Archive for the ‘Marketing’ Category

Kentucky Bourbon: “The Spirit of Compromise”

Friday, February 6th, 2015

author-lew-brysonWith the mantle of America’s Spirit comes not only support and loyalty, but a certain amount of historical responsibility. Bourbon has been entwined with the history and making of the United States for almost as far back as the Constitutional Convention, but perhaps never so much as when Henry Clay, Kentucky’s “Great Compromiser,” represented the Bluegrass State in Washington.

Clay served as Speaker of the House and Secretary of State, argued landmark cases before the Supreme Court, and gained his greatest fame in the Senate, where he successfully brokered a compromise between the northern and southern states that held off the Civil War for over ten years. Clay’s secret weapon may have been the barrels of bourbon he had specially shipped to the Willard Hotel. Clay brought opponents to agreements that met in the middle with skillful application of brilliant arguments and delicious Kentucky bourbon, “the spirit of compromise.”

Filling the Decanter of Compromise with The Spirit of Unity

Filling the Decanter of Compromise with The Spirit of Unity

In that tradition, the Kentucky Distillers Association (KDA) worked with Kentucky’s senior senator, Mitch McConnell, the new Senate majority leader, to bring a new spirit of compromise to the Willard Hotel. On Monday, February 2, the new barrel was filled with bourbons mingled from Kentucky distillers (lightly; Virginia’s liquor laws prohibited more than four liters in one container to cross state lines!) at Clay’s Ashland estate, with the cooperation of the Henry Clay Center for Statesmanship. The barrel, with a number of bourbon’s top folks, made its way (across Virginia’s state lines) to Washington for a ceremony on Tuesday the 3rd.

The room was filled with folks like Al Young (Four Roses), Bill Samuels Jr. (Maker’s Mark), Denny Potter (Heaven Hill), Jerry Summers (Beam Suntory), Tom Bulleit (Bulleit), Joe Magliocco (Michters), Pearse Lyons (Town Hall/Lexington), and Jimmy Russell (Wild Turkey), with Eric Gregory representing the KDA. After some fine bourbons (and a little business being discussed, inevitably), the guests of honor took the stage.

We heard from one of the Henry Clay Center interns—who had the courage to remind Senator McConnell of the Congress’s low approval ratings, to which the senator responded that Congress richly deserved them—and then Gregory presented the senator with a crystal decanter in commemoration of the event. (He had very carefully filled it from a bottle of the Spirit of Unity bourbon that was created by Parker and Craig Beam last year to raise money for ALS research; there was “a little left over,” he said. We watched closely, and not a drop was spilled.)

Senator McConnell speaks about bourbon.

Senator McConnell speaks about bourbon.

Senator McConnell noted that the Willard was about halfway between the Capitol building and the White House, an appropriate spot for talking about compromise, and gave tribute to “two of Kentucky’s greatest contributions to America: bourbon, and Henry Clay.” He reminded the crowd that today’s problems pale in comparison to those the country faced because of “America’s original sin: slavery.” He quoted Clay as appropriate to today as to his own time: “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be fixed by what’s right with America.”

He then did speak briefly about bourbon, and about the expansion that’s taking place, and how it’s reaching more people, around the world. “It really is wonderful to see what’s happened in this industry,” he concluded, “which is employing so many people, and helping us all reach a lot more compromises.”

It really was wonderful to see bourbon on this national stage. The powerful came to dip their cups: Senate Majority Leader McConnell, almost the entire Kentucky Congressional delegation, and Speaker of the House John Boehner dropped in at the end as well. Bourbon wields a powerful influence: as an industry, as an historical icon, and indeed, as a “lubricant to the wheels of government,” as Clay used to say. The barrel, by the way, will stay at the Willard, and it is to be hoped that from there it will spread a spirit of compromise up and down Pennsylvania Avenue.

It’s Not Like That!

Tuesday, September 24th, 2013

Ian BuxtonIan Buxton has a bit of a shout about the persistent idea that Scotch whisky marketing is all tartan and bagpipes.

I’m beginning to wonder if my fellow scribes haven’t watched too many episodes of Mad Men. It pains me to say it, but some of them appear stuck in the 1960s as far as whisky marketing is concerned.

