gig for three decades now (and on days like this I sometimes wonder why I still bother), and I know that every year there will be some ‘innovative’ and ‘unique’ Prince Charming brand launched, and each year the story of its point of difference gets that little bit more desperate.

    This week we got another. I won’t mention the brand, that would be… rude. It, apparently, takes Scotch back to its ‘rebellious history’, so cue mentions of ‘renegades’, ‘rebels’, and ‘outlaws’.

    Scotch whisky crowded market

    Crowded market: Newcomers to Scotch sometimes have to shout to make themselves heard

    The underlying idea is that, if you drink this, you too are part of this wilder, more dangerous world, which is where Scotch has to be. It’s a brand which has to be (cue today’s marketing agency buzzword) ‘disruptive’.

    It’s a brand which pays homage to illicit distillers of the past, or rather the ‘independent and unorthodox distillers of the 18th century’. It cocks a snook at the stuffy industry which, according to the brand owner, has closed off the category to new drinkers, making Scotch a spirit only enjoyed by those with ‘an encyclopaedic knowledge and level of superiority’.

    It goes on: ‘But rewind time, and whisky wasn’t at all like that. It was enjoyed by all, from all walks of life. In fact, it was quite rebellious.’

    There’s some truth in that. Whisky has suffered from being seen as a club for men of a certain age, drinking drams of a certain type, in a specific setting, in a certain way.

    The key word is ‘has’. In the past decade, whisky has consciously moved itself away from that isolationist position and become inclusive: look at the bars, the cocktails; look at the new generation of drinkers of all sexes; look at the new distilleries.

    Yes, Scotch has to guard against being elitist, but this brand’s view of the category isn’t one I encounter when I go around the world. So either they have new information, or it’s simply marketing bullshit.

    But hey… what of the whisky? Well, the premise behind the brand is that whisky was so much better in the 18th century, when moonshiners hid in the hills beside clear Highland burns and crafted their often smoky, high-quality spirit. Funny how brands which purport to be against marketing clichés employ them so heavily.

    The reality was that the bulk of those distillers were being harried by gaugers and at the mercy of often violent smuggling gangs. They were more like the coca farmers in Colombia, in thrall to drugs cartels.

    The illicit era wasn’t a time of relaxed, quality-oriented distillation. Moonshining was forced upon people because of economic and cultural oppression.

    Illicit still

    Tough times: Scotch’s illicit past was nowhere near as romantic as some would have you believe

    Ok, maybe I just take a different interpretation of history, so what of this liquid which pays homage to the renegade spirit? Is it, too, made in a heather hut in the hills? Does it carry with it the contraband goût?

    No. It’s a blended malt. Made at modern distilleries and therefore sourced from the allegedly unfeeling, monolithic firms which brands like this oppose.

    It, apparently, is the colour of antique brass, smells of peat, honeysuckle, boiled sweets, apricots and leather books. It’s clearly been aged for a decent period in good-quality casks, just like illicit 18th-century whisky. Aye, right pal.

    In saying that illicit whisky was better than what is made today, the brand owner is insulting the men and women of today’s industry and, weirdly, the very firms with which he needs to work to get the juice to continue his ‘renegade’ quest.

    He’s thumbing his nose at the people who he should be asking for help. He is – and this is quite some feat – shitting on his own doorstep, standing in it and then shooting himself in the foot.

    Yes, we should always challenge orthodoxy, and always look for valid ways to broaden whisky’s remit and the discussion around it. We should never be complacent, but we should also always have our bullshit detectors switched on.

    This isn’t a different path for whisky. It’s not innovative or dangerous. It’s a blended malt with a marketing spin attached.

    If its owner genuinely wishes to challenge the thinking surrounding Scotch, then there are options open, but that necessitates deep thinking about distillation, liquid, a knowledge of history and an understanding of the way the market could develop.

    Back to the drawing board.

Scroll To Top