Who owns what you drink? Does it even matter?

Luke McCarthy, drinks columnist for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald and stalwart of Melbourne bar Whisky & Alement, delves into the murky world of who owns what we drink.

Who owns what you drink? Does it even matter?

November 03, 2016
 / 8 mins

Luke McCarthy, drinks columnist for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald and stalwart of Melbourne bar Whisky & Alement, delves into the murky world of who owns what we drink.

You’ve just walked into a bar. You look around, size it up, and then make your way to the service area. When you get there you see a wall. It’s different to most walls you’ve come across, because most walls you’ve come across don’t have 600 whiskies on them. What next? Do you ask for a drinks list, or try to point out your favourite brand? Ask for a recommendation, or maybe you just settle for a beer?

Whatever your decision, you’ve been confronted with a delicious problem. Choice. Choice is something that we all demand, but rarely get. Choice changes things. It makes us ask questions, try new experiences, reassess our loyalty to the brands that we love.

I’ve spent thousands of hours with my back to this wall of whisky, watching people ponder the problem of choice. To help them get through it, I normally ask a simple question – what flavours are you looking for? This is the real beauty of interacting with such a wall. Suddenly branding is removed from the equation and a more important question is arrived at – what does the whisky inside all of those bottles actually taste like?

When recommending a dram, more often than not I’ll reach for less well-known brands. In my experience, these brands offer more palpable flavours, which is helpful for anyone trying to get their head around the various types of whisky available. Bigger whisky brands, by virtue of their wider appeal, tend to produce a more consistent and standardised product which the majority of the population might enjoy. Many of these whiskies are wonderfully fruity, floral, sweet and smooth (the whisky world’s most unhelpful word). The top ten most consumed malt whiskies in the world all fit this mould, with Laphroaig being the only exception, but will get to that later.

Some of the distilleries and brands that command a much smaller share of the market produce quite different whiskies. Often their portfolios will comprise of unique, even contradictory styles; the assortment of single malts from the Springbank, BenRiach and Benromach distilleries illustrate this perfectly. These whiskies might be full-bodied, peaty – a polarising flavour – high in alcohol, salty, savoury, dry, winey – flavours that some people might be put off by. Then the next year, the whiskies released by these distilleries might be completely different. Either way, you don’t know what to expect year to year, which is half the fun.

Some of us don’t mind our boundaries being pushed like this, while others prefer to stick to the brands and flavours they know and love. Regardless of which camp you fall in, we’re all after the good stuff. And the question I often get asked is: do the big, visible brands actually make the good stuff? On such a question, everyone will disagree – what’s good is subjective. But put another way, does the flavour and character of a whisky change depending on what kind of company owns it?

When changes are made to the flavour of a popular drink, expect hostility. When Coca-Cola changed the formula and flavour of the drink that symbolises the United States of America more than any other, Americans went crazy. There was a national outcry and the original formula was quickly reinstated.

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.

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