Whisky's on the ball

October 6, 2001, is a date indelibly etched in the minds of diehard England fans. Dreams of qualifying for the Euro 2002 championships were fading fast as the Three Lions trailed Greece 2-1 at Wembley.

Two-and-a-half minutes into stoppage time, Emile Heskey was brought down 30 yards from goal. Glum fans around the stadium held their heads in their hands.

Teddy Sheringham put the ball down on the spot where Heskey was fouled and prepared to take the free kick. But David Beckham wrested control of the situation, provoking groans from fans that had already watched him sky several attempts that afternoon.

But then Beckham stepped up and curled one of the most stunning free kicks ever seen into the back of the net, seconds before the game finished. England went through to the finals, fans rejoiced and a legend was born. They even named a film after it.

October 6, 2014, could prove to be a date indelibly etched in the minds of diehard Scotch industry insiders. Exactly 13 years after his heroic antics at Wembley, Beckham teamed up with Diageo to officially launch Haig Club, a single grain whisky that has captured the imaginations of retailers across the land.

Like the England team 13 years ago, Scotch has been struggling in the UK for a while. Scotch Whisky Association boss David Frost acknowledged as much when he addressed MPs at a House of Commons event last month: “The industry really is a great national economic and cultural asset. We turn over £5 billion and support 40,000 jobs. Exports have doubled over the past decade but UK sales have shrunk by a quarter. We are delighted the government took the first step to helping us deal with that problem by stopping the escalator and freezing duty and moving forward we hope for more in 2015.”

One hero for the category is the chancellor, George Osborne, who caved in to intensive industry lobbying, but he lacks star power.

Scotch needed a proper hero to turn its fortunes around, and who better than Beckham? Social media went crazy with the news, his face adorned practically every newspaper front page in the land and the Guy Ritchie-directed TV ad accentuated the point. For the first time in ages, the British masses were talking about Scotch, and not as an old man’s drink.

Its decline in fortunes in the UK has as much to do with its image as spiralling duty – across Asia and Africa it is in growth and is seen as a cool, aspirational drink, loved by young adults. Meanwhile, half of blended Scotch drinkers in the UK are aged over 55, and a third of single malt drinkers are over 65 (Nielsen). It has struggled to shake off its tweedy, antiquated image.

But that could all change, according to Nick Temperley, head of reserve brands at Haig Club supplier Diageo.

He says: “We have a broadly flat spirits market in the UK and a whisky category that for some time has been unexciting. We felt it’s our responsibility to make sure we recruit the next generation of whisky drinkers and bring people into the category, making it more vibrant and exciting and appealing to a different demographic.

“With Haig Club we are trying to break the mould. We don’t want it linked to ‘my father’s drink’ or ‘my grandfather’s’.”

We might be getting ahead of ourselves – not everyone loves Beckham (Man City fans? Scottish people?) and others dislike the aftershave-inspired Haig Club bottle. Many baulk at the £45 rrp, while it has a user rating of just 1.5 stars on Master of Malt, with some calling it a scandalously-priced, celebrity-endorsed, poor-tasting drink.

A whisky at that price has never been anywhere close to a market leader, but Temperley is optimistic. “There aren’t many big brands above £40. But we have one of the most famous, iconic men on the planet in partnership with this brand. We are doing something disruptive, bringing the brand to new consumers. People aged 25-40 save up and spend good money on luxuries such as clothes, electronics and so on, and Haig Club fits into this trend. It’s premium but not out of kilter with luxury brands.”

Retailers seem to agree. Asda, which is not known for championing ultra-premium spirits, has taken Haig Club out of the fixture and featured it on freestanding display units. The brand is well stocked in grocers, independents, cash and carries and the on-trade. “It’s the most exciting time in Scotch in my career,” says Temperley.

Other suppliers agree. Stephen Rankin, UK sales director at Gordon & MacPhail, says: “Within the world markets there has been consistent growth for a number of years and the current blip is down to economic and political challenges rather than consumers turning to other products.

“In the UK sales of blended Scotch have declined. Today the majority of blended Scotch is sold on promotion. This category can be driven by exciting new products that speak to today’s consumer in a different tone and are served in contemporary as well as traditional ways.

“The malt category, on the other hand, has experienced volume and value growth for a number of years. We see consumers trading up from blends and other spirits. At all levels of the market there is activity, whether it be super-exclusive and rare whiskies such as the Private Collection Ultra Bottlings or, on another level, the Tomatin Legacy, Tullibardine 228 or Bunnahabhain Ceobabach.

“Growth is happening – it might not appear to be on paper, but when looking at the bigger picture, more whisky is being distilled and new distilleries are opening. This is all in response to a growing demand.

“We are seeing a younger generation engaging and experimenting with Scotch and finding they quite enjoy it. Scotch is a high-quality, sophisticated and stylish category that appeals to people of varying demographics and lifestyles.”

Andrew Clifton, head of off-trade at William Grant, adds: “The UK market is different to the rest of the world. In the rest of the world it’s a young person’s drink, but here it’s an older demographic and 70% of whisky drinkers are male. The tide is turning though.

“We need to keep the core consumer engaged and buying into the category, while at the same time bringing in younger consumers at the bottom end.

“We have brought out Grant’s Signature with different packaging, price point and marketing strategy, using a lot of social media, engaging with the 30-year-old market rather than the 60-year-old one.

“Sweeter flavours can bring younger consumers in, as Jack Daniel’s Honey has shown. We launched Three Barrels Honey because two-thirds of brandy drinkers are over 65. I would be surprised if flavours came into blended or malt whisky, but the flavour profile is important and we can experiment to bring in new consumers. They will be the whisky drinkers of the future.”

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