Brands, marketing and much more from the driving force behind the Classic Malts and Blue Label.
From the Editors
Shorts from our editorial team
01 February 2016
I loved The West Wing mainly, I think, because it should have been boring. Lots of badly-dressed people walking the corridors of a mocked-up White House talking at breakneck speed about politics? Hardly the sexiest proposal ever to cross a commissioning editor’s desk.
What made it was the vision of creator Aaron Sorkin that the machinations and dilemmas of White House senior staff could make gripping television. Hell, it was so good that I even forgave its annoying habit of descending periodically into misty-eyed, flag-hugging patriotism. Americans, huh?
Scotch has a minor moment in The West Wing. In a flashback sequence, chief of staff and recovering alcoholic Leo McGarry recalls a moment on the campaign trail when he fell spectacularly off the wagon – thanks to the lure of Johnnie Walker Blue Label.
What follows is a lyrical description of the pleasures of drinking, undercut by the character’s addiction and its potentially disastrous impact on his career.
The words aren’t the script’s finest, but I’ll repeat a few of them here:
‘Good Scotch sits in a charcoal (sic) barrel for 12 years; very good Scotch gets smoked for 29 years; Johnnie Walker Blue is 60-year-old Scotch.’
Except that, of course, it isn’t. According to James Espey, who developed Blue Label precursor Johnnie Walker Oldest in the 1980s, the concept was born when a small amount of 60-year-old Scotch was blended with a much larger volume of 15-year-old. The label proudly proclaimed that the liquid was ‘aged 15 to 60 years’, and you can still occasionally find these old bottles for sale today.
Several years after Oldest’s launch, the law was changed so that producers could only mention the youngest part of any blend. The Blue Label, er, label was amended and the product has remained without an age statement ever since.
But. But, if you Google Johnnie Walker Blue Label and 60 years old, you’ll find plenty of people perpetuating that sexagenarian myth. There are even EU-based online retailers still advertising the product explicitly as a 60-year-old whisky.
Lesson? Never underestimate the power and longevity of a marketing message, nor its ability, with repetition, to turn incorrect information into ‘fact’.
In this context, it’s easy to see why a change in the law was needed to protect the consumer. But, ironically, that very change makes it now impossible to put the record straight and tell that same consumer the full story of Blue Label’s blend.
Legislators did not foresee a world of single malt shortage where age statements would be largely cast aside, leaving the consumer without even the vague reassurance of a number to help navigate the category.
Nor did they envisage the possibility that a brand owner might want to react to that situation by giving their consumer the complete truth about a whisky – the age and origin of its components, plus their proportions in the blend – to satisfy their thirst for knowledge about what is in their glass.
The example of Johnnie Walker Blue, and Leo’s passionate, if erroneous, description of it, tells us a lot about how we got to where we are in terms of whisky law, age statements and transparency.
Now the question is: where do we want to go next? Ultimately, that’s up to the industry to decide.
18 December 2015
Does the name Joseph James Forrester ring any bells? No? Unless (like me) you’re bit of a Port geek, there’s no reason why it should. But he popped into my head the other day when I was reading Iain Russell’s fascinating account of the life of Robert Bruce Lockhart.
Forrester was never involved in plots to assassinate Lenin (he died before the Russian revolutionary leader’s birth, so it would have been tricky), but he led a life almost as full of colour and controversy – and his death was far more dramatic (remind me to tell you about that at the end).
Born in Hull in 1809, Forrester joined the family Port shipping business, Offley Forrester, at the age of 22 and, once in Portugal, refused to follow the herd.
At a time when British Port shippers tended to remain within their own little clique in the port of Vila Nova de Gaia (a bit like drinks writers on the Sussex coast), Forrester made a point of exploring the wilder lands upstream, and particularly the Port vineyards of the Douro Valley.
He learned to speak good Portuguese and published two remarkably detailed maps of the Douro from Spain to the Atlantic – a boon to the traveller at a time when the Douro was a treacherous mountain river, long before modern damming projects transformed it into the broad, serene waters of today.
