Think Whisky: experts discuss how to broaden the category's appeal

Whisk(e)y accounts for 21% of all UK spirits sales and it dominates the off-trade channel, but there is still a massive opportunity to grow the category further. It vastly under-trades among female consumers and younger adults, and retailers can reap the rewards if they compose exciting ranges that appeal to a broader demographic. For that reason we decided to launch Think Whisky, building on the success of our popular Think Gin and Think Rum events, in order to help them share best practice.

Cotswolds Distillery, Ian Macleod, Indie Brands, Lakes Distillery, Mackmyra and Maverick Drinks poured a range of exciting whiskies, while Fever-Tree showed off the category’s potential as a base for long drinks. Tristan Stephenson hosted a masterclass on innovation in whisky communication, Alice Lascelles presented a taste of things to come in the category and Eoin O’Neill waxed lyrical about the rise and fall and rise again of Irish whiskey. Buyers from the likes of Waitrose, Majestic, Master of Malt and Selfridges were joined by dozens of independent spirits merchants, bartenders, hotel buyers, wholesalers and journalists, who gathered to taste, learn and champion this vibrant category.

For a morning debate we gathered together a formidable panel to discuss the potential to broaden whisk(e)y’s appeal and help it to win over a wider demographic. It included Archie McDiarmid, manager of Luvians bottle shop in St Andrews; Waitrose spirits buyer John Vine; Joe Boxall, bars manager at whisky specialist Boisdale; and Tristan Stephenson, owner of Black Rock whisky bar in Shoreditch and the whisky subscription service Whisky-Me, and a consultant to Lidl on its spirits range. 

We asked how to compose the perfect range, what role each-sub-category can play, where the innovation is coming from, which brands are driving the industry forward in exciting new directions, how the industry can use more approachable language and communicate more effectively with consumers, how to win over female drinkers and what the various factions of the trade can learn from one another. 

“If our shop didn’t appeal to female consumers and younger consumers for six to seven months a year it would die,” says McDiarmid. “St Andrew’s is driven by two things: golf and the university. The golf is great from April to October, but that’s it. Appealing to the student demographic is really important, and the biggest lesson that we’ve taken away is you’ve got to get whisky in a glass in front of people. The categories that do that best are the ones that perform best for us.

“We sell a lot of Mackmyra, because it has come in and done tastings and workshops and put whisky in the glass. Young consumers and female consumers couldn’t give a monkey’s about the tradition of Scotch whisky. They are interested in the flavour in their glass. If you are delivering a quality product that tastes good, and people are made to feel comfortable about trying it, it can work really well.”

A bottle of whisk(e)y represents a significant investment, and many consumers are put off because they find it intimidating, are daunted by its fragmentary nature or are afraid they will not like the taste. Waitrose is in the process of overhauling its offering to make the category easier to shop. 

“I am looking at re-categorising the whisky category to make it a bit simpler for customers,” says Vine. “The main way of doing that is by flavour. We have a flavour wheel on our website and we are looking at how we range that in store as well to make it easier to shop.

“We have shelf-edge tickets – light, bold, dried fruit, stuff like that – but the biggest issue is that some of the tickets could [feature] text that was written five, six, seven years ago, next to one that was written last week, so we are going through a process of reviewing it at the moment, looking at style, country of origin, region etc, so it’s all uniform moving forward.”

Most outlets range whisk(e)y by country, region, brand and expression, but there is a case to be made for ranging by flavour instead. 

“We do our ranging by flavour at Black Rock and we think it’s an excellent way of doing things,” says Stephenson. “Arranging whisky by country, then region, then distillery, then expression is great for the librarian role of the bartender, but from a consumer point of view it’s a nightmare. We arrange things by six different flavour groups. We have, on occasion, Irish whiskey sat next to Japanese sat next to blends, just because they taste similar, or have a similar overarching flavour theme. We also arrange by lightness and heaviness.

“The consumer doesn’t necessarily speak the language of cask strength, Madeira cask, PPM and so on. But we put it in our smoke cabinet and people get that. It opens up conversation between our bartenders and our guests, and also among guests, about the flavours they like. It’s great for enthusiasts too. If you find a bottle you love, the bottle next to it and above it is going to taste pretty similar. It’s a wonderful way of exploring whisky.”

Boisdale has four popular whisky bars across London and it adopts the traditional way of ranging the category. “We do it by country of origin, region and distillery,” says Boxall. “The main thing for us is getting somebody in a position to talk to the guests and give them little nips, to make them more comfortable in the environment and to give them an experience.

Customer service

“Our business is hugely customer service based. We need to pre-guess the customer and gauge their knowledge and interest and, from a bar perspective, if we have a real whisk(e)y nerd in front of us, trying to wrangle all the information that’s going to keep them happy, gently, quite whimsically telling stories. We also put our bartenders’ tasting notes on our menu, because it makes it feel more genuine. We will look at doing more of that.”

