Article By: Aimsel Ponti
Whiskey. It's widely celebrated, commands great respect and continues to be a wildly popular spirit. For this article I look to one place by land and, if you will, two if by sea - Canada, Ireland and Scotland. With glasses raised the questions are: What's hot, what's changing, where is it headed, and who is drinking whiskey these days? To answer these questions I spoke to an assortment of individuals who, one way or another, are in the know when it comes to whiskey. Some surprising light was shed on who today's whiskey customer is and how deep they are willing to delve into their wallets to enjoy it.
By the numbers. The stats are in, courtesy of The Distilled Spirits Council. In general terms, whiskey is again on the rise, up 1.9% to an impressive 44.7 million cases. As for revenue, it has increased by 5.5% to $4.6 billion. Single Malt Scotch is up 8.7% (92O thousand cases). Irish whiskey is up as well, to 11.5% (558 thousand cases). Canadian whiskey is up .3% (15.3 million cases). Speaking of Canada, Crown Royal has had what Brand Manager Jim Lorenz calls "tremendous growth". "Growth remains strong at over 7%. We recently became the second best selling North American whiskey in the US," says Lorenz. "The super premium brand, Crown Royal Special Reserve continues double-digit growth as well," he adds. Canadian Club is also recovering after a stretch of decline or flat performance. "According to the Nielsen numbers measuring consumption over the past few months, the brand is growing at a double-digit rate," says Jack Shea, PR Director for Allied Domecq. Jameson's Irish Whiskey is also racking up some terrific stats. "It's in its sixth consecutive double digit year of growth," adds Jeff Agdern from Pernod Ricard USA. "We believe we've only scratched the surface of what the potential of the brand is in the US market, and there are so many people who are not yet aware of what Jameson is, that making them aware of the brand and providing them with a fairly rational reason to try the brand we think could be very effective," says Agdern. On a regional level, Jameson's is running wild. "Jameson Irish Whiskey is on fire, up 15% in my territory and double digits around the country," says Brian Driscoll who runs New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont for Pernod Ricard USA. From a retail standpoint, Gary Park, from Chestnut Hill's Gary's Liquors, points out that Crown Royal is still very successful, and VO and Canadian Club are holding their own. Park also notes that some of his biggest whiskey sellers continue to be Jameson's and Bushmills on the Irish front, and Glenlivet and Glenfiddich on the Scottish one.
Poker chips, car racing and beyond. The sales numbers clearly indicate that more money is being spent on marketing and advertising, and these efforts are paying dividends. Take Canadian Club, for example. They have gotten hip to the nationwide poker craze and have launched a promotion around it. Canadian Club recently unveiled its biggest marketing promotion ever: a national poker program that gives ten winners the chance to compete in Las Vegas with Chris Moneymaker, a World Series of Poker champion, for the multi-million dollar purse. No pressure or anything! CC's calling it "Dealing up a Smoother Night", and it includes thousands of both on- and off-premise promotions which are meant to help keep its drinkers stay smooth as they try to win big. Canadian Club read the tea leaves back in 2OO1 and saw that poker was destined for major mainstream attention.
Ballantine's Scotch also got in on the action as they launched 17- and 2O-year-old blends last year. Both of these have done extremely well in Asian markets, particularly Japan and Korea. Therefore the initial target was Korean-American communities in California, New York and New Jersey. Ballantine's has used the slogan "We've Arrived" in full-page color ads taken out in Korean-American publications. The 17-year-old Scotch has a suggested retail price of $129.99, while the 3O-year-old variety will set a person back just under four hundred dollars. One can only imagine that George Ballantine, who began his quest for the perfect Scotch back in 1865, is grinning from the grave. For his efforts, Ballantine's is the # 3 Scotch-whiskey in the world. Crown Royal is also no stranger to marketing savvy. They have a new sponsorship with Rousch Racing and the Nextel Cup Champion Kurt Busch this season. NASCAR fans have huge numbers and Jim Lorenz realizes this is a chance to reach a large audience. Crown Royal is also sponsoring P Diddy's Bad Boys of Comedy Tour. However, word of mouth continues to be something Crown Royal banks on. "Nothing is more powerful than a recommendation from a friend," says Jim Lorenz.
Jeff Agdern says that with regard to Jameson's, they've launched a campaign that simply focuses on all the potential reasons why people might like the Jameson brand. "It is just a whiskey that tastes good," he says. Furthermore he is well aware that anything Irish continues to be extremely hip. "There's a lot of really positive aspects that continue to come from Ireland," he says. The number of Irish pubs in the Boston area alone speaks volumes as to how Irish culture has become a permanent fixture. There is also emphasis being put on consumer and bartending education on the mixability of Jameson's. "The Jameson & Ginger Ale has been taking off and is basic and delicious," says Brian Driscoll.
At a retail level, sometimes something as simple as holding a tasting event can be a relatively easy way to boost sales. "Last holidays Johnny Walker came in and did a tasting with the Gold that was very successful,"says Gary's Liquors' Gary Park. Furthermore, Park isn't afraid to promote the larger size bottles of Irish Whiskey. "You can definitely hone in on those consumers if you focus. In almost every one of our ads we feature an Irish Whiskey, and not just on St. Patrick's Day." Perhaps the most extreme example of how simple advertising can rally pay off occurred last winter. "We sold a $25OO bottle of Macallan. I put an ad in, it was more like a piece that people would come in and look at or see in my ad and go 'wow'. Someone did more than say wow." Would you believe that somebody marched right into Park's store and bought it? You just never know - sometimes taking a risk is very worthwhile. The lesson learned here for other store owners is a simple but powerful one: Stock it, advertise it, take a few chances, and see what happens.