Treacherous river: Forrester’s maps of the Douro remain much admired
Forrester also concerned himself in some detail with the production of Port – again, something the British shippers eschewed, except during harvest.
If his pursuits left him outside the inner circle of the British Port establishment – he was never invited to join their ‘club’ in Porto, The Factory House – his estrangement was complete with the publication in 1844 of an impassioned treatise, A Word or Two on Port Wine.
So extreme were the views stated in the pamphlet that, at first, it was published anonymously. Forrester, you see, questioned the very basis of Port production: the addition of brandy to stop fermentation and create a sweet, strong wine.
Great Douro wines, he argued, needed no brandy, but could stand proudly on their own: pure, unadulterated; based on grape, soil, aspect and altitude; reflective of the conditions of the year, for good or ill.
This is where the Lockhart connection comes in. Real Port, to Forrester, was pure and untouched by brandy; real Scotch whisky, for Lockhart, was pure (malt) and untouched by grain.
Fast-forward to 2015 and both would note current trends with a degree of satisfaction. Scotch malt whisky is flying in markets around the world and – rightly or wrongly – increasingly considered by many consumers as more ‘authentic’ than blended Scotch.
Meanwhile, the unfortified table wines of the Douro have increased hugely in number, quality and diversity over the past few decades, winning a place in the top echelons of the fine wine hierarchy. You can now pay £60 for a bottle of unfortified Quinta do Vesúvio, a vineyard Forrester knew well (he spent the last night of his life there).
Man of the Douro: even Forrester’s death was inextricably linked to the river
But there’s a twist. Without the skyrocketing global success of blends in the 20th century, most of the single malt distilleries so beloved of Lockhart would now be in ruins or silent, overrun by retail developments and housing estates.
Similarly, without the international achievements of the Port trade, the vineyards of the Douro – that inhospitable, rocky place that oscillates between furnace-like summer heat and brutal winter cold – would be neglected, overgrown, their proud terraces crumbling into the waters below.
Both Lockhart and Forrester recognised an inherent truth in their respective worlds: the underrated quality of two products overshadowed by (to their minds) inferior alternatives.
But what both failed to see was not simply the finer qualities of the products they dismissed, but also the symbiotic co-existence of those supposedly opposing forces: blends and malts; Port and table wine.
One could not thrive without the other and, just as Douro table wines and single malts have Port and blends respectively to thank for their current success, they are now in a position to repay the debt by using their new-found fame to convert consumers to the delights of their sister products. A kind of virtuous circle of life, if you will.
What’s that? What about Forrester’s death, you ask? He set off on 12 May 1861 from Quinta do Vesúvio, high in the Douro, travelling downstream by boat with Dona Antónia Ferreira, the grande dame of the valley, who went on to own no fewer than 24 of its most famous vineyards.
As the boat negotiated the notorious rapids of Cachão de Valeira, it capsized and – according to legend – the contrasting fates of the pair were decided by the clothes on their backs.
While the whalebone of her crinoline allowed Dona Antónia to float gently to safety, Forrester’s sovereign-laden money belt dragged him down below the Douro’s fierce waters, never to be seen again.
16 November 2015
I spent last Tuesday evening drinking Cognac, and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Hey, don’t look so shocked. We don’t take a vow to remain eternally faithful to Scotch here at Scotchwhisky.com, and I reckon we’re all the better for it.
Particularly when the Cognac in question is Frapin, which is, in many ways, the anti-Cognac: small brand, produces every bottle from its own Grande Champagne vineyards, maker of vintages, and of – for Cognac – innovative products such as single domaine bottlings and (of which more in a moment) the Multimillésime.
Host for the evening was Patrice Piveteau, Frapin veteran and, since the departure of the marvellous Olivier Paultes to Hennessy, its maître de chai.
In the course of several courses and several Cognacs, the kind of food matching exercise you enjoy but secretly know will never be repeated in the real world, Piveteau said a few things that resonated with me, and made me think (reluctantly, while trying to devote all my senses to a 1988 Frapin matched to blue Crozier cheese) of Scotch.
‘To age,’ said Piveteau, ‘I have no rules. The rule is the tasting, and what I want. It’s the reverse of the scientific way.’
