Whisky can be a very intimidating drink. So how can whisky brands make whisky seem less intimidating and get younger drinkers into the category? Blair Bowman investigates.
I have been on a personal crusade to recruit younger consumers to whisky since late 2008 and in this feature will share some insights from my nearly eight years of making whisky attractive for this sector.
Go into any whisky bar or whisky shop and just look at the sheer number of bottles on display. You could be standing looking at hundreds of bottles of whisky. The difference between each of these whiskies is not immediately obvious to consumers, especially younger consumers, and the prices can vary dramatically.
A lot of the names on the bottles can be, to the uninitiated, very difficult to pronounce and this can be an immediate turn-off. Younger consumers don’t want to look foolish standing at a bar, or in a shop for that matter, and fear they might mispronounce names like Ledaig, Glen Garioch or Abhainn Dearg. The same goes for older consumers too who won’t risk mispronouncing something so will go for their ‘usual’ that they know how to pronounce correctly.
Another major barrier to entry for younger consumers is price point and the possibility that they may not like what they have ordered and feel that they have wasted their money. Price is a very big factor for this group when considering a purchase. Diageo and David Beckham’s Haig Club have announced that they are releasing a new version of Haig Club at a lower price point after consumer feedback noted that the £45 price tag for a bottle was a barrier to purchase for younger consumers. £45 could buy a lot of pints or any other drink for that matter that they know they like, so why would they risk spending £45 on something that they may not even enjoy drinking? Younger consumers are very savvy with their money and won’t necessarily go splashing their cash to try something new if they don’t know whether they will like it or not.
A new initiative that I highly commend is Moray Council’s new 10ml licence for whisky tastings and events. This allows people to try smaller amount of whisky, at a cheaper price, instead of having to have a full 25ml measure with the risk of not enjoying the taste of that particular whisky. I think this is an excellent idea and I hope it will be adopted by other licensing boards.
I see the new wave of non age statement whiskies as a ripe opportunity for whisky brands to recruit younger consumers with gateway whiskies. This particular group won’t be driven by age statements on a bottle, they will be driven by price and flavour. So, if a brand can get the price right and get the flavour profile to be accessible to a younger palate but still work well with a mixer or in cocktails then they are onto a winner. Then some time later when this younger consumer has matured, read: earns a larger salary, and has a more discerning palate, they will remember the non age statement gateway whiskies that got them into the category and trade up into the more expensive aged whiskies within that stable.
The same argument can be made for blended whiskies being gateway whiskies into the category.
By far the most successful example of this is William Grant and Sons Monkey Shoulder. At between £25 to £30 a bottle, depending on where you buy it, and with a very accessible flavour profile, it has established itself as a cult drink within the global bar scene. Monkey Shoulder is not scared of pushing boundaries and does an excellent job at just having fun with whisky and its brand.
I also believe brands could do a lot more to promote long drinks with whiskies as the base in the drink as an entry into the category. Short cocktails are great, like a Manhattan, Rusty Nail, Penicillin, etc., but to new consumers these can be very strong and expensive at bars. A softer entry into whisky cocktails would be with a long whisky cocktail like the Japanese style ‘highball’ (whisky with soda) or ‘mizuwari’ (whisky mixed with water and ice). With the Olympic games coming up in Rio de Janeiro this summer, I have predicted that whisky with coconut water will be the summer whisky serve of 2016. Then, after this introduction, consumers may wish to find out more about the base whisky and start to nose and appreciate whisky in, say, a Glencairn glass.
Another barrier to entry is the perception that whisky is a snobby, pretentious, old man’s drink. In the UK, in particular, a bunch of old ‘whisky rules’ still gets banded around: you must drink whisky neat, you cannot add ice, you must not mix whisky, and so on. In my eyes, these old school ‘rules’ have done more to damage whisky’s reputation and turn off consumers than anything else. It’s barriers like this that make whisky seem elitist and that you have to be part of a ‘club’ to understand it or appreciate it. These barriers need to be broken down and quickly or whisky risks losing out with younger consumers going straight to rums and tequilas or other spirits that don’t have ‘rules’ associated with them.
I think more needs to be done to eliminate this old school mentality towards whisky and the old guard need to realise that if they don’t welcome new and innovative approaches to whisky recruitment then they will lose out in a very competitive spirits market. So remember, if you are buying the whisky then it is yours and you can do whatever you like with it. The most important thing is that however you choose to enjoy it (neat, mixer, cocktail, or other), you enjoy it.
It’s a long term game but this is how I see it working. If brands can remove the stigma and make whisky fun again then I think in the long term recruiting these new consumers via long cocktails, or non age statement whiskies will, in the long run, reap rewards in the future for these brands. In order to achieve this though we need to go back to basics. At the end of the day we are talking about alcohol in a glass, so let’s make it fun and interactive, not elitist or intimidating.