Training a Scotch Sales Team

Although dwarfed by the relative size of the Bourbon and Canadian whisky markets, Scotch remains one of the standard bearers of the urban consumerism. Its cachet of uncompromised quality, breadth of expression and dynamic range of flavor keeps Scotch a global heavyweight.

A closer look at the numbers reveals some interesting trends. According to the Beverage Information Group, the Scotch market increased 3.17% to 8.85 million cases in 2013, roughly half the depletion of Bourbon and Canadian for the same period. While the overall Scotch category experienced modest growth, sales of single malts grew a robust 11.3% in 2013.

After enduring several years of flat or declining sales, Scotch producers are looking for ways to build on the current uptick in case depletions. With increasing frequency they are relying on consumer education to sustain the momentum.

“It’s been my experience that training retail staffs actually yields benefits in measurable numbers. I’ve found there’s as much as a 20% increase in sales volume for particular brands following a category seminar that includes some key brand information. The strategy works in all types of retail outlets that carry higher marques,” notes Steven Beal, senior master of whisky, Diageo North America. “Whisky lovers always seem to have a story about their favorite brand, who introduced them to it, and when they drank or tasted it first. It starts a word-of-mouth viral recommendation for the brand. All of this begins with quality education.”

An Army of Experts

There is broad consensus among suppliers about the value of sending brand ambassadors into retail accounts to conduct staff training. The House of Walker, the spiritual home of Johnnie Walker, travels across the U.S. to key markets throughout the year. The objective is to engage and educate influencers, retailers and consumers about the world’s bestselling whisky through curated experiences, according to Director of Scotch Whisky for Diageo North America, Brian Cox.

“The extensive Johnnie Walker portfolio offers a distinct flavor profile in each of its six labels; therefore, it’s important to educate retailers so they can advise consumers on the blend that suits their particular tastes,” Cox says. “As part of our retailer educational program, Johnnie Walker’s team of whisky experts provides mentorship in the on- and off-premise, highlighting the brand’s heritage and liquid credentials. In the off-premise, Johnnie Walker drives consumer awareness and education through an in-store tasting experience that features the newest additions to the portfolio – Double Black, Gold Label Reserve and Platinum Label.”

When Rémy Cointreau USA re-launched the Bruichladdich range of malts in 2014, it sent a team of brand representatives on the road to train and taste its network of retailers on the full line so they’d feel confident when hand-selling the malts. The company supported their marketing efforts with a program called “Terroir Matters.”

Notes Judd Zusel, vice president of marketing & innovation for Rémy Cointreau USA, “The objective of the initiative was to demonstrate the impact terroir has on the character of a whisky. We frequently hold consumer-focused ‘Terroir Matters’ education events where, for at least one hour, we discuss our philosophy and taste consumers on the full product line. These events have been extremely well-received.”

Erin Robertie is the liquor department manager at Hazel’s Beverage World in Boulder, CO. She knows firsthand the wide range of benefits derived from in-store tastings conducted by brand representatives.

“It gives consumers and staff the opportunity to sample high-end whisky expressions that we otherwise would not have experienced due to their high cost or small allocation,” she says. “It’s certainly true the more we know, the more we can sell. Customers look for advice and validation when buying Scotch more than any other category of spirits. This kind of education gives us the ability to talk more confidently about the brands we’ve experienced personally, as opposed to those brands we have not tasted before.”

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New Highlanders

Much of the reason for the uptick in Scotch sales can be attributed to the steady stream of new and exciting expressions. Master distillers are continually looking to entice malt enthusiasts by introducing older bottlings, more single cask releases and whiskies with compelling wood finishes. The wave of innovation has made in-store training an even bigger game-changer.

One such new release hails from Speyside giant, The Macallan. Launched in the U.S. in late 2014, The Macallan Rare Cask is crafted entirely from Spanish oak sherry seasoned casks hand selected from the distillery’s vast reserves of aging malts. The ruby-red whisky possesses two of the brand’s hallmark attributes—beautiful natural color and a rich, sherry cask-induced flavor.

To create the new release, The Macallan Master Whisky Maker, Bob Dalgarno, relies on his extensive knowledge of the thousands of sherry oak casks maturing in the cellars to select the chosen few that can deliver Rare Cask’s intensity of character.

Says The Macallan Brand Director, Raul Gonzalez, “The interaction of spirit and tannin-rich Spanish oak alone delivers the beautiful range of vibrant natural colors and flavor complexities that distinguish The Macallan whiskies. Their signature characteristics reinforce the brand’s position as one of the world’s truly great single malts.”

