In association with Diageo

From cigars and tartan chairs to 'third space', food pairing and cocktails – how has the 'whisky occasion' evolved?

By MA Editorial

- Last updated on GMT

Whisky business: whisky is being made more accessible, according to Diageo’s Sophie Partridge
Whisky business: whisky is being made more accessible, according to Diageo’s Sophie Partridge

Related tags: Whisky

Ahead of The Publican Awards 2020 at London’s Battersea Evolution on 4 March, drinks giant Diageo has announced that it will be treating guests to on-draft Passion Fruit and Espresso Martinis alongside a selection of off-piste Johnnie Walker serves.

Diageo’s Johnnie Walker Ginger, Johnnie Walker Peach, Johnnie Walker Elderflower, Johnnie Walker Lemon concoctions are symptomatic of a changing whisky occasion, according to its head of on-trade category development Sophie Partridge, who explains that the historic category is making a foray into cocktail, food-led and “third space” moments.

“We know from an occasion point of view that whiskies are showing up in more ‘third space’ occasions – anything outside of a traditional pub or bar, it could be a festival, food and drink events, music events, that kind of thing – in different formats,” she told The Morning Advertiser ​(MA​).

“Equally, if we look at the on-trade, the number of food-led outlets has risen and we can see that whisky really plays into that post-dinner occasion. Another area where we're seeing growth in terms of whisky pairing with food.

“Additionally, we know cocktails are growing and we’re seeing some fantastic whisky cocktail serves playing a big part within that. We think they're the main occasions where we can really drive recruitment to the category.”

Green shoots of recovery

Launching draught cocktails

Diageo (2)

In addition to its quartet of Johnnie Walker serves, Diageo will be showcasing its Espresso Martini and Passion Fruit Martini serves at the 2020 Publican Awards.

“The Passion Fruit Martini is the number one cocktail in the on-trade so it made sense for us to launch that as one of the cocktails,” Partridge explained. “We know the Martini serve is very on trend and we know the kind of serves that consumers are over indexing for across GB, not just in regional pockets.

“If we look at the cocktail category – cocktails are worth £604m in the on-trade,” she adds. “It's absolutely huge and if we look at the growth, it's grown by nearly 10% versus last year.

“If we look at spirits, we know spirits is doing a fantastic job in driving overall alcohol growth, however, cocktails have actually grown ahead of spirits. We know if we look at where that growth is coming from, it's not just from the premium end of the market or premium bars – it's across the market.

“However, if we look at consumer feedback sometimes it is that the quality might not be consistent in terms of the perfect serve every time and also in terms of speed of service – we know, in GB, nearly 50% of consumers' biggest frustration is when they don't get served at the bar and they have to queue.

“We thought there's a gap in terms of where cocktails are driving fantastic growth across all different outlet types – not just the premium end, it's mainstream now – however, there are still issues in terms of quality, speed and service and equally in some outlets where the capabilities to be making cocktails by hand aren't there – but these outlets will still want to tap into the trend. That's why we launched draught cocktails.

“What we've got currently is two cocktails available – the Passion Fruit Martini and the Espresso Martini. They're using Smirnoff Vodka, take less than 10 seconds to serve and you get the foamy head.”

According to MA​’s latest drinks list only three brands listed in this year’s top 10 selling whiskies saw increases to both on-trade volume and value in 2019​ as the category has historically struggled to appeal to younger drinkers.

“Whisky as a category has been struggling for some years now in terms of driving recruitment,” Partridge explains.

“If we look at whisky's current performance, we know it's still declining in the on-trade, based on the decline of big players within blended versus other spirit categories, which are successfully driving recruitment such as gin and flavoured gin.”

However, Partridge adds that there are some green shoots of growth within the category.

“Particularly, we see categories such as Irish performing quite well,” she explains. “So within whisky, performance is really based upon the variety of flavours across all the different sub categories in whisky has a real place within that flavour exploration.

“If we look at wider trends – so if we think about what consumers are looking for when they're going into trade – drinkers are looking for experience around different flavours. We see that across what's happening with gin but also we see that across beer where people aren't just drinking beer for refreshment, now it's beer for taste.

“What we're seeing from a trend perspective is a lot of the trade trying to make whisky more accessible – whether it's through menus, serves, through whisky cocktails. We're seeing the on-trade start to look at whisky as a category that has the craft and provenance story which consumers are looking for.

“It has so many varieties of flavours which can tap into the consumer exploration space,” she adds. “We're actually seeing the trade are now looking at how we can make that more accessible and that's something we're really prioritising with Johnnie Walker and the four flavour serves we'll have available at The Publican Awards.”

From tarpon chairs and cigars to ‘third space’

Exploring whisky flavour

Cocktails (2)

Diageo will be showcasing Johnnie Walker Ginger, Johnnie Walker Peach, Johnnie Walker Elderflower, Johnnie Walker Lemon at the 2020 Publican Awards – a range of experimental flavours Partridge believes are symptomatic of the change sweeping through the category.

“If we're driving recruitment and making whisky accessible we need to look at pairing with flavours that are both on-trend and accessible to consumers,” she explained. “If we look at the flavours that are on-trend over the past few years, these four are definitely that.

“Equally some of these are quite light flavours that pair fantastically with the whisky and I think might surprise people.

“Consumers would traditionally look at pairing elderflower with gin, so why don't you look at trying it with whisky? You'll probably be surprised that it's a really nice high ball serve. It might work to change perceptions and bring whisky back from the dark where it has been traditionally in a lot of drinkers minds.”

The clamour for new flavours, serves and the provenance behind whisky is fuelling widespread change in its perception across the on-trade, according to Partridge.

“I think operators, brand owners and consumers alike are – as we say – taking whisky from the dark and bringing into the light,” she says. “Whereas previously perceptions, and old advertising, would revolve around a gentleman sat in a tartan chair, with a cigar, having neat whisky, I think if you look across the trade perceptions are changing.

“That's not saying if you like to drink and enjoy whisky neat that's not the right thing to do – that, ultimately, is up to the consumer – but why can't you enjoy that with the mixer of your choice as well?

“Why do we look at whisky differently to other categories such as gin and vodka when there's some amazing liquids out there that are very mixable and can be mixed to make a fantastic drink? We're seeing that shift across the market in terms of how people are perceiving it.”

Fun and flavour

Partridge adds that she thinks the trade will continue to see new serves enter the market across different subcategories within whisky as well as the infiltration of new ‘fun’ occasions to foster the recruitment of younger drinkers.

“Given that cocktails are actually growing ahead of spirits, we'll potentially see a rise in whisky cocktails – and not just high ball serves, but through the other things we're doing in that cocktail space,” she says.

“Also the on-trade will continue to see how we're making it fun as well – how it's being activated in different occasions, how we're bringing it to life in less traditional occasions such as 'third space', and how we're really tapping into that food occasion – I think we'll see that continue to rise as well given the growth in the spirits with food occasion.”

What’s more, Partridge explains future flavour innovation in whisky could come from the loosening of rules around which casks drinks makers can use in the production process.

“We're noticing that their regulations have been lifted and you can now look at using the likes of Tequila casks for whisky and lots of flavour iterations across beer as well – so not only spirit,” she says.

“We'll see innovations within that space where casks from different spirits or beer continue to be used to drive excitement around the category and drive exploration with younger consumers."

Related topics: Spirits & Cocktails

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