Scotch Whisky – Which do you choose and why?

Marketing the Scottish Distillery

What sells you on one Scotch Brand over another?

Recent industry growth for Scotch whisky has been so significant that Scotland has had to import barley from England, Europe and Canada to keep up with demand. This means that more Scotch whisky is consumed around the world than Canadian, American and Irish whiskies combined. Although blended Scotch makes up about 90 percent of Scotch whisky sales by volume, over the past six years single malt Scotch has grown by 67 percent, while the total value of Scotch export, according to the Scotch Whisky Association, only increased by 10 percent during the same period.

For clarity, single malt Scotch is made from 100% malted barley and distilled in pot stills at a single distillery in Scotland (unlike blended Scotch which is a blend of grain and malt whiskies from two or more distilleries). The distillates are matured for a minimum of three years in wooden casks, typically American or European oak, all of which must comply with Scotch Whisky Regulations (2009). Arguably, the legacy of a good single malt Scotch is tradition – adhering to long established distilling practices – and authenticness – maintaining these practices through regulation and control.

With more and more distilleries introducing new products and with it more marketing hyperbole, the consumer/explorer can be easily overwhelmed.

So how do the whisky distilleries distinguish themselves from the product lines of other distilleries in Scotland? What brand narratives are being used to create individuality and product differentiation?

Isle of Orkney

Highland Park’s uses the slogan “standing apart not standing alone”. Their story line for its whiskies focuses on its Viking ancestry. Starting in 2012, Highland Park unleashed Thor – the Norse god of thunder and lightning – followed by Loki, Freya and Odin. Today’s Highland Park describes itself as an Orkney single malt with a Viking soul. Their 10-year-old is Viking Scars, their 12-year-old is referred to as Viking Honour, and their 18-year-old is Viking Pride.

In comparison, the Scapa distillery on Orkney focuses on the ‘island, elements and weather’. Their ‘claim to fame’ is that they are the only distillery in Scotland to use a Lomond still to create their range and styles of whiskies. While one distillery boldly claims its heritage the other blends gently into the environment.

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Isle of Islay

Islay distilleries emphasize both their location and flavour expressions that include iodine, seaweed and salt to differentiate themselves from other peated whiskies. Like other distilleries, Islay distilleries differentiate their product lines through compelling narratives.

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For Bunnahabhain and Bowmore their story is about their history. For Laphroaig, it is about friendship – “We don’t make friends easily, but when we do, they’re for life.” Their marketing approach is to offer a “honorary lifetime lease on a plot of land (an entire square foot)” on Islay.

Ardbeg has created Ardbeg Embassies and Outposts throughout the world and, as well, an Ardbeg Committee “with a worldwide membership of over 120,000 and counting”.

Bruichladdich, on the other hand, having recently re-emerged from mothballing, differentiates itself from other Islay distilleries by being the ‘outlier’. Their innovation was to create the peatiest whisky of all with their introduction of the Octomore series. As they say, “[w]e respect the past but don’t live in its shadow. We believe in innovation and progress, while striving to create intriguing spirit – a spirit with flawless integrity and provenance. We are curious and restless – never leave well enough alone.” 

Speyside

Glenfiddich’s branding message is ‘collaboration’ in finding new expressions in their experimental cask series. In 2016, they introduced IPA (India Pale Ale) cask finish, which was followed by Project XX, where they invited 20 industry experts to create a new offering. The third in the experimental series is their Winter Storm using Ice Wine casks from Peller Estates at Niagara-on-the-Lake in Canada as their cask finish.

The Macallan takes a more conservative approach “where innovation meets tradition” and links their whisky to the culinary wizardry of the Roca brothers from El Celler de Can Roca restaurant in Girona, Spain. For the Macallan, this links them to what they call the ‘sources of excellence’.

Highlands

The Dalmore brand is based on a legend dating back to the 13th Century with the story of a young man named Colin of Kintail who saves King Alexander III from a charging stag. For his bravery he was awarded the lands of Eilean Donan and the right to bear the 12-pointed Royal stag as their crest, which has become the iconic emblem of The Dalmore. Their motto is ‘fortune favours the brave’.

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Campbeltown

Springbank distillery has been in the Mitchell family for five generations. Their claim is that their “whisky is the most handmade in Scotland”, emphasizing the tradition and integrity of the process, rather than environment, mythology or affiliate gatherings.

Themes and Stories

In review, the narrative branding strategies currently in use by industry, in their effort to connect their product to consumer appeal, are identity, affinity and integrity.

Identity is connecting the consumer/explorer to a distillery’s heritage or mythology. An example would be the Viking stock of the Isle of Orkney or the mythological stories about strength and bravery captured by Dalmore.

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A slightly different example would be Bruichladdich who, after being mothballed for six years, chose to be the ‘outlier’. While others saw themselves reflecting mood or creating a romantic notion of the landscape, such as the hills and glens and pristine water of the Highlands or the peat-laden bogs and salty air of the Hebrides.

Affinity is about associating the consumer to a ‘community’ of others who share a similar interest, whether a group, location or product. Examples include Ardbeg’s outposts and embassy groups and Laphroaig’s circle of friends with their honorary lifetime lease to a square foot of land.

Integrity is maintaining (or re-introducing) the traditional malting process, rather than relying on a malting facility for malting the barley. Springbank represents a full-on malting, distilling and bottling centre highlighting family tradition, wholesomeness and endurance to differentiate their product from others. Other distilleries that focus on traditional distilling processes, e.g. creating their own barley malt by using a traditional malting floor, include Laphroaig, Kilchoman and Bowmore on Islay, Highland Park, and The Balvenie in Speyside.

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Regardless of whether the theme is identity, affinity or integrity a good brand narrative is emotive, memorable and willingly shared through social media and other forms of cultural dissemination.

For the ‘discriminating’ whisky explorer, a good narrative must cut through the market hysteria of consumerism and other cultural distractions to enable the consumer to trust what they hear (or read) as true. As Michael Jackson notes in his Complete Guide to Single Malt Scotch “[t]here are two ways you can make single malt whisky: like the Scots do, in which case you’d better be very, very good indeed. Or by trying to do something genuinely different”. Either way, the whisky must be unique and exceptional to gain the attention of the whisky explorer.

We contend that the ‘true’ essence of a single malt Scotch is in the expression of what the whisky offers as it pairs with the experience of the whisky explorer in the moment of reckoning. That is when unique and exceptional are discovered. For this reason, we believe that with each single malt there is an existential relationship between this ancient distilling tradition and a sensorial experience waiting to unfold. For those who have discovered this, we raise a dram.

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