That is also a tactic that has worked well for Luvians. “In our masterclasses we try to reassure people,” says McDiarmid. “The most important palate in any room is always your own. Your sense of taste is as unique to you as your fingerprint. It’s made up of all your life experiences, all your positive and negative feelings about various events in your life. It’s a combination of sense and memory in a way that nothing else is. If you think something tastes of something, you are right, no matter what I or anyone else can tell you. Our tasting notes are all very personal and we sign all of them. 

“We quite often use that as a starting point for a conversation. It gives people permission to disagree with tasting notes. That’s one of the factors that can be quite intimidating, so we need to give people permission to disagree.”

He adds: “One problem in the industry is gender descriptions. I hear a lot of people saying, ‘this is a very feminine whisky’ or ‘this is a very masculine whisky’. It drives me absolutely mental. My dad is a 6ft 4in former weightlifter who’s terrified of smoky whisky and considers it the source of all evil in the world, and my 5ft 1in American wife goes nuts for Octomore. The concept of there being female and male whiskies is ridiculous.”

The industry does have a male bias, but Vine notes that female shoppers account for around 60% to 65% of whisk(e)y purchases at Waitrose. “A lot of that is down to gifting, but also a lot of the searching on our site is done by women,” he says. “It could be because they do the weekly shop.” 

He says that American and Irish whiskey are doing a decent job of getting younger adults into the category. “It’s about making it more accessible,” he says. “Bourbon has done it really well with cocktails such as the Old Fashioned. The more we can educate people about mixers the better, either in bars or in retail. Retailers and bars can work together in steering people with information to make it easier. We just have to work harder at it.”

A certain stuffiness is attached to Scotch whisky, and it could perhaps learn a few lessons from bourbon when it comes to appealing to a broader range of consumers. “The Scotch whisky category is learning some lessons,” says McDiarmid. “Some things such as Monkey Shoulder and Copper Dog, blended malts that are appealing and easy drinking and an easy entryway into the category. A lot of the design is moving forward.”

It is also up to the retailers and bar owners as gatekeepers to knock some of the stuffiness out of the category. “The biggest thing is to democratise whisk(e)y,” says Stephenson.” Get rid of the stuffiness and get rid of the things we associate with the Scotch whisky industry. It upsets a lot of people to put the tradition to one side, but we are all about the liquid. If the liquid is delicious, then that’s great. We feel that you can forgo a lot of the trappings that come with whisky. A lot of that stuff tends to discriminate and it’s off-putting. We are trying to remove as many of the barriers of entry to the whisky category as possible. The prejudices around the category do not welcome you in.”

We asked our panellists which brands are doing an effective job of bringing in younger consumers in order to preserve the future health of the category. “Some of the world whiskies are doing really well in attracting younger people,” says Stephenson. “Starward has the right look that excites. Amazingly for a brand that’s quite new, we get a lot of people coming in and asking for it, wanting to try it. It comes back to customer marketing, what brand values are from a visual point of view. It communicates so much. Some world whiskies are doing a great job of challenging convention, and if the liquid backs it up you are on to a winner.”

Fantastic execution

Vine adds: “I was in Warsaw recently and all the bars had Maker’s Mark and Jim Beam, and some of the execution was fantastic. Brands such as Auchentoshan and Highland Park have done some good stuff in making the packaging more attractive. One that sticks out is Compass Box for challenging and doing things differently with its packaging and the liquid.”

McDiarmid says: “The William Grant group is doing really interesting stuff, through Glenfiddich and its experimental series. Bruichladdich has consistently done great things with its branding over the past couple of years. What Compass Box does is huge, but what’s great is that [founder] John Glaser still comes to St Andrews every year to talk to the same student society, and he has been doing it for 10 years. He thinks it’s really important to talk to a room of 19 to 20-year-olds, which really shows incredible dedication.”

Boxall says: “Not every distillery needs to throw out their heritage, but the Scotch whisky industry is quite bad at learning some of the wrong lessons. The most recent release from Glenrothes, the Soleo Collection, is supposed to make things more accessible and colour coded, but it makes the whole thing look a bit cheap. Mackmyra does a superb job of presenting its whisky in a bright, modern, accessible way, while still talking about the spirit.”

Gin has enjoyed phenomenal growth in recent years thanks to the popularity of the gin and tonic, and McDiarmid believes whisk(e)y and ginger ale could become similarly popular if the trade champions it, thus driving growth in the category. 

“Cocktails are a great gateway into whisky appreciation,” adds Stephenson. “We decided to have a whisk(e)y only cocktail list at Black Rock, partly to prove that whisk(e)y is versatile enough to do that, Martini-style drinks all the way up to heavier Old Fashioneds, and we think we do it quite well. It is an incredibly versatile category, with everything from almost vodka-esque, light grain whiskies through to early sherry or peated single malts, with bourbon and corn whiskies with that sweeter style. There’s everything, and mixing them is loads of fun. You can get incredible flavour combinations using whisky.”   

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