Another lord of the Speyside, Glenfiddich, added 2 new expressions in 2014 to its already considerable portfolio. Glenfiddich The Original is a faithful recreation of the distillery’s 1963 Straight Malt, the liquid that established the US single malt category. This reproduction of Hamish Robertson’s original recipe by Malt Master, Brian Kinsman, presents a rare opportunity to taste history.

“The authentic flavor of this release rings true to that of the first bottling Glenfiddich released in 1963,” Kinsman says.

The Glenfiddich 26 Year Old Excellence is matured exclusively in American white oak bourbon barrels for a minimum of 26 years. The single malt is the first in the Glenfiddich portfolio to be matured exclusively in bourbon casks. During its stay in wood, the oak imparts a balance of dry tannin, notes of brown sugar and vanilla, and the lingering flavors of spice, licorice and toasted oak.

The Deanston Distillery has expanded its award-winning range with the release of Deanston Virgin Oak Highland Single Malt. Master distiller Ian MacMillan blended 6 and 10 years old malts and finished the whisky in freshly charred, new oak barrels from a small, family-owned cooperage in Bardstown, Kentucky. The new Deanston malt is bottled without the use of chill-filtration at 46.3% ABV.

“Deanston has always been a distillery that stands behind being true to the original process,” says Amy Schwartz, brand activation manager for Distell USA. “Deanston’s tag line is ‘Simple, Handcrafted, All Natural.’ Our whiskies are all-natural, contain no added coloring, and are un-chill filtered. Master Distiller Ian MacMillan wants consumers to have an unparalleled experience when drinking Deanston.”

The Glenlivet expanded its award-winning Nàdurra range with the release of two new expressions. The Glenlivet Nàdurra Oloroso Cask Strength is matured solely in ex-Sherry casks and bottled without chill-filtration, offering the additional complexity, body and texture of a whisky that has just been drawn from the cask. It has dried fruit aromas, warm spices and notes of cinnamon and licorice.

The Glenlivet Nàdurra First Fill Selection is drawn from casks made from American white oak and offers hints of creamy vanilla to complement the rich single malt.

“We are always looking for ways to offer our customers new and innovative choices of drink,” says Wayne Hartunian, vice president of Scotch and Cognac at Pernod Ricard USA. “These two additions to the Nàdurra range will provide whisky connoisseurs with unique flavors and aromas, ensuring that we can bring them an enjoyable experience.”

Latest from the Lowlands and Islands

New from the Scottish Lowlands is Auchentoshan American Oak Single Malt Whisky, the brand’s first expression matured exclusively in first fill ex-Bourbon casks. The North American oak barrels used for oak maturation are first seasoned with Bourbon whiskey, which serves to remove the harsher bitter oak tannins and break down the oak to release even more vanilla, coconut and silky maturation oils.

“Auchentoshan prides itself on its unique tradition of triple distilling every single drop,” notes Claire Richards, director of world whisky and Cognac at Beam Suntory. “This means that the spirit produced reaches 81.5% alcohol by volume, significantly higher than most single malt whisky distilleries in Scotland. The lightness of the liquid enables it to more readily absorb every characteristic it is exposed to in the cask.”

Highland Park on the island of Orkney is the northernmost distillery in the world. Joining its esteemed range of single malts in 2014 was Highland Park Dark Origins. The new release was inspired by Highland Park’s founder, Magnus Eunson, and is a permanent addition to Highland Park’s core range. It’s also the first no-age statement expression in the lineup.

Dark Origins stands alone from the core range in that it uses twice as many first fill Sherry casks as the classic Highland Park 12 year old. Notes Steph Ridgway, brand manager for Highland Park Whisky, “The result is a naturally darker malt with a richer, sherry/spice flavor, and the signature sweet smoke that fans of our whisky have come to know and love. Dark Origins also has an ABV of 46.8%, the highest of any whisky in our core range and another bold facet of the liquid’s personality.”

Last year Islay native Bruichladdich re-launched its flagship single malt, The Classic Laddie. The unpeated whisky is made from 100% Scottish malt and matured by the shores of Loch Indaal in premium American white oak casks. It carries no age statement and is bottled at 50% ABV.

Judd Zusel of Rémy Cointreau USA says that at 100 proof, the whisky retains more flavors from distillation. “Being less diluted its viscosity is richer, the mouthfeel is more complex, and the finish showcases more barley notes, which are often dominated by oak at this age,”

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New Blend Introductions

In the past two years, Johnnie Walker has launched two new whiskies in the U.S—18-Year-Old Johnnie Walker Platinum Label and Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve, which bears no age statement. The venerable brand contends that foregoing an age statement on the Gold Label affords the master blender more creative latitude to combine flavors from different ages and different casks.

