Will consumers embrace no-age-statement Scotch whiskies?29th July, 2014 by Tom Bruce-Gardyne
Having taught consumers to seriously value age and regional identity in single malts, can the whisky industry really change its tune?
When Chivas Brothers launched its global Age Matters campaign in June 2010, the original poster declared simply: “Look for the number. Know the age. Know whisky.” With no mention of a brand, it felt like a generic campaign cooked up by the Scotch Whisky Association. Instead, it was based on a sample of 2,000 whisky drinkers in nine countries from Brazil to China. The research found that over 90% of consumers believe age is an important indicator of quality – that older whiskies are superior – while 89% said they actively looked for an age statement when buying whisky.
Chivas’ Age Matters has since morphed into Great Things Take Time, which continues to communicate the message “with Scotch whisky, age really does matter”. Meanwhile, a steady stream of other Scotch brands, particularly single malts, have been touting a rather different missive. With age statements discreetly dropped, the message is now more a case of “don’t look for the number”. By doing so, Ken Grier, director of malts at Edrington, owner of The Macallan, believes producers are able to improve the quality of the liquid. “I’d argue that in some ways you have greater flexibility to vat up products with a wider array of spirits that may give you greater balance and complexity than if you were simply restricted to products over a certain age,” he explains.
Focus on colour
The Macallan has taken a colour-coded approach with its 1824 Series, starting with Gold and Amber and rising in price to Sienna and Ruby. These are being gradually rolled out to replace younger expressions. In the UK, the cheapest Macallan with a number on the label is now the 18-year-old at around £135. According to Grier, 1824 has allowed the firm’s whisky maker, Bob Dalgarno, to look at their inventory of 160,000 different casks and “cut it a different way”. He explains: “Once the colour decision was taken it would have been illogical to have age constraints, because you need to have casks of different ages to get to a colour.”
Aside from unleashing the creativity of men like Dalgarno, you don’t have to be too cynical to suspect there are other motives involved. “Palpably within that is the fact that everyone in the industry is looking for a way to make sure they can not only do interesting things for consumers, but also make the best use of the stock resources they have,” Grier adds. Waiting for every cask to reach an arbitrary birthday as 2% a year evaporates as the angel’s share is painfully expensive. Yet as far as The Macallan is concerned, he insists: “It’s really driven from an innovation perspective rather than any desire to save cost or purely to eke out stock resources.”
Grier goes on to explain: “We originally started with a non-aged range in duty free to have a point of difference. People were interested and intrigued and that gave us the confidence to launch it in certain parts of the world.”
While Grier maintains there has never been any resistance to these new age-free expressions, the majority of The Macallan is still sold with a number attached, especially in the US and Asia. “By and large everywhere else is pretty much moving towards the 1824 series,” he says.