Now I know I’m a grumpy, middle-aged (at best), white male and that automatically disqualifies me from having an opinion about anything, but I’ve got to get this off my chest, because the same tired old clichés keep appearing. It’s lazy writing and it’s neither right nor fair. This is the myth that will not die. Watch out: you’ll see it again and again.

bagpiperWhisky ads evoke “scenes brimming with tartan and sheep dogs, the chilly Scottish hills” according to one recent article. And here it is again: “the iconic image of an old man sipping neat whisky, preferably in a tartan kilt by the fireside, somewhere in the Highlands, has been used time and again by whisky brands.”

But really? When was that, then? We haven’t seen the old boy by his cozy hearth for at least 30 years! As for tartan, I flicked through the current issues of three different whisky magazines to see what I could find. Not a scrap of the stuff in sight. No kilts. No plaids. And what’s more, no old men either, no bagpipes, and only a distant glimpse of what might have been a fireside.

Perhaps it’s all to be found online and on our TV screens. So I took a look. Johnnie Walker’s film The Man Who Walked Round the World seemed a good place to start. It begins with a misty glen and a kilted piper. Maybe it’s all true then? Except that he lasts about 30 seconds, whereupon in strides a cross-looking Robert Carlyle, who snaps “Hey, piper! Shut it!” And that’s the last we see of him.

Now given that Johnnie Walker is the best-selling and most heavily advertised Scotch whisky in the world you’d imagine they’d be as guilty as anyone of living off the tartan-clad clichés that seem to obsess my colleagues. Not if their stunning TV commercials are any guide; work such as Android, Leap of Faith and Take the First Step (check them out on YouTube) are incredible pieces of film-making, far removed from the land of hills and glens. Not to mention F1 sponsorship and their stylish luxury yacht Voyager.

Maybe it’s lesser brands? William Lawson’s is a blended Scotch doing well in Europe and making huge gains in Russia’s burgeoning whisky market. Their TV work has plenty of kilts and strong, silent men. But again, check it out. It’s an unusual take on a kilt that has Sharon Stone giggling, that’s all I’ll say. And by all accounts, the New Zealand rugby authorities weren’t impressed with Lawson’s Haka commercial.

Fact is, Scotch whisky marketing moved on from tartan, bagpipes, and heather and weather years and years ago. Brands like Cutty Sark take pleasure in exploding that image, literally blowing up a cozy study, complete with decanters, leather armchair, and fireplace before going on to host parties in London’s trendy Brick Lane with a hip crowd of edgy artists, DJs, and burlesque stars.

Scotch isn’t conquering new markets, engaging with new audiences, and defining itself as the spirit of the age by living off past glories. So let’s let go of the clichés. Scotch isn’t for old men.

Except for me, obviously.

New American whiskeys strive for maximum versatility

Tuesday, April 24th, 2012

Some bourbons (and rye whiskeys) are good enough to drink neat or with a splash of water. Others, usually because of their youth and lower cost, are more suitable for cocktails or on the rocks.  Most people put American whiskey into one of these two categories.

Very few whiskeys, for my palate anyway, manage to accomplish both. Arguably, some that might pass the test are Evan Williams Black Label, Sazerac Rye (Baby Sazerac, as it is affectionately know), and Old Forester Signature (100 proof). These are versatile, affordable whiskeys which you can keep in your drinks cabinet and use for many drinks applications.

However, I’ve noticed a lot of new whiskeys that seem to be produced and marketed for this exact kind of versatility. Part of it might be driven by the popularity of cocktails. It might also be that older, more mature American whiskeys are becoming scarcer.

I will also point out that most of these new releases don’t have age statements, allowing the producers more flexibility with their stocks, and some people aren’t very happy about it. (I, too, was a little bummed when Knob Creek Rye was released without an age statement, instead of being released at 9 years old similar to the Knob Creek bourbons.

Recent examples include Wild Turkey Bourbon 81 Proof, Wild Turkey Rye 81 Proof, Knob Creek Rye, and even the private label Breaking & Entering bourbon (which is quite nice, btw). All of them seem, to varying degrees, come across as mature just enough to enjoy neat or with a little water, but youthful and vibrant enough to work well in cocktails without breaking the bank in the process.

And, of course, the more versatile a whiskey is, the more bottles of it will be sold, which won’t exactly hurt the company’s bottom line either.

Have you noticed any whiskeys released recently that fall in this category? Your thoughts on this trend?


Whisky Stones: do they “rock” or not?

Wednesday, April 11th, 2012

There’s an article in the New York Times dining section today on the popularity of whisky stones. Give it a quick read. I’m quoted in it.

