For Whisky, like Women; Is the Question of Age Still Off-limits?

It seems I am quite low down on the whisky blogger pecking order, but higher than I had suspected. Forty-eight hours or so after the debates began on What Does John Know? and the Edinburgh Whisky Blog amongst others, the press release concerning Chivas Brothers’ new consumer education campaign dropped into my inbox.

This is a fascinating topic, one that is both timely and crucial for the industry’s future. Experimentation and innovation are circling like a Viking mob whisky’s (and especially Scotch whisky’s) ancient castle keep with tradition, protectionism and legislation its bricks and mortar. Not only are people coming up with new ways of making and marketing whisky, but they are finding increasing popularity and plaudits for their efforts. Time, then, for the old guard to reassert some long upheld “truths”.

Let it be known that I am not enacting unreasonable militancy against the big corporate players. Without them, we would not have reached this glorious peak of single malt variety. I cannot help but feel, however, that Chivas, a branch of Pernod Ricard, are reacting in a rather heavy-handed way to the recent spate of no-age-statement bottlings proliferating on our retailers’ shelves. They commissioned a survey of 2,000 people who had purchased whisky in the previous month. They found that 94% believed that age was an indicator of quality; 93% believed that whiskies with a higher age statement were of a higher quality, and 89% look for an age statement before contemplating buying. Yet only 10% knew what the age statement referred to in relation to the contents of the whisky they sought to buy. Where has this prejudice come from, and who is responsible for further light not having been shed on the benighted 90% of the public? It is the whisky makers themselves in both cases.

Think about it, if the men in high office decide that they are going to commence stating an age, with all the legal requirements that such a declaration entails, they are going to devise an effective piece of marketing to coincide with it. Rather than necessarily inform the consumer what it means with bold exactitude, they are more likely to reassure the man or woman browsing the shelves that it means a better whisky for him or her. On my distillery tour, I encountered many casual tourists who, despite the best efforts of various guides, still had some trouble digesting the true definition behind the age statement. I cannot see how this is anyone’s fault bar the companies themselves. The misleading belief that older equals better suits them just fine.

So why are Chivas trying again now? As I mentioned above, the conservative approach to whisky marketing and labelling has taken quite a beating as smaller companies have whipped up serious committed followings for the younger products of their distilleries. The Glenmorangie Company is the inevitable case study, with both the Ardbeg and Glenmorangie ranges boasting NAS bottlings. Their success (with Rollercoaster, Uigeadail, Corryvreckan and Signet) would call into question the extent to which the attitudes found in the Chivas survey actually signify a devout adherence to age statements – shunning all others; or whether vague suspicions are not quite enough to deter some from purchasing one of these new and much-hyped whiskies of indeterminate age. My guess is that it is the latter, and this is why Chivas are pumping money, time and awareness into reviving the old prejudices.

Another reason for drawing the consumer back to age statements is that all of their needs could be satisfied by those brands in the Chivas stable. They style themselves as “the world’s leading producer of luxury Scotch whisky” and I’m fairly sure they base this on the fact that their portfolios contain bottles whose age statements reach and exceed 25-years-of-age in the case of Chivas Regal and The Glenlivet. An awful lot of Chivas whisky comes with a number on it. The perceived ignorance of the legal definition of age statements is a great opportunity to remind people of all the fine age-statemented whisky they have available.

The video on The Glenlivet website states the latest position of their owners loud and clear: “A guarantee of age. A guarantee of quality.” These are slogans, not truths, and they have not addressed the dearth of understanding, rather perpetuated the misconceptions. This is no time to aim for aphorisms for one cannot impart total understanding on this subject in a soundbite. In their press release they put forward the scenario that because “one of the greatest influences on the flavour of a whisky comes from maturation,” (no arguments there, this is consistent with the chemistry behind whisky making) “it follows that the longer the maturation period, the more complex the whisky.” Now this is frankly dangerous territory. In a piece of publicity with semantics such as “luxury”, “quality” and ”premium”, the word “complex” adopts connotations of desirability; perhaps inflated connotations. The implication is surely that older is better. Words have been used, and I suspect will be deployed again in the “point-of-sale materials, advertising and public relations” that will drive this campaign, to sell an idea about whisky, as opposed to deliver the low-down on the facts.

