For the first time, Port Ellen and Brora are absent from Diageo’s annual Special Releases.
In the Scotch whisky calendar, it must rank as one of the most eagerly awaited launches of the year. What will be released? From which regions and distilleries? How old? And – for many, most crucially of all – how much will they cost?
Given all of this, I was taken aback to find, on arriving at the unveiling of these much-anticipated limited editions, no velvet rope, no fanfare and no impatient throng through which it was necessary to elbow my way. In fact, nobody else seemed interested at all.
There stood the whiskies in front of me. All five of them. Yes, five. No, not nine.
Other writers were there too, but they seemed more interested in catching up with Charlie Pillitteri to talk about his (admittedly fabulous) Canadian icewine. Someone’s tasting the whiskies? How odd…
By now, you might have realised that I’m not talking about Brora, Port Ellen, Pittyvaich and Diageo’s 2015 Special Releases, but three blends called Glenalba and two single malts with the distinctly unglamorous name of Ben Bracken.
Five limited availability whiskies unveiled at discount retailer Lidl’s Christmas tasting. Ranging in age from 22 to 34 years, and in price from £29.99 to £49.99.
Don’t look at me like that. When Lidl released the 33-year-old ‘Maxwell’ single malt three years ago at a headline-grabbing price of £39.99, it sold out within three days – and secured the retailer a priceless tide of positive publicity.
Trade drivers: but do Lidl's cut-price whiskies have a bigger role to play?
The contrast in pricing between Lidl’s whiskies and the Special Releases is glaring: at £49.99, the 34-year-old Glenalba blend and the 28-year-old Ben Bracken Speyside malt are still some £30 shy of the cheapest Special Release, a Lagavulin 12-year-old.
But the point of the comparison isn’t to have a pop at Diageo’s Special Releases pricing strategy – on which I’m sure we all have our own views anyway.
Because, let’s be clear, the motivation behind the two launches is entirely different: Diageo showcasing the depth and excellence of its aged whisky stocks through the medium of established brands, Lidl using own-label products to lure shoppers away from Asda to buy their turkey, cake and crackers there instead.
Is that the overriding point of the Lidl whiskies? To encourage and perpetuate the ‘discount junkie’ mentality among consumers, which – at Christmas in particular – does so much to erode margins for the whisky industry?
Yes and no. Talk to Lidl head of beers, wines and spirits Ben Hulme and you’ll also get a sense of the pride he takes in sourcing these whiskies at such remarkable prices.
They’re not loss-leaders, he insists, and while the publicity surrounding them will no doubt draw the punters to the stores, he hopes it will also elevate Lidl’s reputation for quality, once people taste the whiskies.
They’re also, I’d argue, potentially great recruitment tools to persuade people to expand their whisky repertoire, and – ironically, given the Lidl pricing ethos – to get them to trade up.
Today’s Ben Bracken consumer may not be tomorrow’s Port Ellen or Brora collector, but that’s not to say they might not be tempted by a realistically priced unpeated Caol Ila or Lagavulin 12-year-old.
Because value exists at all levels – from the keenly-priced aisles of Lidl to the sometimes rarefied reaches of the Special Releases.
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