Piveteau is a knowledgeable and experienced man, one who has spent decades immersed in the world of eaux-de-vie and who is capable, as I can personally attest, of talking for some time on the subject of the little-known grape variety Folignan. But he’s also humble and sensible enough to recognise that the liquid, not the number, should have the final say.
Then, later, this: ‘I know that everybody wants to know the age of each Cognac [in Frapin’s Château de Fontpinot XO blend], but the age is not important – it’s the Cognac in the glass. So I give the information – it’s about 20 years old – but if, next time, I want to put a bit of 12-year-old in the blend, it’s not a problem. The important thing is the quality in the glass.’
This provides a vital counterpoint to the current debate about transparency in Scotch, in the wake of the Compass Box story we broke on this site last month.
Yes, we should have as much accurate and honest information about Scotch as possible, but the same stringent criteria should also be applied to the interpretation of the data: just because the 17% of Strathclyde and Girvan grain in This Is Not A Luxury Whisky is 40 years old, and the 4% of Caol Ila is 30 years old, does that make it better than the 79% of Glen Ord that is 19 years old? Of course not – or not necessarily, anyway.
The climax of the Frapin evening was the unveiling of Frapin’s sixth Multimillésime, or multi-vintage, Cognac, a mix of 1986, 1988 and 1991 – which is clearly and proudly stated on the label.
Role model?: But the rules governing Cognac and Scotch 'vintages' differ
Frapin Multimillésime No 6 is many things: a merging of the blending and vintage concepts, a neat and snappy piece of innovation in a sector that is mainly devoid of it – and one of the finest liquids I’ve tasted all year.
But if you’re reading this and thinking ‘what a great idea for Scotch’, I’ve got bad news for you: you can’t do it – or rather you can’t tell anyone you’re doing it. According to the Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009, you can only mention one vintage or distillation year on a Scotch label, and that vintage has to make up 100% of the liquid in the bottle.
Unlike the rules on minimum age, which are enshrined in EU law and cover all spirits sectors, this particular nugget only applies to Scotch, meaning that Frapin can happily talk about the vintages in its Multimillésime, but – to pluck an example out of the air – Glenrothes cannot.
Then again… Isn’t Frapin still breaking the broader ‘minimum age’ law anyway, by mentioning the older components (1986, 1988) of Multimillésime alongside the youngest (1991)?
Anybody else need a drink?
26 October 2015
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.
14 October 2015
It sounds like just the sort of thing to get the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) lawyers firing up their laptops and composing a series of increasingly threatening ‘cease and desist’ missives.
An American whisky, produced in Virginia, but claiming to be a ‘Scottish-style’ single malt? Ok, the barley was malted in Scotland and the casks were re-coopered on Speyside, but half of it was only distilled once, for heaven’s sake.
As it happens, the SWA isn’t merely sanguine about the creation of the two bottlings made at the George Washington distillery in Mount Vernon – it’s directly complicit in it.
Joining forces with American spirits industry body DISCUS, the SWA flew three Scotch luminaries – Glenmorangie’s Bill Lumsden, Cardhu’s Andy Cant and Laphroaig’s John Campbell – over to help Mount Vernon’s Dave Pickerell to create the ground-breaking spirit.
No mod cons, though. The team had to use 18th century techniques at the restored plant. ‘We didn’t measure anything – it was all just done by taste,’ Campbell told Washington’s WTOP website. ‘And, eventually, I think we came to the conclusion that what we were making wasn’t half bad.’
Transatlantic tipple: Scottish malted barley was used to make the whiskies
The venture, set to benefit charities and educational ventures, is a nod to the influence of Scot James Anderson, an experienced whisky-maker who in 1797 persuaded a reluctant Washington to build a distillery at Mount Vernon as a sideline to his milling operation.
Two years later, the plant was churning out 11,000 gallons of whiskey, was the biggest in the young nation – and even the family physician was being paid in liquid form. Livestock, including Washington’s prize hogs, were fattened on the left-over cooked mash.