For those of you who are not familiar with them, they are small stones that you can purchase, keep in your freezer, and put in your whisky instead of ice. The idea here is that you can cool your whisky without watering it down.

I was interviewed by the author twice before the piece was published, and think she did a good job in the article conveying my general opinion of them: I see very little use for them in my whisky-drinking life. I own some because I was sent samples to review. For the most part, they just take up space in my freezer next to whatever that is in the Ziploc bag with freezer burns all over it that my wife put in there last year.

Most people I know who are “enthusiasts” drink their whisky neat or with a splash of water at room temperature. And, as I note in the article, my friends who are not serious whisky drinkers (like my fishing buddies who drink bourbon and ginger ale on the rocks) have never complained to me about the ice watering down their drink. (It’s probably because their drinks don’t last long enough for melting ice to become a concern…)

Plus, there’s the whole logistical and sanitary issue with whiskey stones. You have to have them handy, in a freezer nearby, to use them. (Try asking for them with your drink order the next time you go out to a bar or restaurant and see what response you get from your server.)

The few times I have tried them, they became a nuisance at some point. They weigh down my drink, and I am stuck with them when I’m done with it. Then I have to wash them, dry them (heaven forbid any ice forms on them, right?), and put them back in the cute little bag they came in before throwing them back in my freezer.

To be fair, I really do see one situation where they would be useful. I mentioned this during the interview, but it was not included due to space constraints. I keep most of my whiskies in a bar in my house here in Pennsylvania. In the summer, the house is air-conditioned, so my bottles never get warmer than the temperature at which I prefer to drink my whisky. But, I have a vacation home at the New Jersey shore and we often keep the windows open and forgo the A/C to welcome in the lovely sea breezes. But, my bottles of whisky sometimes get a few degrees warmer than I would like and I find myself wanting to cool my whisky down a bit. I suspect many of you have similar situations, depending on where you live and if you have A/C or not.

Even so, I have several options available to me that are very convenient and do not require the expense and hassle of whisky stones. What I normally do is just add a little cold water or a small ice cube to bring my whisky down a few degrees. I often drink cask-strength whisky and would be adding some water anyway. Even in the times when I don’t want any water or ice in my whisky, in a pinch I can simply keep some glasses in the fridge or stick my glass in the freezer for a minute or two, which will cool my whisky down shortly after I pour it in the glass.

I guess the point I am trying to make is: who are the tens (hundreds?) of thousands of people buying these? If you’re using them on a regular basis, please chime in here. I’m keeping an open mind. I am all for progress and buying new things that will make my life better. (Our house has iPhones and iPads with lots of cool apps, for example). If I can help whisky stone producers sell more product, make more money, and at the same time making whisky-drinkers (and therefore whisky producers) happier, then I am all for it.

P.S. Just after I published this post, I was coincidentally sent an email promo for something called the “Instant Wine Chiller” which you can find here. They say it also works for vodka, tequila, etc. You put it on the end of the bottle and it cools the beverage as it flows out of the bottle before going into the glass. I don’t know anything more about it or how well it work, but it looks like another alternative to putting stones in your whisky.

The leading single malt scotch brands in the U.S. (I think #5 might surprise you!)

Friday, May 20th, 2011

Here they are, according to IMPACT DATABANK

US – Leading Single Malt Scotch Whisky Brands
(thousands of nine-liter case depletions)
  Percent Change
Rank Brand Importer 2008 2009 2010 2008-2009 2009-2010
1 The Glenlivet Pernod Ricard USA 285 286 309 0.4% 8.0%
2 The Macallan Rémy Cointreau USA 125 125 134 0.0% 7.2%
3 Glenfiddich William Grant & Sons USA 102 100 107 -2.0% 7.0%
4 The Balvenie William Grant & Sons USA 47 50 55 6.4% 10.0%
5 McClelland’s White Rock Distilleries 49 52 54 6.1% 3.8%
6 Glenmorangie Moët-Hennessy USA 37 43 52 16.2% 20.9%
  Total Top Six 645 656 711 1.7% 8.4%


McClellands? That certainly surprised me! Anything surprise you?

The Balvenie Whisky Academy debuts

Monday, March 21st, 2011

When it comes to whisky, education is key. The buyer purchases a whisky he (or she) will like, the retailer is happy, the distributor is happy, and the producer is happy. That’s why I have devoted my professional life to it.