Youthful trends. It would appear that consumers are reaching deeper into their pockets to enjoy more premium brands. "Consumers' willingness to enjoy more flavor in mixed drinks is another trend that will benefit the brand," says Jim Lorenz of Crown Royal. "The consumer trend toward drinking premium spirits - which started first with white spirits - has now extended to brown spirits as well. This bodes well for premium spirits like Canadian Club and Ballantine's," says Jack Shea. Jameson Irish Whiskey is also enjoying a surge. "It's trending at about 18%," says Jeff Agdern. With the advent of marketing endeavors decidedly aimed at a younger demographic, the age of some whiskey drinkers is starting to drop. "Canadian Club's core consumer group remains men over 4O, but the brand has a growing following among 21- to 29 year-old men, thanks in part to marketing programs like poker aimed at making the brand more relevant with that age group," explains Jack Shea. The same could be said for Jameson's. "Historically, Jameson was a brand for the older Irish immigrant and now most of our volume comes from the LDA (legal drinking age) to 35-year-old so it is really being driven by the younger spirits consumer who is interested in premium brands that are flavorful but still not unapproachable," explains Jeff Agdern. "Cutty (Sark) is actually starting to turn towards a younger crowd," notes Gary Park.
Again, the fact that all things Irish are turning to gold is only helping matters. "I certainly think that Jameson's consumer is a younger consumer than that of Scotch at present. Irish Whiskey is really a cool thing right now," notes Pernod's Brian Driscoll. Eryl Williams, a bartender at Laurel Grill & Bar in Boston's South End, also testifies to the age of whiskey drinkers, particularly when it comes to one of his favorite drinks: the Manhattan. "A younger crowd is really getting into them; trying them and liking them. It's a natural progression from martinis and cosmopolitans. After the fun drinks they tend to turn to more classical drinks and are willing to try the fruity ones," says Williams. Williams points out that the VO Old Fashioned and the Dewar's Rob Roy are also quite popular with the younger set who is willing to pay for a good drink. "They are looking for quality rather than quantity and are willing to pay a premium for it," says Williams. There is no denying that Generation Y has developed a more sophisticated taste and will pay to indulge it.
Where is whiskey headed? So what does the future hold for our three countries? Look for more marketing campaigns like the poker one &endash; and for a wider net to be cast. Whiskey consumption is on the rise, and this goes far beyond just the Irish variety. Consumers are willing to pay more to get what they want. "Prices continue to go up and people continue to stay with it," says Gary Park. From the Canadian point of view, Crown Royal brand manager Jim Lorenz says that the future shines brightly. "Canadian whiskey is a great category to compete in. These brands offer great taste and versatility that is hard to come by in other whiskies. I see great opportunities for the category and the brand going forward." The general consensus among everyone I spoke to is that whiskey numbers are only going to rise as the younger drinker continues to get on board with it and as people become more educated about whiskey and come to appreciate all that it has to offer in terms of variety of tastes and ways it can be enjoyed.
There really is no stereotypical whiskey drinker anymore; the field is wide open. Men and women of all ages and all walks of life are enamored with their favorite whiskey - and favorite whiskey drink. Whether it be neat, on the rocks or mixed into one of Eryl William's magical Manhattans, whiskey has one foot in its storied past and another one in its monumental future. Although the younger crowd is very much a big part of the whiskey picture, be sure to save a seat at the bar for Aunt Edmee and her posse.
THE REAR VIEW
Scotland's distilling history, according to the folks at the Scotch Whisky Association website, dates back to the late 14OOs, although it really took off in the 16th and 17th centuries. In its early days, whiskey was called 'uisge beatha' &endash; the water of life. In order for it to legally be called Scotch Whiskey, it must adhere to the regulations of the 1998 Scotch Whisky Act. There are four criteria the spirit must meet. First off, it must be distilled at a Scottish distillery from water and malted barley to which only other whole grains may be added, and it must be processed at that distillery into a mash, converted to a fermentable substrate only by endogenous enzyme systems, and fermented only by the addition of yeast. Secondly, it must have an alcoholic strength of less than 94.8% by volume so that it retains the flavor of the raw materials used in its production. Thirdly, it must be matured in Scotland in oak casks for not less than three years. Finally, it must not contain any added substance other than water and caramel color. Some of the heavy hitters in Scotch include Dewars, Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, and Johnnie Walker. Scotch is used in such delightfully named cocktails as the Dirty Sock, Canal Street Daisy, The Kiltlifter, and The Flying Scotsman.
Canada's whiskey history dates back to approximately 1769 when the first distillery opened its doors. By the mid 18OOs there were over 2OO of them. Canada has a similar law which requires whiskey to be aged at least three years in a barrel. Most Canadian brands are blended, multi-grain whiskies and are often referred to as "rye whiskies", although technically they can also contain corn and barley as well. They, too, make both single-malt and blended varieties. During the prohibition period of The United States, Canada was able to cash in and quietly establish itself as a fine source for good whiskey. Canada boasts some of the biggest names in whiskey, including VO, Crown Royal and Canadian Club. Some of the clever cocktail names that use Canadian whiskies are The Maple Leaf, Blue Monday, Socrates, and The Commodore.
Last but certainly not least is the magical land of Ireland with its extremely rich whiskey history that some say dates back to the 6th century. Irish whiskey is made from barley malt and it too comes in many forms including single malt and grain as well as pure pot still whiskey. It's impossible to have a conversation about whiskey without the names Bushmills or Jameson's being spoken at some point. Some of the niftiest names for cocktails made with Irish whiskey include Drunken on Christmas, Gloom Lifter, Irish Rickey, and of course the Dancing Leprechaun. Many would argue however that the best whiskey drink is when it is simply poured over ice in a sturdy glass. Irishman James Joyce says it best: "The light music of whisky falling into a glass; an agreeable interlude."