The ‘new’ George Washington whisky, however, bears little resemblance to the liquid the Founding Father would have known and tasted – Washington’s recipe was 60% rye, 35% corn and 5% malted barley.
Then again, it was also shipped in cask without having to undergo the inconvenient and time-consuming process of maturation, while the SWA-approved 2015 spirit was at least aged for over three years.
After all, you have to draw the line somewhere…
04 September 2015
Fans of nominative determinism would have you believe that nomen est omen, to give the Latin term or – in Greek – όνομα ορίζοντας. The idea is that, sub-consciously, you gravitate to pursuits that fit your name.
Clearly, this theory has its limitations – as far as I know, the Chief Engineer of this parish has no burning desire to become a roadsweeper – but it also has its charms.
Are distilleries sometimes governed by this phenomenon? I think so. For me, the very sound of Mortlach’s name conjures up shadows of primeval threat and a sulphurous subterranean stench. Think of H G Wells’ morlocks in The Time Machine and you’ll get the idea.
As you will when you taste the whisky. The ‘beast of Dufftown’ is a famously powerful dram of enormous intensity and old-fashioned heaviness – like being trapped in a Bovril jar and striking a match to find your way out.
That very robustness makes Mortlach, when paired with the right cask, a malt of huge potential longevity, as evidenced by the release of Mortlach 75 Years Old by Gordon & MacPhail, the latest in the company’s Generations series and The Oldest Whisky in the World.
Humble beginnings: Cask 2475 was filled in 1939, 75 years before bottling
The liquid is remarkable – after an initial sawmill buzz on the nose, it shifts and changes with all manner of elusive perfumes – and I found myself identifying a feral edge to the manifold flavours as classic Mortlach.
But what is classic Mortlach? Perhaps more importantly, in the case of the G&M whisky, what was it? Read the accompanying book by Charlie Maclean and Alexander McCall Smith and a complex, semi-paradoxical blend of continuity and change emerges.
Mortlach’s official history begins in 1823, but illicit distillation predated this legitimacy; its kit was removed by John and James Grant little more than 20 years later, to fit out Glen Grant at Rothes. Was there an identifiable Mortlach character even then? Was it lost? Recovered or rediscovered?
Or did it come when the distillery sprang to fame in the later 19th century under John Gordon and then George Cowie? More likely it emerged from the revamp and expansion of the distillery under George’s son, Alexander.
This introduced the complex, Heath Robinson distillation regime that persists to this day: six stills, including the tiny ‘wee Witchie’, a spirit that’s distilled, er, 2.81 times, cold worm tubs. Sulphurous, meaty, classic Mortlach has remained unchanged for over a century. Except it hasn’t.
Go back to the 75-year-old. That whisper of smoke – does it owe its existence to the fact that, in 1939, Mortlach’s barley was malted on site and dried over a mix of peat and coke? A practice which stopped in 1968?
What about that luscious, concentrated apricot character (you can almost feel the juice trickling down your chin)? Does the historic use of brewers’ (rather than distillers’) yeast play any part here?
Or is it down to the fact that, until 1946, distillers were prohibited from fermenting and distilling at the same time, resulting in typically longer fermentation times and the consequent promotion of fruitier flavours?
We could go further: what impact did resting the copper have on pre-1946 Mortlach spirit (if the stills were only running, as seems likely, three days a week)? Not to mention the fact that the distillery was rebuilt in the 1960s, with the stills converted to mechanical stoking and then steam.
That these questions remain all but unanswerable only adds to their fascination. What we’re left with – that last drop of precious, 75-year-old liquid sitting at the bottom of the glass – is a whisky that performs an elusive and paradoxical role.
It simultaneously fits our mental template of classic Mortlach – and makes us question exactly what that character is, and how it developed.
The link with nominative determinism – even the connection to The Time Machine – seems apt.
21 July 2015
Some people are just plain greedy. News from that understated and sombre get-together of bar folk in New Orleans, Tales of the Cocktail, that the chief engineer of this parish, Mr David Broom, has won not one but two of the coveted Spirited Awards.