I won’t deny that it is a fairly reliable guide, but it does not always “follow” that complexity comes with age. I tried a single cask Caol Ila at 30-years-old that was very straightforward ex-Bourbon oak in flavour. The Kilchoman Second Release is one of the most complex malts I have tasted for quite some time and it is only a toddler at just over 3-years-old.  You must arm the consumer with more than this simplistic correlation masquerading as a rule if you are to set him or her away into the expanding and evolving world of single malt whisky. Say Consumer X starts out with Chivas Regal 12yo, moves on to Aberlour 10yo, then The Glenlivet 18yo and, having enjoyed this initial journey so much, maybe starts reading a few blogs, magazines or books, and decides he would like to pick up a single cask bottling at 21-years-of-age… and hates it. Say Consumer X is undetered and plumps for a 30yo from a distillery he has heard good things about, a special treat… and he hates that one, too. He has not, as Christian Porta of Chivas Brothers Ltd. asserts, been “empowered with knowledge”, at least, not the knowledge he needed. Why should it be the agenda to convince Customer X about “the value of what [he is] buying” in preference to the make up and process behind what he is buying? Only with that can Customer X work out why his 21 and 30yos were not to his taste, and make a different choice next time round. If his central, indeed sole, tenet is that older is better, where is he to go after his traumatic experiences? Most likely he will head straight out of this confusing, intimidating drinks sector and into another. Let’s not risk alientating new-comers by serving them absolutes. It is the drinks equivalent of “Teach a man to fish…” Whisky production is a complicated, unpredictable exercise all the quirks and foibles of which no-one truly understands. I appreciate that it is hardly effective marketing to proceed with the “ifs” and “buts”. I also accept that new customers want certainty, indeed, the very “transparency and authenticity” of which Porta speaks, so create a campaign that steers clear of the subjective and vague and sets out in more detail the true nature of the beast from the off.  That this topic has spawned the levels of discussion that it has demonstrates that this is not something a logo can clear up.

Just as the wood is “one of the greatest influences on the flavour of whisky”, the age is only one of the facts we need to be told to make a truly informed purchase. I would like to see information on the age, cask type, number of fills of cask, proportion of malt matured in each different cask (if there is more than one), peating level, filtration, colouring. If I was being really pernickety I would want to know if any and if so what proportion of whisky had been matured centrally or at the distillery itself. There is a long way to go but if the industry is committed to enlightening its customers then these steps will eventually be taken, and others feel the same. See Steffen Brauner’s comments on the WDJK? post.

Notice that I have not come out and denounced age statements themselves. I believe they are crucial information. It should be said, of course, that all whiskies have a minimum age, but this again depends on your knowledge of whisky laws. Nothing can be called whisky unless it is a minimum of 3-years-old. Anyway, the age statement helps me in my browsing because I know that an 8-10yo whisky will be quite bold and basic in its palette, with a liveliness. 18yo+ will probably be mellow, deep and, yes, complex. However, this is only as a result of past experience, not what any brand has told me. In addition, this is only what I expect age to have done to the whisky’s character and body. I don’t know what it will taste like. Novices may see an 18yo Laphroaig (a fine malt) and buy it believing it to be complex, and having been told that complex equals quality, quality equals good. But what if they don’t like complexity in the shape of peat, seaweed and oak? I think there needs to be a joint effort across the industry, began by Diageo’s Flavour Map, to classify by the sensory appreciation of a malt, not the obscure theoretical discrimination of quality care of maturity.

Lastly, I would keep age statements at all costs because that number, when properly understood, tells me, if nothing else, of the time and heritage behind what I am sipping. I’m still in a position where I can affordably drink whisky older than I am, and that is quite incredible when I think about it. I respect my elders, and a 25yo malt is something to savour and appreciate. Its creation and the means by which it has come to me were not carelessly left to chance and are not to be dismissed. It is in this sense that I agree with the “Investing in Age” section of The Glenlivet site. It is true that “there are no shortcuts in this process. Nothing can be rushed.” If the sole achievement of your campaign is that this is more widely understood, then you have done a great service to the industry, Chivas. I might not agree that “The Age Matters”, but age itself unquestionably counts for a great deal.

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