Small Creativity Goes a Long Way

This month I want to put out an opinion on the creativity of smaller companies in the whisky industry. In the last few months I’ve received samples and or information from a number of them including Isle of Arran (Devil’s Punchbowl series and Isle of Arran), Morrison Bowmore (Devil’s Casks – what’s trendy about devils at the moment?- from the talented nose and mind of Master Blender, Rachel Barrie), Edrington (Highland Park and others) and, as ever, Bruichladdich and the wonderfully inventive Jim McEwan. Not to mention Compass Box with its quirky blends and brand names. They always have a good story to tell.

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Bruichladdich has been criticised in the past for bringing out too many different expressions. The point being that there could be consumer confusion and not enough of some expressions to go round.  ‘Twas ever thus and you know what? It’s called marketing – a perfectly legitimate exercise to keep a brand name out there, in the right way. It’s also called good stock/financial management. Companies like Bruichladdich and Isle of Arran started with small stock bases and it’s thanks to creative use of their existing stocks to bring in funds that they are able to build reputations and go forward to produce more for the future. Kind of “showing all workings” in some cases as we get to taste the development of things like the Arran single malt up to its current age and Bruichladdich’s Port Charlotte and Octomore expressions to name but a few. I’m also encouraged by new things I see coming from little independent distillers in the US.

As for consumer confusion, let’s not underestimate the brain power of consumers and that includes ourselves. By and large we’re a pretty bright bunch, I reckon. Bringing out new ideas keeps brands top of mind for trade and consumers. New expressions in both single malts and let’s not forget our bread and butter blended whiskies and, more recently, grain whiskies, all help to maintain our interest in an environment where a fascination with Scotch Whisky continues to grow – even if sales figures for some companies have been down recently in some markets. But that’s swings and roundabouts – there’s always a market declining, maybe temporarily, as other economies improve and the aspirational aspect of Scotch Whisky becomes more affordable.

This isn’t to say that the larger companies aren’t creative too. They are and Diageo is a case in point, with their marketing teams and blenders looking at new opportunities all the time. However, it may be that size and more lengthy systems make the larger organisations rather slower to do things. Maybe some feel they have enough to do on core brands without continually searching for new ideas. In some cases they may have been stirred into more creative life by the example of these smaller stars.

There are also smaller companies which don’t seem to do much innovating. Some of them maybe suffer from changes in ownership or higher turnover of management but that’s not a fault in the spirits they produce or the people working in the blending rooms. Some may simply want to adopt a different tack to establish further the brands they have – each to their own.

There’s no good reason for anyone to reject new ideas in Scotch Whisky, often led by the smaller guys. I say we should applaud and support creativity, new expressions, new brands and not dismiss them. The important things are – what do they taste like? Are they good quality? Do they make us think? A vibrant and exciting drinks environment will keep us, worldwide, coming back for more.

© Caroline Dewar 2014


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