How Scotch is Reinventing Itself for Modern Drinkers

Higher Price Tags

One of the factors impacting sales growth of single malts is rising prices, which have far exceeded bumps in other categories.

“Scotch prices are skyrocketing,” says Broc Smith, owner of Sarasota Liquor Locker in Sarasota, Fla. “Sometimes when I replace a bottle on the shelf, the price I pay is as much as what the last bottle sold for. That’s tough on retailers.”

“Demand for Scotch has gone up,” observes George Ryals, manager at All Star Wine & Spirits in Latham, N.Y., “but so have the prices. Is that 14-year-old that used to cost $40, worth $60,” he asks rhetorically. “The liquid hasn’t changed.”

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“In our market, we have seen drastic price increases amongst the single malts,” says Robertie at Hazel’s Beverage World. “When customers see their favorite brands jump ten dollars overnight, they are less inclined to purchase, and often turn to something else.”

Proponents argue that malts are a rare product with limited availability. “Producers can’t just turn on a tap to get an aged single malt,” points out Nash at William Grant. “As global demand has increased, we’ve seen upward pressure on pricing.”

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Some retailers are more sanguine. “We have seen price increases in single malts, but they are commensurate with the increasing demand,” says David Jabour, president of Twin Liquors, an Austin-based, third-generation retailer. “Consumers recognize value, and they are willing to pay the price.”

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Dewar’s White Label is finished in charred oak barrels with some of that char scratched off.

Age Discrimination

One of the biggest topics of conversation about Scotch revolves around minimum age statements.

Common sense says a 15-year-old whisky, generally speaking, is richer and better (and more expensive) than a 12-year-old, for example. Others contend that you can’t judge a whisky solely by its age. Perhaps. But it does mean that more information is needed by consumers to explain what’s in the bottle.

“For years, the category was structured around the age statement. It’s still the case, but we are seeing more distillers launching non-age statement expressions,” observes Balay at Moët Hennessy USA. Those non-age statement products are a way to bring new flavors and aromas to consumers, he says.

“A few years ago, non-age statement was a dirty term,” Morgan says. “Now, blending teams are able to use the full spectrum of flavors available regardless of age.” He points out that Diageo owns more than 8 million barrels of whiskey in Scotland to work with.

Some brands, like Glenrothes, use vintage dates to differentiate various expressions. Last September, the Anchor Distilling brand launched its Reserve Collection: Vintage Reserve, Sherry Reserve and Bourbon Reserve—each a blend of 10 vintages.

Retailers are justifiably concerned about the subject. “In Scotch, producers are getting away from age designations, using fancy names for special bottling, which is a way to avoid having to say just how old the liquid is,” says Smith at Sarasota Liquor Locker. He reasons, “When producers are running out of old whisky stocks, they have to be creative.”

“A lot of these special bottlings are mostly marketing,” says Ryals at All Star, which means product knowledge is key. Some customers used whisky age statements to gauge quality, and now need more information. “It’s important that we as retailers are educated about the products and communicate that to customers.”

All Star posts descriptive shelf talkers on every product. Sales staff regularly tastes new products. “Information is a powerful tool,” Ryals says. “Ninety percent of our customers come in the door looking for us to educate them.”

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Blended Stirs Up the Category

“Even though a lot of the talk is about malts, blended Scotch is still selling well,” says Ryals.

Blended Scotch is a much bigger category than single malts (nearly four times the size) and although growth has been flat, brands are hoping to create some excitement with innovation, especially at the high end.

“We’re seeing a lot of innovations in the blended arena,” says Morgan, whose portfolio includes Johnnie Walker and Buchanan’s. Blends make up 90% of global sales, he points out.

Ambassadors from Johnnie Walker are about to go on the road again, conducting practical blending classes for trade and consumers. After an explanation of the different styles and the blending process, consumers get to create their own blends.

The company recently launched Johnnie Walker Select Casks, showing off different barrel finishes. The first expression is a Rye Cask Finish. Cardhu single malt from Speyside is at the heart of the blend; whiskies with at least 10 years aging in first-fill American oak barrels were then finished in ex-rye whiskey casks and bottled at 46% ABV.

The Scotch has fruit and vanilla flavors with a touch of smoke and spiciness from the casks, Morgan says. Rye is trendy right now, and the bottle has an age statement. “It ticks all the right boxes,” he adds.

“The whisky journey has changed from what it was in the past,” says Brian Shaifer, director of Dewar’s for Bacardi USA. “Instead of starting with vodka or rum, the Millennials are diving right into whisky.”

Scotch isn’t the old boys’ club anymore, he adds, explaining that one-third of whisky drinkers are female. That Dewar’s has one of the few female master blenders in the industry should resonate with those consumers, he believes. Another message is that Dewar’s double-marries its blends. The liquid is aged, blended and then put back into barrels to harmonize.

To engage those tech-savvy consumers, Dewar’s created Scratched360.com. The website transports viewers to the distillery in Scotland, and with a special headset activated through a smartphone, allows 360 degree virtual tours. “It brings the whisky process to life,” Shaifer says.

Scratched Cask is Dewar’s newest expression. “We borrowed techniques from our Bourbon cousins,” Shaifer says.  Dewar’s White Label is finished in charred oak barrels with some of that char scratched off. It mellows the liquid and gives soft, oaky vanilla tones. The brand hopes it will appeal to Bourbon drinkers. “We are sticking by our age statements,” Shaifer declares.  White Label is Dewar’s base brand. Scratched Cask is a slight premium.

“We look at Monkey Shoulder as the naughty nephew of Scotch,” says marketing director Andy Nash about William Grant & Sons’ newest blend.  For the price of a mid-tier Bourbon, consumers are getting a blend of three single malts, he points out.

Another blend in the William Grant portfolio is the eponymous Grant’s. “The quality of our blend is brought about through five generations of family ownership,” Nash says. Grant’s has seen success recently with new variants, such as the Ale Cask reserve, which is finished in casks that have previously held Scottish Ale.

“Certainly it’s a whisky that should appeal to consumers who are also fans of the fast-growing craft beer category,” he says.

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