Suddenly ... we see the beauty of blends

17 October, 2008

It's overlooked and even derided, but blended whisky still

outsells malt. Is it shaking off

its image problem? Graham Holter r


Who was it that said

"blended whisky is sacrilege" and that it "deserves Coke?" It could, truthfully, have been one of thousands of deluded malt snobs, but on this occasion it was none other than KT Tunstall.

In a recent interview with The Word magazine, the Scottish singer-songwriter enthusiastically recalled her days working at Luvians, a specialist whisky and wine shop in St Andrews. "There was a lot of Italian pride in that place, so we were all trained up to give good advice," she said, before launching into her attack on blends. "I am a total snob about it and it's my sole diva moment in the dressing room; if it's blended it gets sent back!"

Blended whisky has something of an image problem, though it continues to wipe the floor with malts in terms of sales: £750 million versus £130 million, according to Nielsen off-trade figures for the year to Aug 9. Sales are

rising at 2% compared to malts' 1%; volumes are not falling as fast (2% for blends, 3% for malts).

The Scotch Whisky Association indicates that blends account

for 82% of the value and 89% of the volume of exports in 2007.

Peter Wood, the

manager of Luvians ( Woods accepts no blame for training, or

even having met KT Tunstall), admits that the focus of the shop remains on malt, which is "the backbone" of its spirits business.

"However, we've got a large selection not just of blended whiskies but the Compass Box range, single grains and vatted malts," he says. "It's a market that is challenging to sell because people have the perception of Scotch malt being better than a blended whisky."

Ian Bankier, chairman of the Whisky Shop chain, finds himself in a similar position. "A very small percentage of our sales are blends, because we're a specialist malt retailer and people don't see Bell's or Grouse as whiskies for special occasions," he says.

"But I'm a big believer in blends and the challenge in the UK is to remove a lot of the baggage that

they seem to have picked up. People think blends are bad and malt is good, and it's not true.

"We do a lot of general missionary work, as I call it. We reckon 1.5 million people visit the Whisky Shop each year and these are not the converted: these are people who walk in off the street. We spend a lot of our time putting out the truth, trying to educate people generally about whisky."

Diageo rings the Bell's

James Pennefather, Diageo G B

whisky brand director, admits that the 2% volume decline in blends has been "pretty consistent over the last 10 or 20 years", but points out that the value increase is encouraging - even if much of that may be down to duty increases.

After a period of relatively little above-the-line support for its flagship UK blend, Diageo is now investing in advertising for Bell's, and has recently reformulated the recipe.

"Three years ago we stopped advertising Bell's and I don't think that was the right thing to do for the category," Pennefather says. "The new campaign has some very good little ads. They develop a

strong product message and

show pride in the category - but they've also got a bit of a twinkle in the eye.

"A lot of younger drinkers see it as a bit of a dads' or grandfathers' drink. It's going to take a bit of time to turn the category around, but we feel that investing in Bell's again is the right thing to do. We're hoping this will give a kick -start to the whole category."

Grant's brand manager Harriet Knight

is concern ed at the variation in approach that super-

markets have traditionally shown to blends and malts. "They are treated com-

pletely differently,"

Knight says. "If you go into a supermarket they will provide you with tasting notes on every

malt, but with blends they just tell you what it's called and how much it costs.

It's the forgotten part of the whisky category.

"The emphasis is starting to change as people are exploring more and more. All the retailers in our business are starting to look at delivering more education and recognising it's a category that's been neglected. Retailers are becoming more open to on-pack education, delivering more than just £2 off."

Grant's underwent a major repackaging this year, and a sampling campaign at garden centres

- during which consumers were exposed to simple cocktail ideas like Grant's & Cranberry

- has helped the brand

enjoy "one of the most phenomenal trading years we've ever had".

Garden centres are perhaps not where you would seek out trendy,

twenty-something opinion formers but then Knight is realistic about her target market. "Every brand has an aspiration to recruit younger drinkers, but the population is ageing," she says. "Blended whisky is something that you don't fully get into until your mid-30s."

Beam Global UK's marketing manager Aileen Nicol suggests Teacher's has

drawn broadly the same conclusions. The

£1.5 million Create Your Space campaign is aimed squarely at

males over 30 and gives consumers the chance to win a classic car.

Meanwhile, the Famous Grouse, widely admired by retailers and rivals alike for its consistent marketing support, has been far from complacent about its market leadership and has seen off-trade sales climb 5% as a result. This Christmas a shrink-wrapped special edition has been launched in the multiple grocer sector, and the summer saw the arrival of the Black Grouse, which Maxxium described as a "rich and flavoursome smoky whisky" which "marries the trademark quality and smoothness of the Famous Grouse with the aromatic peatiness of an Islay malt".