That’s also why I was happy to hear from Sam Simmons, The Balvenie Global Ambassador, when he told me about the Balvenie Whisky Academy. It’s not just Balvenie who wins here. Everybody wins. Well done!

Here’s the scoop, directly from Sam himself:

We have just completed a series of 35 films we are calling The Balvenie Whisky Academy. I began work on it this past autumn and it began to take shape with filming in November and December.

The series is available at

A blurb about the project:

The Balvenie Whisky Academy

A series of 34 online films, The Whisky Academy will be available exclusively to Warehouse 24 members and provides an introduction to the world of single malts for newcomers, as well as greater depth of understanding for those already familiar with whisky. There are contributions from internal experts like Malt Master David Stewart, Global Ambassador Sam Simmons, Dufftown Site Leader, Stuart Watts and Process Team Leader, Marie Stanton, as well as external experts like whisky scholar Charles MacLean, writer Gavin D. Smith, and Sukhinder Singh of The Whisky Exchange.

As well as providing a history of whisky, how it’s produced, the crafts and chemistry involved, the Whisky Academy will also answer some of the most commonly asked questions about single malts, as well as guiding the viewer through the science of flavour and the techniques of whisky tasting.

The Balvenie Whisky Academy comprises four modules, containing a total of 34 short films which offer expert insights and commentary on the world of single malt whiskies. So, whether the viewer is at the start of their whisky journey, or is a relative expert, there is something for everyone.

The full library of the 34 Whisky Academy videos will ‘live’ on The Balvenie website, and will be available exclusively to Warehouse 24 members.

[You can find a sample of the films, this one focusing on barrel sizes and names, right here.]

By way of an ‘at-a-glance’ overview, the four modules and summary of what they cover are detailed below:

Module 1 – ‘The History of Scotch Malt Whisky’

Experts featured: Charles MacLean and Sukhinder Singh of The Whisky Exchange

Module 2 – ‘Production of Scotch Malt Whisky’

Experts featured: Richard Lake from Crisp Maltings Group, Marie Stanton, Stuart Watts and David Stewart from The Balvenie, Ian Grant from Glenfiddich and Leslie Gracie from William Grant & Sons

Module 3 – ‘Whisky Nitty Gritty’

Experts featured: Eddie Ludlow of The Whisky Lounge, writer Gavin D Smith, The Balvenie Global Ambassador, Sam Simmons and Sukhinder Singh of The Whisky Exchange 

Module 4 – ‘Nosing and Tasting’

Experts featured: Leslie Gracie, Eddie Ludlow, David Mair, David Stewart and Sam Simmons

“Pure” Pot Still Irish whiskey is now “Single” Pot Still

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

In case you missed it.  Pure pot still Irish whiskey is now being described at single pot still Irish whiskey. (See the label on Redbreast 15 year old.)

I used the old term during a recent issue of WhiskyNotes and Brendan Buckley, Category Development Director for Irish Distillers, was kind enough to remind me in an email he sent me. I’m posting it below because he explains why the change was made.

Hi John,

Just perusing the latest newsletter and I noticed that you described the latest Midleton releases as ‘pure pot still’ in your byline.

While the term ‘pure pot still’ has been the custom and practice of the Irish whiskey industry for, oh let me see, 200 odd years, it would appear that the TTB has taken umbrage with usage of the term ‘pure’ as it pertains to food and beverages.

This came to a head a few years back when we introduced Redbreast 15 to the US at which time we were obliged by the TTB to drop the prefix ‘pure’.

Arising from this, we opted to use the more industry (and arguably consumer) friendly prefix, ‘single’ to designate that the whiskey was a pot still whiskey from a single distillery.  Therefore, if you pick up a bottle of Redbreast 15 you will notice that the label reads ‘single’ rather than ‘pure’.

As a consequence, all of our new pot still releases are now described as ‘Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey’.

Redbreast 12 is still marketed in the US as a ‘pure pot still’ but this has been permitted under a grandfather ruling.  I should note that as part of a packaging upgrade project currently underway on Redbreast 12, we will in time transition all labels over to the new descriptor ‘single pot still’.

In truth, the TTB may have done us a favour by encouraging us to adopt a more widely recognised frame of reference and indeed this will be enshrined in new industry regulation which in underway under the auspices of the Irish Spirits Association.

Brendan Buckley

Thanks Brendan for the update and clarification!

Whisky in a can: good or bad?

