The Evolution of Whisky Tastings
The Age of the Blend
Take yourself back in time to the late 1970s and to a whisky marketplace and world unrecognisable to today’s. Blended Scotch Whiskies dominated the market both home and abroad. Single Malt was largely unheard-of outside Scotland. Blenders were the kings of the industry and closely guarded the secrets of their craft, creating an aura of ‘blender’s mystique’.
At the time, whisky tastings were not as commonplace as they are today. When the product was sampled, little attempt was made to learn about the brand character or to conduct objective or comparative assessments. There was little discussion around differentiated production processes or character other than very general production principles common to all.
Primarily, the reason for this was that the detailed knowledge beyond the production processes was simply not made available for commercial or marketing purposes. Distilleries were viewed and treated as production centres rather than the emotional shrine of the brand visited by thousands of loyal devotees annually.
Promotion and advertising of whisky tended to be superficial, generally being limited to bottle, glass and slogans. Innovation, meanwhile, was focused on production and packaging and cost saving as opposed to the whisky itself. As for ‘non-age statements’ or ‘wood finishes’, these simply did not exist, with age being the only differentiating factor.
During this period, nearly 75% of the industry was controlled by large, internationally owned or London-based companies such as Grand Metropolitan, Distillers, Hiram Walker and Seagram. Sales and management were driven from London headquarters with little interaction with the distilleries in Scotland. In comparison, there were only a few smaller, mainly family-owned distilleries whose entire company was based solely in Scotland, including Macallan, Bells, Whyte & Mackay, Glenmorangie, Glenfarclas, Glenlivet & Glen Grant.
Overseas distributors were responsible for the majority of the brand marketing in their respective markets. And any attempt at that time, by the dominant company to promote a premium product was focused on a deluxe 12 year old blend rather than a single malt. The
Age of the Single Malt
However, the launch of the distinctively elegant and sophisticated green, triangular bottle of Glenfiddich in the 1960s was to start a new movement.
Even so, it was not until well over a decade later that this innovation gained momentum with the combined vision and action of Glenfiddich alongside family-owned, independent companies such as Macallan, Glenmorangie and Glenlivet. Together, they worked to promote Single Malt Scotch Whisky on the world-stage, positioning it as a quality drink in its own right.
But carving out a market on a global scale required investment; WM Grant (Glenfiddich) had the luxury of being able to invest heavily on the back of their substantial blends portfolio. Glenlivet was an early developer and was soon taken over by the mighty Seagram, acquiring strong distribution networks particularly in North America. Whereas Glenmorangie and Macallan had limited budgets since their companies relied extensively on the sale of fillings or mature stocks to blenders and they lacked international distribution.
In order for these two to break into the market, creative and innovative marketing was required. Their inventive approach heralded the birth of whisky tasting as we know it. Prior to this, only wine was deemed sufficiently differentiated and sophisticated to warrant tastings and discussions around the character or provenance.
The actions of these distilleries changed all of that.
Whisky tastings emerged as a vital means to convey the individual characters and processes of each distillery whilst building Single Malt Scotch as a category in its own right. They gave an opportunity to create an air of excitement around the category which Scotch as a whole was visibly lacking due to an outdated image, ageing consumer profile and plateauing sales. It is worth noting that nearly ¼ of malt distilleries in Scotland were closed in the 1980s, the result of falling sales and over production during many years.
The development of formal tasting programmes constituted a dramatic innovation, one taken further by a Glenmorangie initiative led by my father, Neil McKerrow.
He toured the USA with a program titled ‘The Great Estates of Scotland’. This campaign broke new ground with a series of ‘horizontal’ tastings, in which focus was placed on a selection of different Single Malt expressions from a variety of different Scottish distilleries. Each audience was targeted yet diverse ensuring unparalleled exposure. There is no doubt that this tour greatly stimulated sales and consumer interest, and we will interview Neil at a later date to learn more about this crucial period in the history of Scotch Whisky.
Thereafter, tastings steadily evolved into wider groups of trade, including hospitality Food & Beverage Managers, influencers and so forth, to the position they hold today whereby tastings form an integral part in the promotion, enjoyment, brand-building and knowledge-sharing of whisky.
Tastings to Build the Brand
Alongside the development of whisky tastings, this period highlighted the value and need for whisky brands to communicate their unique offering by educating their sales and marketing teams on their ‘house-style’ and how they managed to achieve this through differing production systems. This saw the smaller companies remain one step ahead of many of their larger competitors who were slower to recognise this value.
And so, this period also bore witness to the beginning of brand education in the Single Malt category. Information detailing how their different production techniques influenced their unique character was paramount. This knowledge and research provided the primary platform which allowed Scotch Single Malt to seize the moral leadership of the industry. This achievement was down to a handful of pioneering and highly innovative malt distilleries.
The gratitude we owe to these few instrumental distilleries is witnessed in every aspect of Scotch today. Brand stories are nurtured in every piece of content, material and message creating a loyal and protective following for each. The advent of Brand Ambassadors took this one step further, and we will consider how this role evolved in a future edition of ’A Spirited View’.