Scotch is experiencing an identity crisis. Why would it want to taste like Bourbon?
Brands give reassurance. It’s why we return to them on a regular basis, it is the foundation of loyalty. We know what we are getting, and what the brand stands for.
In time, a brand’s range may be extended, but only to demonstrate variations on a central theme. Retaining the brand’s identity, its DNA, remains paramount. When a brand deviates too wildly from its core values it is an indication that the brand owner is panicking.
Take Ritz. Cheese crackers, right? In fact, the definitive cheese cracker? Think again. Ritz now makes crisps as well. There might have been Ritz crisps for a while, but I’m not fully up to speed with the snacks market.
What I do know is that salt and vinegar flavour on a cracker which is still trying to to be a Ritz does not work. The flavour is wrong, the texture is wrong. There are just some things which you leave alone because they work.
Have you ever heard of avocado-flavoured cat food? Of course not. As my daughter said when I mooted it: ‘It would never happen. Cats are carnivores.’
In other words, cat food manufacturers are sensible. They know that their consumers would turn their little furry noses up at such a ludicrous offering. They stick to what they know.
Which brings me (seamlessly?) to Johnnie Walker Rye Cask. Why was something as absurd as this given the green light? The whisky itself is a well-made blend, but it is not Johnnie Walker.
It tastes like a Canadian rye whisky – not quite Crown Royal (also part of Walker owner Diageo’s portfolio) but more in line with a rye-accented whisky from Hiram Walker.
Why?: Johnnie Walker Select Casks Rye Cask Finish
This raises the question of why, if you have a Canadian whisky already, do you try to make Scotch taste like it? Does it not make more sense to try to sell more Crown Royal?
I don’t see Canadian distillers trying to be Scottish, nor is there any evidence of Bourbon producers trying to produce Scotch copies – in fact it’s widely agreed that when they did so in the 1960s it almost killed the category.
But then who in marketing departments ever studies history?
Instead, what you see in whiskies around the world is distillers doing the exact opposite. They define themselves as being not-Scotch. This, as I’ve argued before, is a wise strategy which also benefits Scotch because it allows the latter to define itself.
Walker Rye Casks ignores all of this. Trying to make a Scotch taste like a North American whisky shows an unnecessarily defensive approach to the category – and the brand.
Johnnie Walker isn’t just a Scotch, it is the best-selling Scotch whisky in the world. It therefore defines Scotch for more people than any other brand. It’s a benchmark, a reference point. Where, therefore, is the logic in making it taste like a Canadian whisky?
I hope it’s a temporary moment of madness because this says: ‘We have lost faith in our brand and in Scotch as a category.’ It is a white flag being run up in the face of a perceived threat.
Making Walker more Scotch – more Walker – makes sense. That would involve Diageo working out what Walker stands for in terms of image and flavour. Knowing what it can do – and, just as importantly – what it can’t. That’s not difficult.
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