Tuesday, January 18th, 2011

Scottish Spirits, a Panama-based company with an office in Scotland, is selling blended whisky in a can in the Caribbean and South America. The Daily Record reported it here yesterday. Have a look.

This issue was a big deal in the beer industry when high-end craft brewers started putting their beer in cans. Did it tarnish the reputation of the craft brewers? I don’t think so.

I buy good beer in cans every year. Why? I don’t want glass bottles on my boat. Bare feet and broken glass just don’t go well together. (Blood on my white deck better be from fish, not people.). I also don’t want to drink crap beer, so I am happy to have the opportunity to buy good beer in cans.

I don’t have any whisky bottles on my boat, largely for the same reason. I put whisky in a flask and have it available. But, if I could buy good whisky in a can, I would. It would make my Manhattan-drinking friends very happy if I had a can of good bourbon on board. And I wouldn’t mind having some good scotch handy too and not have to worry about transferring it to a flask!

So, what do you think? Is canned whisky good or bad for the whisky industry?

Disappointments in whisky in 2010

Monday, December 13th, 2010

I’m looking back on 2010. Indeed, there’s plenty to be thankful for. But I didn’t get a lot of sleep last night and I’m feeling a little grumpy, so I thought I would save the “giving thanks” post for a happier time and focus on my disappointments today.

I can think of several things that disappointed me this year.

Social media abuse

The first one was the regular misuse and abuse of social media by whisky company employees. On several occasions this year, I discovered whisky companies (from the smallest to the largest) artificially pumping up their brands with their “anonymous” comments here on WDJK. I addressed each abuse as I discovered them, so I am not going to rehash it here. (Plus,  some of the companies I caught now have implemented policies to ensure this doesn’t happen again.)

But the fact remains that this kind of stuff is going on. And if it’s happening here, then it’s happening on other social media sites too. It’s not right, and the whisky companies should know better.

False or misleading statements

A second thing disappointed me: False statements by whisky companies. I’ve addressed this here earlier this year. For example, if it’s NOT your first new whisky in more than 50 years, then why are you telling everyone that it is? Sure it sounds nice, and it’s a great marketing tool. I’m even thrilled that you came out with a new whisky, and I like it too! But it’s not your first new whisky in more than 50 years, and it shouldn’t have been promoted as such.

Paying to play

Another thing that disappointed me: How many times must I say that you can’t pay for editorial exposure in Malt Advocate ? Just last week, someone in the business asked me how we determine what gets written in our New Products section. The person wanted to know if they had to pay to get one of their whiskies written up there. No, you just have to send us a press release and a review sample. (I guess I have to say it a few more times, which is why I am listing it here today.)

Premature bottling

And now to the last one. This one isn’t as much disappointing as it is sad. So many craft distillers are putting out new whiskeys right now. For most,  the potential of the whiskeys are there, but they’re being released too soon. They’re just immature, and they need more aging. (Okay, some of them probably won’t get better no matter how long they are aged in wood, but I think this is the minority, not the majority.)

Look, I understand the need for some of these small craft distillers to get returns on their investments to pay mounting bills. (And I am also aware that young whiskeys can be great in cocktails, but I am speaking from the point of view of a whiskey drinker here, not a mixologist.) I would rather you make gin or vodka or unaged rum and let your whiskey mature a little longer, than sell your whisky before it is mature.

What do you think?

How about you? Do you agree or disagree with me? And please explain.

Finally, is there anything that disappointed you this year? If so, what?


P.S. I promise to not be this grumpy every morning.

Is this you?

Tuesday, December 7th, 2010

We are tinkering around with the Malt Advocate media kit, and I was reading the summary of a survey we conducted a few years back describing what our readers drink. Here’s the breakdown.

What types of whiskies do you drink?

Single malts        92.5%

Bourbon              63%

Irish                       48.5%

Blended Scotch  46%

Canadian             16.6%

What other alcoholic beverages do you enjoy?

Beer                      83%

Wine                     85%

Vodka                   42%

Rum                       39%

Tequila                 38%

Gin                         34%

Cognac                 33%

Other liqueurs   29%

How about you? Does this describe you? It describes me very well, except for the beer and the vodka. I drink more beer than anything else (which probably explains my gradually expanding waistline), and don’t drink as much vodka as I do rum and tequila.

The next time we conduct our survey, we will have to include categories for Japanese whiskies, Indian whisky, craft distillers, and maybe a few others.