Can brand owners halt the Scotch whisky decline by attracting younger drinkers?

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Scotch whisky sales are in steady decline but the brand owners are pulling out all the stops to attract the younger drinker. Ben McFarland...

Scotch whisky sales are in steady decline but the brand owners are pulling out all the stops to attract the younger drinker. Ben McFarland reports

Without the use of a crystal ball, Nostradamus or a little old lady with a head scarf poking about in a tea pot, it's difficult to predict how long it will be before scotch whisky becomes sexy again.

In recent years its style has been cramped by dwindling UK sales and an inability to shake off the traditional "heather and weather" image. It may still be the best-selling spirit in the world, but it's not doing particularly well in the UK on-trade.

Sales of scotch whisky have been in steady decline, approximately two per cent, for some years now. The recently published Publican Spirits Report offered little sign of recovery, while a report by market research company Key Note cited scotch whisky as a product in dire need of rejuvenation.

In an attempt to rectify the situation, marketeers of the best-known brands have feverishly been trying to think of new ways of finding a place in the hearts and minds of young drinkers through advertising.

Top-selling whiskies Bell's and Johnnie Walker Black Label (JWBL) have kicked off their slippers and scotched all references to rural Scotland in their advertising.

Brand owner Guinness UDV has committed a combined advertising spend of £8.5m across the brands this year with a more contemporary and modern approach. For both brands, however, it is paramount that in trying to coax new drinkers to the category they don't lose the loyalty of the more mature generation who are actually buying and drinking whisky.

This balancing act is reflected in the respective personalities used to front both the Bell's and JWBL campaigns. Everyone's favourite middle-aged ivory tinkler Jools Holland, the face of Bell's "Let the good times roll" advertising, appeals to the young (through his Later music show on BBC2) while Harvey Keitel, who starred in Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs and 1970s classic Taxi Driver, commands a cult figure status among film aficionados of all ages.

Brands spokesperson Lindsey Sexton said: "Core drinkers of JWBL are primarily urban men aged 35 years and over. For Bell's it's more particularly men aged 40 years plus.

"In both cases they remain loyal to the whisky category but can have a broad repertoire when it comes to brands and styles. Their repertoire may include a blend like Bell's as their regular drink, as well as JWBL and a malt like Oban for other occasions.

"Although Scottish heritage, which signifies quality and authenticity, is at the heart of our brands, scotch drinkers have told us that the more traditional Scottish images are not particularly relevant to their everyday life."

Another brand trying to walk the fine line between two different generations is The Famous Grouse, which accounts for one in three blended drams sold in the on-trade. The brand's latest £3m Christmas advertising campaign, featuring the quirky bird taken from the traditional packaging, has coincided with the launch of The Famous Grouse Wood Finishes.

Cask finishing is a process whereby the maturation of scotch whisky is completed in a cask that has previously contained another drink aside from the conventional bourbon and sherry.

Although cask finishes have in the past proved a nice and quick way to meet consumer demand for innovation, the technique, first pioneered by Glenmorangie in the late 1990s, has so far been exclusive to single malt whiskies.

However, in the last few months, both The Famous Grouse and Grant's have borrowed the idea from the malt sector in an attempt to kickstart the stagnant blended market.

It would be unrealistic to expect these finishes to transform the whisky market overnight, but for many it's a step in the right direction.

"I'm always happy to see innovation in the whisky business because I believe there's much more we can do in making it approachable for more people," said John Glaser, the American founder of the Compass Box Whisky. The former marketing director at UDV created Compass Box Whisky two years ago with a view to injecting some much needed marketing-led innovation and creativity to blended scotch whisky.

Compass Box currently has two whiskies on the market, Hedonism and Asyla (taken from the plural of Asylum), and a third, a vatted malt whisky, is on the way.

The company specialises in creating unusual whiskies, with funky packaging, by blending malt whiskies and grain whiskies sourced from little known distilleries in Scotland.

"There are so many fantastic and interesting grain whiskies around and blending them permits creativity and flexibility - it's all about creating something new and different," added John.

The Compass Box range is aimed squarely at a style bar market that is in the throes of a love affair with American whiskeys. These whiskeys, which incorporate Kentucky bourbon, rye whiskey and Tennessee whiskey (of which Jack Daniel's is the most well known) are being widely touted as the "next big thing". According to Mintel, the opinion polster, 35 per cent more people will be drinking them by 2005.

Although scotch whisky brands will no doubt look at their American counterparts with envy, the fact that whiskey has gained a foothold in cocktail culture suggests drinkers are returning to dark spirits from the vice-like grip of vodka and other white spirits.

The first UK bourbon bar, Rockwell, was recently opened inside the Trafalgar Hotel in central London, where trendy movers and shakers can choose from more than 100 American whiskey brands.

With all due respect to Mr Holland and Mr Keitel, when it comes to being down with the kids, American whiskey could teach scotch a thing or two. Maker's Mark, an uber trendy bourbon brand owned by Allied Domecq, cites the likes of Madonna, Lisa Kudrow, Julia Roberts, Zöe Ball and Sophie Anderton as drinkers, while Jack Daniel's has forever been associated with the hedonistic world of rock and roll.

"I think it's a great thing and it is a very encouraging sign that it's not the product that's the problem, it's the way it's promoted and the way in which you make whisky relevant to today's consumer," said John.

"I find it ironic that in London, the drinking capital of the world, people know more about vodka and other spirits than their own product," he added.

One advantage American whiskey has over scotch whisky is its mixability. While consumers would not think twice before dousing their Jim Beam or Jack Daniel's with Coca-Cola or using them as a sweet ingredient in cocktails, drinkers are rarely encouraged to experiment with scotch whisky as there is a perceived, and often intimidating, set of "rules" about how it should be drunk.

This hurdle has been successfully overcome by leading Irish whisky Jameson's through its "What's the Rush?" marketing campaign. Owner Pernod Ricard has managed to demystify the brand by emphasising its mixability, as opposed to the traditional twee "Oirish" clichés one would normally expect.

Many believe that the cyclical nature of drinking trends will see future generations rebel against their vodka-drinking parents and eventually fuel a scotch comeback. However, if the renewed interest in dark spirits continues and the major players persist with new marketing and innovation, a return to form may come sooner than you think.

Demystifying whisky

  • Blending:​ the mixing together of a straight whiskey (pure malt, bourbon or rye) and grain whiskey.
  • Bourbon:​ a whiskey produced anywhere in the United States from at least 51 per cent corn, aged in charred white oak barrels for at least two years.
  • Grain whisky:​ a whisky distilled from either wheat or maize and used to blend with a straight whisky.
  • Malt whisky:​ a whisky made e

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