It seems extraordinarily unfair of him to hog the limelight in this way – I mean, did he really need the hassle of transporting not one but two Riedel crystal trophies back to Blighty? And buying them their own Business Class seat seemed mightily excessive…
So: Best Cocktail & Spirits Writer and Best New Spirits Book (for Whisky: The Manual). Not bad. Not bad at all. Massive congratulations from all of us, Dave.
Now get back to work.
Manual labour: the Chief Engineer and his winning smile (photo: Becky Paskin)
07 July 2015
Ever played press release bingo? As you can imagine, we get a lot of electronic missives here at scotchwhisky.com from companies eager to secure their moment in the limelight. And some are, er, more imaginative than others.
Certain phrases and words have a tendency to crop up with alarming frequency. A recent press release on The Macallan Residence at Two Temple Place in London provides the perfect example: I ticked off ‘luxury’, ‘prestigious’ and consumers being ‘taken on a journey’ of ‘carefully curated’ experiences (whatever they may be). All in the first few lines.
Photo credit: Jonathan Daniel Pryce
The event provided ‘strong consumer engagement’, various things were ‘bespoke’, the whisky was ‘award-winning’ (with the number of gongs handed out these days, aren’t they all?), and the whole shebang showed The Macallan’s ‘unwavering dedication to quality and craft’. A surprising omission for that mot du jour, ‘artisanal’, but otherwise a full house.
Yes, it’s easy to scoff – and Scotch has moved on hugely from the days of heather and weather, when you couldn’t swing a caber (don’t you mean ‘toss’? – Ed) without hitting a grizzled, tartan-clad Caledonian in front of a brooding mountain-and-loch scene.
But, by fully embracing the ‘luxury lifestyle’ zeitgeist, Scotch is simply swapping one dead language for another. When the same adjectives, nouns and verbs are being shared by distillers, fashion houses, watchmakers and jewellers, Scotch’s individuality is subsumed in a monochrome porridge of communication targeting ‘aspirational’ consumers.
Oh hang on, aspirational. Bingo!
03 July 2015
Much cheering from the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) on Scotch whisky being according the status of a Geographical Indication (GI) in Botswana. But why?
GI status is reserved for products from a particular place with a particular character – Parma ham, Sherry and so on – and all WTO members must protect them from misuse. In other words, no fakes allowed.
Botswana imported less than £500,000-worth of Scotch in 2014 – a pimple on an elephant’s posterior in the global context of exports of nearly £4bn. But that figure was 163% up on 2013, and there’s a lot more Scotch which crosses the border from neighbouring South Africa.
Even so, the Botswana decision is worth talking about not for its intrinsic importance, but for its symbolic value as Scotch companies greedily eye the African continent’s emerging economies.
Oil is bringing wealth to Nigeria and Angola, international investment is piling in and, even back in 2012, consumer spending accounted for more than 60% of economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the World Bank.
The number of middle class Africans varies according to your definition of the term – could be 350m, could be 120m out of a total of about 1bn – but it’s rising fast, and large numbers of these people are beginning to have money to spend on more than the simple necessities of living and breathing.
For an equally large chunk of the populace, Scotch whisky is, to descend into marketing speak, a ‘highly aspirational’ product. In other words, buying a bottle of Johnnie Walker or Chivas Regal is one of the ultimate expressions of a person’s new-found and hard-won economic independence and freedom.
That’s the size of the prize for Scotch whisky companies in Africa. And that’s why the SWA is talking up Botswana.
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- Port Charlotte’s whisky range relaunches
- Create a personalised Johnnie Walker blend
- New whisky reviews: Batch 147
- New Glengoyne Cask Strength is Sherry first
Latest news 01 December 2017
The new Johnnie Walker Blue Label Ghost and Rare blend features whisky from lost distilleries.
Latest news 07 April 2017
Limited edition Blue Label bottle, unveiled during Milan Design Week, goes on sale later this year.
New Whiskies 15 December 2017
Two blends, including the latest Johnnie Walker, three Bowmores, three 90-plus scores.
Latest news 16 January 2018
The Striding Man has been transformed into the Striding Woman for a new whisky edition.