“We aspire to always innovate and push the boundaries to craft a high quality product and ensuring integrity above all else,” Cox says. “Platinum Label is likely the most precisely crafted blended Scotch whisky that Johnnie Walker has ever created. It delivers the depth and complexity expected from a full-flavored Johnnie Walker blend. Then we have Gold Label Reserve, which carries no age statement. It is a flavor-driven whisky that celebrates the art of blending.”

Category leader Dewar’s recently released the limited edition Dewar’s 15-Year-Old Blended Scotch Whisky, one of only a few 15-year old blends in the U.S. Created by master blender Stephanie Macleod, it is comprised of carefully selected single malt and single grain whiskies that were matured for a minimum of 15 years in Sherry and Bourbon casks. Once blended, this skillfully crafted whisky is filled back into specially selected oak casks for an additional period of maturation to achieve enhanced smoothness and a longer, lingering finish.

According to Macleod, “Dewar’s 15-Year is a luxuriously smooth and enticing blend with notes of honey, coconut, vanilla and golden toffee. The palate slowly reveals the flavors of succulent exotic fruits, citrus and green apple.”

The Grand Macnish range of blended Scotch whiskies, which includes a 12-year and 15-year marque, recently expanded with the launch of Grand Macnish Black Edition. Made in Glasgow, the bold and smoky extra-aged whisky is matured in double-charred Bourbon casks. It is a full-bodied Scotch with a sweet honey and peat-smoke nose, a rich mouth feel and a smooth, long finish.

Adds Gary Shaw, executive vice president of national sales, “There are few blended Scotches on the market that use this type of extended aging in double-charred oak. We do this all while offering exceptional value to our customers. By intensifying the char on our Bourbon casks, the Scotch develops a more complex, smoky character. We have created a unique and complex Scotch without carrying an age statement.”

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No Age Statements Here To Stay

Renowned malts like Auchentoshan Valinch, The Glenlivet Nàdurra and Bruichalddich’s The Classic Laddie are at the forefront of a growing movement of Scotch brands going to market with “no age statement” (NAS) on their labels. The practice of stating the age of a whisky dates back to the turn of the last century and was intended to provide consumers with a means of distinguishing between various malts. However, how much time a whisky spends in wood is often an inaccurate gauge of quality.

By law, Scottish whiskies carrying an age statement must establish their age according to the youngest malt used in the blend. The legal proviso often imposes creative constraints on blenders who, for example, may want to add a small portion of a young malt to add lively, fruity notes to the blend. However, by doing so, it will dramatically lower the stated age of the finished whisky.

“Non-aged declared single malt whiskies afford our master blenders with the freedom to combine flavors from different ages and different casks. This adds a whole new dimension to the process of creating innovative single malts and blends,” contends Brian Cox, director of Scotch whisky for Diageo North America. “It has been possible for us to explore this path as consumers are increasingly able to discern how important flavor is when appreciating a great malt, whether or not an expression carries an age statement.”

Two of the Bruichladdich malts—The Classic Laddie and Port Charlotte Scottish Barley—have no age statements. Judd Zusel, vice president of marketing & innovation for Rémy Cointreau USA, believes that allowed Master Distiller Jim McEwan to deliver a consistent signature flavor profile by using all the casks in the warehouse, instead of limiting him to a specific cask range based on age statements.

“We believe Bruichladdich’s uniqueness comes more from the ingredients used and its unique terroir than simply a number signifying an age statement,” Zusel says. “Age is just a number, it doesn’t necessary mean that the product is better because it is older.”

According to Raul Gonzalez, brand director for The Macallan and Highland Park, a growing number of producers are placing more emphasis on factors like maturation techniques, desired color and flavor profile than actual time spent in wood. “With no statement whiskies, we’re taking things a step forward and saying this isn’t about the age, it’s about what the consumer wants and the skills of the whisky maker,” he says. “These whiskies give us a chance to showcase another side of the brand’s character and let the liquid do the talking.”

“I wouldn’t necessarily say age statements limit creativity, but I would say that non-age statement whiskies allow for greater creativity,” says Amy Schwartz, brand activation manager for Distell USA. “I think foregoing an age statement affords master distillers a greater opportunity to show what their whiskies can really do. There will always be the skeptics who’ll think age equates to quality, but those aren’t the consumers who suppliers should be targeting anyway. Non-age statements are an exciting development. They’re like the rebels of the whisky world!”

 

Robert Plotkin is a judge at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and author of 16 books on bartending and beverage management including Secrets Revealed of America’s Greatest Cocktails. He can be reached at www.AmericanCocktails.com or by e-mail at robert@barmedia.com.

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