Flavor Comes to Scotch WhiskyMarch 25th, 2013
Ian Buxton reports on the addition of flavors to Scotch whisky.
We’ve seen a raft of what I’m going to call ‘flavored whiskies’ in the past year. From Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey to Jim Beam’s Red Stag, a couple of Seagram’s Seven Crown products to Crown Royal Maple Finish to—crossing the Atlantic—Bushmills Honey, this category seems to have come out of nowhere. But consumers are lapping it up.
As Dr Nicholas Morgan’s Diageo’s Head of Whisky Outreach told me, it’s worked. Crown Royal Maple Finish has been “astonishingly successful” he says. So why has no-one done something of the kind with Scotch Whisky?
Well, in part, they have. We’ve seen Orangerie from Compass Box (described as a “whisky infusion”) and Sheep Dip’s rather more challenging Amoroso Oloroso. But, speaking plainly, they appeal only to a few hard-core enthusiasts and whisky geeks. How could it be otherwise: their volumes will always be tiny and their prices high.
But when a major brand such as Dewar’s comes along with something we should sit up and pay attention. Except that, strangely in my view, the launch last week of Dewar’s Highlander Honey was greeted (on Twitter at least) by a wave of indifference among whisky bloggers and commentators.
They’re missing something if you ask me. But before I explain what that is, what is Dewar’s Highlander Honey? It’s described as “Dewar’s Scotch Whisky infused with Scottish Heather Honey filtered through Oak Cask Wood”* and to make sure I don’t fall foul of the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) I want to clarify that legally it’s NOT Scotch whisky.
In Europe, Dewar’s Highlander Honey is a “spirit drink” and in the U.S. there is a category of product called “flavored whiskey,” and there are fairly strict labeling rules about how such products must be labeled so that it is clear that they are flavored. For example, it is required that “the name of the predominant flavor shall appear as part of the designation,” i.e., it can’t just be called “whiskey.”
But, in the words of the old saying, “if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it’s probably a duck.” If you were to glance at a bottle of Highlander Honey alongside regular Dewar’s White Label you could easily be confused: same bottle, same typeface, same Royal Warrant, and same two-part label.
Dewar’s themselves are clear. “When you look at what’s happening in Bourbon and the overall flavor trends in the U.S., we figured it was time to create an offering that is still truly scotch, but gives those who play with flavor trends an option to play within scotch,” said Arvind Krishnan, vice president, brand managing director for Dewar’s.
To avoid any confusion their PR statement is unambiguous in describing the product as an infusion of “hand-selected Scottish honey into the original DEWAR’S WHITE LABEL® blend.”
So are we all clear? This is definitely NOT Scotch whisky! Yet it’s already raising hackles with the SWA, who have stated, “We do have concerns that the labeling and promotion of Dewar’s Highlander Honey could distinguish the product more clearly from Scotch whisky.”
No doubt that will all be sorted out in due course. So why do I think this is significant? Quite simply, because call it “spirit drink,” “flavored whiskey,” or whatever you will, this is the first time in any major market that a significant brand of any scale has taken Scotch whisky, added a non-traditional ingredient, and marketed it in a way that makes it abundantly clear what’s in the bottle. While respecting the regulations, naturally.
Now it seems to me that this opens a door that hitherto has been kept firmly jammed shut. If Dewar’s Highlander Honey is a success, the commercial pressure on other brands to enter this market will be enormous. For now, major players have avoided this route; how long they will continue to exercise such restraint remains to be seen.
For purists this may be sacrilege. For others it may be an exciting innovation that opens Scotch whisky to new drinkers. Just where would YOU stand on a flavored whiskey based on your favorite Scotch?
*Before you ask, I have no idea how you filter any liquid through wood. I am planning to ask Dewar’s master blender Stephanie MacLeod exactly that very soon!