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How do you find a good single malt Scotch?

For single malts, the age statement has long been the consumer’s prime navigational tool, but distillers are now questioning this approach. Joel Harrison investigates.

Does age still matter when picking a good single malt?

If you listen to the politicians in Scotland pushing for independence, you’ll hear them boast about a country rich in natural resources, rich in history and rich in entrepreneurialism. The television, radio, golf, Bovril, Scotch whisky and penicillin all trace their inception to Scots, and this roll call of inventors has unwittingly been the architects of many a person’s average weekend.

Agree or disagree with the push for independence, but following in the footsteps of TV and golf, the current Trojan horse for those supporting autonomy for Scotland – or “Brand Alba” – is now Scotch whisky. Loved the world over, it’s seeing dynamic growth in demand in key emerging markets, and while blends are the volume drivers, its flagship offering in terms of provenance is single malt.

With the majority of Scottish single malt brands occupying the luxury end of the market, part of the strategy to tempt new consumers into the category is with increasingly innovative entry-level offerings.

New recruits to the category, the theory runs, should become brand-loyal, growing into the arena while trading up through a brand’s own series of offerings in the marketplace. At the same time, core ranges are strengthened and underscored with unique offerings in global travel retail, as well as interesting single cask and vintage pieces for those really looking to explore a particular distillery’s repertoire.

However, providing new drinkers with a road map to their potential purchases has always been the biggest challenge facing the “Mad Men” of single malts. What are the flavours locked inside each bottle and, more importantly, why are those flavours reflected in the digits on the price tag?

Chivas Regal’s Great Things Take Time campaign

This responsibility has traditionally been shouldered by the age statement: a bingo-style call which, according to many producers, has locked consumers across all markets into a false sense of security when it comes to the quality of the hooch hidden beneath the cork.

Dr Nick Morgan, head of Scotch whisky outreach at Diageo, explains: “When the consumer looks at a label, I think the most important aspect is the words ‘single malt Scotch’, followed by brand name, then probably something that gives them a clue about the flavour. They’ll probably then look for ‘Islay’ or ‘Island’, as they’ll either love that style or want to avoid it. Then age statement after that.”

Brand loyalty is clearly a major factor for Morgan, who goes on to say: “I think if you’re a fan of a particular brand, then age statement will be irrelevant because you’re invested in the brand’s core flavours.”

This attitude is underscored by the new Macallan 1824 range from The Edrington Group, which is choosing to focus its entry-level range not on age, but on the colour of the liquid.

It seems that flavour is the top of the agenda for all the producers in the single malt category when it comes to marketing new expressions, but there must also be an eye on stock management. Forecasts from yesteryear did not show the current increase in demand for Scotch whisky worldwide, meaning that most distilleries have less older whisky in stock than the market is currently demanding.

Edrington’s malts director, Ken Grier, says: “We are aware that around the world whisky is growing and we are aware that we keep having to keep ourselves fresh and interesting for our consumers out there.

So the [Macallan 1824] initiative was about wondering if we could turn the whole world of single malts on its head and look at this idea of natural colour, which is a big part of what we do and forms one of our ‘keystones’ of The Macallan.”

Supply and demand

However, continued growth depends on consumers being able to buy your product and, if supply constraints restrict the availability of an age-specific product, then things need to change. “[The new initiative] means we can make the most effective use of the inventory of great casks that we have,” explains Grier. “And that gives us the ability to share The Macallan with more markets, in more outlets.”

However, one major company, Chivas Brothers, is still focusing on age with a new marketing drive, Great Things Take Time. Launched in September, this subtly shifts Chivas Brothers away from the previous Age Matters campaign, but stays with the idea that whisky takes time to mature and gain unique flavours.

Neil Macdonald, brand director at Chivas, says: “Great things take time and in our experience this applies equally to our whiskies. Of course, elements such as cask type and quality have a key role to play, and these are managed very carefully for all our brands.”

When it comes to adding an age statement to these products, Macdonald says: “What we do know is that when it comes to age, there are no short cuts, no easy solutions. To craft great whiskies with strong age statements requires long-term commitment and patience, but we think that is a price well worth paying.”

Of course, one of the best-loved single malts in the Chivas Brothers portfolio is the no age-statement offering from Aberlour, a’bunadh, which underscores the idea that age is one element only of a great whisky.

The Macallan 1824 Series is defined by the colour of each expression, rather than an age statement

But for those companies looking to move away from age, does the consumer miss this key marker on their product? “We have a number of [no age-statement] malts, amongst them Talisker 57 Degrees North and Cardhu Special Cask Reserve, both of which have been pretty successful,” says Diageo’s Morgan.

“We’re always looking at different ways of presenting our malts and talking to the consumer about flavour, and I don’t think we’d necessarily think that an age statement is the best way of doing that.”

Edrington’s Grier agrees, saying that the ”consumer is not asking about the age, but the quality of whisky”, and that since the company launched its no age-statement 1824 Collection range into global travel retail, sales have “doubled in a matter of four years … it’s been a massive success”.

Any Scotch aficionado will tell you they’ve had great liquid from four to 40 years old, but it’s increasingly felt that the consumer needs to be unshackled from the great age statement myth, linking years to quality.

It seems that the real key to this is brand trust, which can be seen most clearly in the blended sector. Johnnie Walker Blue Label is a high-end, no age statement whisky, aspired to by Scotch drinkers the world over due to its perceived quality.

Single malt, it seems, can learn a lot from the blended category about the bond built between the brand and the consumer. After all, when we listen to a new band, we aren’t concerned with who the members are, their musical training or their history; we’re just concerned with enjoying the noises they make as a unit.

Many factors will go into the overall RRP of a bottling, and age is an easy justification for a linear rise in price between expressions. But what of the price of no age-statement releases? Why is one twice the price of another?

All about flavour?

Morgan is convinced that, in tasting a range of one of Diageo’s single malts, “you’d understand, from the flavour, why one is £24, one is £36 and one is £42”, and he concludes that “the liquids would not fail to explain their price points”.

An artist may use the same materials and the same level of effort on several pictures, but some will command a greater price than others – and the market doesn’t seem to mind.

Another big factor in securing new whisky drinkers seems to be simply granting consumers the permission to enjoy whisky.

As Morgan observes: “Even in a mature malt whisky market, the penetration of single malts isn’t particularly great.” His solution rests with “getting glasses in front of those people to taste the product, understand the taste and giving them words to describe the taste and flavours”.

Whatever the latest marketing initiative for the single malt Scotch category may be, its worldwide renaissance can only be a positive thing for the industry as a whole.

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