Will consumers embrace no-age-statement Scotch whiskies?
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.
Rise of no-age-statements
For Nick Morgan, head of whisky outreach at Diageo, age statements were rare before the mid-1980s, aside from Johnnie Walker Black and Chivas Regal. “Age came in with a vengeance with the launch of the Classic Malts in 1987, and since then we’ve had about 25 years of ‘age, age and more age’ as people tried to establish the category and differentiate their products from others in consumers’ minds,” he laments.
Thus if the industry now feels constrained by age statements it has only itself to blame.
Morgan believes the trend for dropping age statements is partly down to “the relentless drive for innovation in the single malt category where every week there have to be new offerings”. He adds: “Frankly it’s less about running out of stock, than running out of numbers. The only one yet to appear on a label is unlucky 13.” He also quotes a recent poll of 25-45-year-old whisky drinkers that contradicts the Chivas research. “Consumers are now telling us that the key driver to purchasing whisky is flavour (60%), whilst only 3% mention age.” And yet with the notable exception of Talisker Storm, most of Diageo’s malts still come with an age attached.
The industry bean counters must be excited at the prospect of faster stock rotation and less share for those pesky angels, and that’s fine so long as it doesn’t compromise quality. The consensus is that they wouldn’t be so foolish to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs for some short-term gain. “Even with accountants running here there and everywhere,” says Richard Paterson, Whyte & Mackay’s master blender, “there’s no way we would reduce the quality in any shape or form.”
Trend which is ‘here to stay’
At the time of writing, Whyte & Mackay, whose malts include The Dalmore and Jura, is once again up for sale, this time thanks to co-owners United Spirits and Diageo. “As you can imagine it’s not a comfortable position to be in, but having been here 10 times before we get pretty used to it,” says Paterson with a weary sigh. Back to the subject of non-age whiskies he says: “I think they’re definitely here to stay.” In one duty free outlet, he was recently told they accounted for nearly half the malts on sale.
Four years before The Macallan took the plunge, Speyside malt The Glenrothes launched its Select Reserve in 2008. “People thought we were absolutely bonkers not having an age on the label,” says brands heritage director, Ronnie Cox. “But we very quickly found that consumers did understand what we were trying to do.”
For Cox, malt whisky is an organic substance that matures at its own pace depending on the quality of the wood. He says: “Just being a 12-year-old is no guarantee of quality if the whisky was filled into exhausted, third-fill casks.”
But, as Paterson says: “Many consumers are still hooked on a magical age – that’s the way whisky’s been marketed. So it is up to the industry to convey the message that age isn’t everything.”
Bill Lumsden, Glenmorangie’s head of distilling and whisky creation, feels things are slowly changing. “It will take quite a number of years for a global acceptance that age is not important, but if our Kentucky and Cognac cousins can do it without an age statement, then I absolutely don’t see why we can’t.”
The company’s special releases have taken this approach for some time, and yet core expressions like Glenmorangie Original is a 10-year-old and destined to remain so.
Of course the first thing any whisky book would tell you about Glenmorangie is that it’s a Highland malt, as opposed to an Islay, Lowland or Speyside. This regional approach to single malts, what Lumsden calls “that old chestnut”, has long been used as a flavour signpost to direct consumers around the category. As Ken Grier says: “Purchasing a bottle of single malt is pricey, and if you get a flavour you don’t expect, it can be a bit of an expensive mistake. Regionality can give you an indication of the type of the spirit.” Lumsden, however, is unconvinced: “I think regionality has as much capacity to confuse as it does to clarify.”
For Chivas Brothers, regionality is an important factor when educating consumers about Scotch, particularly when helping them discover the whisky in the first place. But the group veers away from using the Scotch whisky regional flavour map in its consumer communications. “We do provide some information about the regional differences to consumers where relevant – our single malts carry regional definitions on their labels, for example – but if we do reference the regionality flavour map on our websites or social media channels, it’s always alongside other information,” explains Nikki Burgess, international brand director for malts at Chivas Brothers.
Journey of flavour
When Diageo entered the category in the late 1980s, their six Classic Malts were entirely built on the regions with Islay represented by Lagavulin, and Speyside by Cragganmore for example. The UK supermarkets later followed suit with regional malts under their own labels, while the Classic Malts doubled in size and ultimately required a different approach altogether – namely the so-called “Flavour Map”. Developed in conjunction with whisky writer Dave Broom, it displays malts – and not just Diageo’s – plotted on a grid between “delicate” and “smoky”, and “light” and “rich”.
“We play two tunes when talking to consumers,” Nick Morgan explains. “There is a flavour tune and there’s a regionality tune, and broadly speaking they tend to align. So, if you think of the Flavour Map, Speyside whiskies will group in one particular area, and Lowland ones in another distinct area, although there will always be exceptions. Regionality is a very emotional way of talking about whisky while flavour is far more functional. I think they both offer us a very useful way to reach out to consumers.” He also describes the Flavour Map as a useful gift-giving tool, and adds: “Remember in excess of 50% of all single malts are bought as gifts.”
This approach favours Diageo simply because it has more malt distilleries in Scotland than any of its rivals. The Macallan and Glenmorangie see themselves as far more than a pinpoint on a map, and you can hardly blame them. But if you’re a big force in the market you outgrow concepts like regional identity and age statements, because all that really matters is the strength of the brand.