Other companies didn’t learn though. In 2012, Carlton & United Breweries (CUB) dropped the alcohol percentage of Australia’s most consumed beer, Victoria Bitter, from 4.9 to 4.6 per cent (just a year after South African drinks giant, SAB Miller, had acquired CUB). Similar hysteria forced CUB to change it back. In the same year, Maker’s Mark also looked to reduce the ABV of their popular bourbon from 45 to 42 per cent because of stock shortages. Until loyal fans went berserk and the distillery abandoned the change (I doubt bourbon lovers in Australia would’ve cared – Maker’s Mark has long been sold at 40% ABV in Australia. After all, Australian’s consume more American whiskey per capita than any other nation on the planet, including the U.S!).
Clearly, such changes rile consumers. But a change in the ownership of a brand rarely has the same effect. There was mild consternation from some naive and patriotic Americans about Beam Inc. being taken over by Suntory last year – the Japanese family-owned behemoth behind the famed Yamazaki, Hakushu and Hibiki brands. But this was a big fish swallowing a slightly smaller big fish, and any annoyance quickly faded.
It can get a bit more heated though when family or privately held distilleries are acquired by big multinationals. When the Bruichladdich Distillery was purchased by Remy Cointreau in 2012 some believed the brand had sold out, that it would lose its cult-following, and that their unique and innovative approach to the creation of single malt whisky would be curtailed by the frugal realities of big business.
Thankfully, that hasn’t happened. The distillery has thrived since the takeover and continued to release experimental expressions instead of constantly obsessing over the bottom line.
The bottom line will, however, dictate terms when large corporations are, quite rightly, trying to get the most out of their brands. Diageo, the world’s largest spirit producer, is a classic case study in this regard. Diageo has so many whisky brands in its portfolio (29 Scottish whisky distilleries alone are owned by Diageo, many of which only live to supply its crown jewel, Johnnie Walker) that many aren’t even released on to the market. But as the popularity of single malt has grown, some of Diageo’s virtually unknown single malt brands have been given a facelift. Mortlach is one such example. A previous incarnation of Mortlach released by the company, the 16-year-old Flora & Fauna, was highly acclaimed by enthusiasts. However, it was thought that a complete re-brand was needed to bring Mortlach into the 21st century. The brand was “premiumised” for the luxury connoisseur market, but the much higher prices being asked and the quality of the new whisky fuelled an angry backlash by those who had long enjoyed and respected Mortlach’s offerings.
Brands change over time, and so does the liquid that represents them. Sometimes it’s a natural progression, other times it’s a more calculated business decision. When Suntory acquired Beam last year I was lucky to be visiting many of the distilleries that would be affected by the takeover soon after the announcement. At Laphroaig, Islay’s most consumed single malt, there wasn’t a lot of bother about what the takeover would mean for the brand. Bryony Boyd, tour guide at Laphroaig told me that if anything, they hoped that Laphroaig would benefit from a change, a sentiment that was echoed by distillery manager John Campbell in a brief chat, which is, of course, what you’d expect them to say.
But since the takeover Laphroaig has released some curious expressions, one of which is the Select Cask, designed to appeal to drinkers not accustomed to Laphroaig’s peaty, salty and iodine flavours. Unfortunately, many Laphroaig loyalists believe that this expression is one of the most underwhelming the distillery has released. Could this be attributed to the new direction Suntory is looking to take the brand? Or is it just natural progression? Stocks runs low, products change. Industries change.
Even our young Australian whisky industry is not immune to such changes. Diageo, the aforementioned king of the spirits world, recently tasked Distill Ventures, a subsidiary of Independents United and a Diageo partner, to look into the feasibility of investing in or acquiring an Australian whisky distillery. This is the first time this information has been openly reported, and it comes at a crucial point in the Australian whisky industry’s development. What would be the effect of having such a huge global player in the Australian whisky industry? Would it kick start growth and expansion, up production and provide better access, recognition and distribution into international markets? Or would it compromise the integrity and individuality of a unique, proud, award-winning industry?
It’s difficult to know whether to treat such developments with jubilee or trepidation. What’s unavoidable is that businesses both large and small are driving whisky into the future. From the unique products that The Whisky Club specialises in offering, to the mainstream brands that allow such products to exist, it’s now perhaps a more intriguing time than ever before to be drinking and enjoying one the world’s most complex spirits.