Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Anoraks "versus" the Big Guys

 Anorak (wikipedia) : In British slang an anorak is a person, usually male, who has a very strong interest, perhaps obsessive, in niche subjects. This interest may be unacknowledged or not understood by the general public. The best known explanation of the term, is the use of anoraks (a type of rain jacket) by train spotters, a prototype group for interest in detailed trivia.

 Allright, it's no secret if you are visiting various whisky forums, that us whiskyanoraks sometimes isn't happy with the way the big companies  (and some smaller as well) are doing things..well....we still like their whisky thou :-)

 The majority of unhappy whines from the geeks (I am a geek as well), is probably due to the fact that some companies have bigger marketing department, than they have people producing, selecting and bottling their whiskies

Here are some of the major objections :

1. Caramel Coulouring.
2. Chillfilltration.
3. "Exclusive" bottlings where packaging and bottle shape has more focus than the content.
4. Marketing via pricing...a product is priced at a "ridiculous" level, only point is to make it appear better. Often goes hand in hand with #3.
5. Phobia of independant bottlers. All your arguments for not selling to them are plain wrong, except stocksize.

The hardcore whisky entusiasts tend to like affordable releases of small batch or single cask bottlings at a regular basis. Preferable at casks strength, and unchillfiltered without doubt

Now, we shouldn't forget that a company has to earn money, and what is on the shelves around us is what sells, but I still have a few comments about 4 of the biggest operators, they aren't doing it all wrong :-)

1. Diageo
The biggest - this is basically the "We make Johnny Walker"-company, but they do bottle quite a range of single malts, which unfortunately isn't unchillfiltered. At a lot of their distilleries, distillery-only cask strength bottlings are available at decent prices, and for us anoraks they have the annual releases.
I could ask for more bottlings of the likes of Lagavulin 12yo cask strength and the Glen Elgin 16yo cask strength, beside the more expensive annual releases.
The Manager's Choice series was an own-goal, nuff said...
The quality of their distillery tours are very good, and at some of their distilleries, extended tours are available at relatively cheap prices. Their support and participation to the Spirit of Speyside festival is outstanding
Glen Elgin 16yo, photo nicked from the The Whisky Exchange

2. Chivas
 Chivas Regal and Ballentines are the big blends here, but they also have one of the top malt sellers : Glenlivet, or The Glenlivet - other distilleries used to steal the "-glenlivet" as suffix, now the ones that wants to appear exclusive started copying the "The" prefix.
 Their other distilleries, apart from Aberlour, gets little or no attention from the main company as single malt whisky and I would even say that Scapa gets a somehow confused attention. Not sure they really know where to take this.. 
 Aberlour is an anoraks dream of a distillery. The cask strength batch bottlings in the A'bunadh series is an example to follow. 
Glenlivet has Nadurra, but the bottling strength must be determined by the Scapa-department..back to full strength please!
 The Cask Strength Edition series is a great series, I wish it was general available and not just at their distilleries. I understand that distillery-only is a nice thing to have, but not at the expense at what's available in general. Bottle whisky yourself straight-from the cask is possible at Aberlour and Aberlour also offers a range of different tours, which are a bit pricey thou.
I'd like to see something like the Cask Strength Edition series made general available, the bottles size, shape, label, price and ABV really appeals to me

3. Grants
 Too phobic about independant bottlers, why miss all that free marketing?
Being the first to bottle single malts on bigger markets, they are somehow too conservative in their approach. But things have improved the last few years. They did recently start with extended tours, which should be a tad more extended in my opinion. Good things is that you can now bottle your own Glenfiddich and Balvenie straigth from cask at the distillery
 The Balvenie 15yo as the main attraction for us anoraks - great whisky and good value for money..and its single barrel batches. More like this please!

4. Edrington
 Having two great distilleries, Highland Park and Macallan, that are responsible for making a lot of people malt whisky drinkers, this company has a tendency of loosing people again. 
I do think their bottlings tend to be too expensive and too low ABV. I picked up a nice single cask bottling at Beltramo's at a not too expensive price, but I think San Jose, California is a bit too far away to travel for whisky shopping on a regular basis :-)
 This company can improve a lot in my opinion, I'd prefer to see some exciting affordable bottlings instead of various marketing campaigns like the Macallan ice ball or when more care was laid into a photo accompaning the bottle than the whisky itself.
Their marketing often seems confused, with regular changes in ABV's and approaches. Very occasionally something interesting pops up like Earl Magnus, but it's not impressive the way they price that in Denmark relative to UK prices...
Only bottlings I can think of recently was the Hjärta (expensive thou), but there's always the Macallan 10yo cask strengths if I can't find anything else.
 I did have a great tour at Highland Park when it was organised by someone "they knew" but walking in from the street I had a couple or 3 of really terrible experiences with this company, which is just too many. I might have been unlucky but a tourist travelling to Orkney and booking an extended tour should get a decent experience, it shouldn't be necesary to book via a brand ambassador for that. 
 These days it's very far between I purchase Macallan and Highland Park. Nothing wrong with the whisky, but it's seldom bottled at an ABV I like or at a price I find reasonable.

Macallan Ice Balls

Well, I know that venturing into the anoraks market isn't easy for these companies, as the market is a fraction to the great blend market, and instead of battling 3-4 other major brands you have to compete against 100's and 100's of other unique bottlings, but a company should remember one thing, this market doesn't need any marketing really, just good cheap whisky :-) and the word of mouth will do the rest

Well, that's my opinion, there's probably be quite a few who disagree with me :-)

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