Brand manager Lee Walker adds: "The full -bodied taste of the Black Grouse is designed to appeal to experiential whisky consumers who are looking to take their enjoyment of blended whisky to the next level.

"It's a dark and mellow liquid that combines the smoothness of the Famous Grouse with the smokiness of an Islay malt, to create this rather unconventional liquid. It's been toasted by the critics, it's flown off the shelves in other markets and we're extremely confident of its success in the home market."

Interestingly, blended Scotch has no problem in achieving trendiness in many export markets, where the likes of Chivas Regal, Johnnie Walker and Ballantines are aspirational brands. "We sell 15 million cases of Johnnie Walker Black Label and it's a high-status spirit to drink in Europe," says Diageo's Pennefather. "There is an image problem with blends in the UK and I find it a shame because actually the blends are amazing whiskies in their own right, because they take the best parts of malts and blend them together.

"We're hoping that we can start

re-educating people about the crafts­manship in the blend and remind people that these products have been aged

in oak.

"If you ask young guys what the best whisky in the world is a lot will say Johnnie Walker Blue Label."

Why pour money into Bell's if Johnnie Walker stands more chance of capturing the imagination of younger drinkers in the UK? Like Knight at Grant's, Pennefather believes most drinkers take a convoluted journey into the Scotch category, normally experimenting with smoother, sweeter whiskeys from the USA or Ireland before making the leap. The new Bell's, he argues, is now "a lot closer to Bushmills in its style".

Peter Wood at Luvians says that the likes of Bell's, Teacher's and Grouse probably won't ever have mass appeal among younger drinkers "because they're not trendy enough".

He adds: "Gin used to be a grannies' drink but now it's not, because certain companies have placed their products very well. The whisky industry as a whole hasn't done that. It's tried to come up with gimmicks and they've not really done very well."

He excludes Monkey Shoulder and the Compass Box products from such criticism but questions the strategy behind Johnnie Walker.

"Johnnie Walker sponsors the McLaren


one team and Lewis Hamilton wears the logo," he points out. "Yet I've not seen one ad with Lewis Hamilton in it. I think they're missing a trick . "

If that's not possible, he adds, why not do something radical like target the gay market? It worked for Absolut in the

US, he says. Perhaps it's the kind of solution that blended Scotch is looking for. In any case, it may be a better idea than sponsoring a KT Tunstall tour.

Diageo map plots course for malt

Malt whisky has been one of the drinks industry's recent success stories, but sales seem to have peaked.

If current trends continue, the sector will be overtaken in the off-trade this year by imported whiskey, which is growing at 9%.

Price fighting has taken its toll, but the Flavour Map initiative (left), launched by Diageo, has won plaudits for helping consumers develop their palates for malts and not base buying decisions purely on price.

James Pennefather at Diageo says: "Last year we sent it out to over

1 million consumers. This Christmas we will be in a number of retailer magazines and Sunday supplements. We're aiming to send out 2 million flavour maps

this year.

"The true measure of how successful it's been is the fact that it's been adopted by so many retailers as the way they talk about Scotch whisky. Tesco and Wine Rack are segmenting their range by flavour and we're running a test with

five Budgens stores.

"There are three major retailers who are all going to be implementing the same flavour ranging between now

and Christmas.

"I am so pleased with how it has been accepted in the industry. We see it as an altruistic initiative to get people exploring the malt whisky categories."

Ian Bankier, of

the Whisky Shop, has just started introducing customers to the map. "I think, good on them and more power to them, but whether it's going to have a huge impact I don't know," he admits. "It's certainly novel and certainly does no harm, but does a consumer really want that kind of information?"

Bankier has noticed some changes in the taste profiles of the malt-buying public. "I think the Islay movement is beginning to peak, and more and more people are going back to the sweeter, softer, everyday -drinking single malts," he says. "Those that are into Islay love it, they can't get enough of it. But there are people who have maybe been swept along by it.

"People are also migrating out of

the safe bets like Glenfiddich and Glenmorangie and gravitating to other things that their friends haven't heard of. They're getting a bit bolder."

UK whisky specialists have been counting the cost of a reduced number

of American tourists for a few years,

and there are also fears that domestic consumers are likely to be hit by the economic downturn.

But Whyte & Mackay sales director John Bradbury is not despondent. "Whisky itself is viewed as more of a treat product than, say, wine or beer,

so this may be a good opportunity for customers to go for a little extra and trade up from their usual blend of choice," he says, nominating Jura

10 Year Old or Superstition as

suitable choices.


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Is blended Scotch overshadowed by single malt in retailers?

  • Yes
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