As the thirst for flavours across everything from rum to wine ramps-up, even the most traditional of categories are taking notice. As Ballantine’s launches a number of fruity variants across Europe, we ask if we’re beginning to see the pitter patter of tiny footsteps towards a flavoured Scotch movement?
Scotch’s storied heritage has proved both a help and a hindrance. While its global reputation has helped it achieve global reverence from whisky fans, its traditional image, high price point, and perceptions of inaccessibility when it comes to taste, have left it struggling to attract a younger audience.
Over the years, Diageo (the world’s leading player in Scotch, and whisky generally) has launched a number of campaigns — alongside brands and limited editions — to woo younger drinkers to the category. Remember its ‘Love Scotch’ push? Concerted efforts to market Johnnie Walker as both contemporary and unisex followed; Jane Walker, we’re looking at you. David Beckham with Haig Club, brought in to offer a lighter flavour profile, and make grain sexy again. And various brands have shed traditional — dare we say fairly old-fashioned, and definitely masculine packaging — in favour of something more modern; think independent brand Nc’Nean and Remy Cointreau’s Bruichladdich.
However, as over the past few years the most appealing — or should we say easiest — way to pull in drinkers looking for accessibility across everything from rum to wine, has been flavours, it was only a matter of time before the Scotch joined in. Just remember, you can’t call it Scotch.
Beckham and Diageo launched Haig Club Mediterranean Orange in early 2021. This high ABV ‘spirit drink’, offered at 35%, was overt in its ambition to reach, nay ‘recruit’ “a wider audience”. Tapping into the aperitivo moment, its use of a familiar flavour and a familiar serve among what the brand called “a new generation of drinkers” was hoped to widen the appeal of Scotch, pulling consumers in to explore further. In fact Diageo went a step further and identified non-whisky drinkers as a specific target. The sunny flavour, and indeed its summertime serve, are also key in converting perceptions of whisky from being a drink for winter, into one that is appropriate for the summer too.
New mixers, new moments
More recently Pernod Ricard has been rapidly developing flavoured options for its blended Scotch brand Ballantine’s. Following the previous launches of Ballantine’s Brasil (made with fresh Brazilian limes, served with lemonade and originally launched in 2014) and Ballantine’s Passion (honeydew melon, kiwi and grapefruit, launched 2019, and mixed with Fanta for “carefree nights”), it has just launched Ballantine’s Wild, flavoured with sweet cherry, with the hero serve being simply with tonic.
It’s notable that all of the products have been launched into European markets, with a traditionally sweet tooth. The launch of Wild into Poland — where Ballantine’s is the best-selling whisky brand — is hoped to target a wider range of consumers, for a wider number of occasions, and again, help pull non-whisky drinkers into the category.
But if they’re successful, what then? Could a drinker of a fruity, sweet spirit drink ever be converted to become a drinker of a single malt? It’s quite a leap to think that someone intrigued enough by a brand name, and reassured by their like of a highly sweetened spin-off it, would not only pay a premium to try a more challenging version of it, let alone stick with it and explore it further. It could happen, but it’s unlikely it would be in quantities large enough to impact the category significantly, or even happen anytime soon.
Accessibility is king
So is the aim then simply to pull consumers out of other flavoured spirits, and into these well-known brands? For global giants with an extensive portfolio across most spirits categories, there’s existing products in more flavour friendly categories, already available.
Or is the ultimate goal creating a more general perception shift, aimed to lift the narrative of Scotch out of the weighty and extensive story telling the category it has long invested in, and into something more immediate; a greater focus on the experience of actually drinking it? Removing barriers is key to draw in consumers nervous to try it. But brands need to be careful not to ignore what makes Scotch distinctive in the first place.
The answer is likely a little of all of the above. However, in the past, the perceived danger for any category exploring a proliferation of flavours has always been that they may lower quality perceptions.
Is this a danger for Scotch, a category that has worked so hard to protect and promote its craftmanship and quality? Well, while consumer knowledge of alcohol from botanicals and hops, to grape varietals has significantly risen over recent years, a wider awareness of the intricacies of Scotch has not. It’s arguably these perceptions of craft and quality that are keeping new consumers out, and yet, communicating them in some way is important. Flavours risk bypassing this all together.
Reframing the conversation
But these convention defying spirit drinks do seem to offer a lifeline to brands trying to reframe the conversation surrounding Scotch for drinkers unengaged with it, or only engaged some of the time. For existing Scotch drinkers, they provide a more mixable, summer-friendly way to remain in the category for occasions premium Scotch has hitherto been unable to reach. Yet for Ballantine’s, it’s notable in which markets it’s trying to seed itself.
Ballantine’s Brasil launched in 2014, first in the Czech Republic, followed by Spain, Poland, France and Germany. Looking to Irish whiskey, Tullamore Dew is seeding its new Honey variant into the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Germany and Slovakia first. Only Haig Club — and for Irish whiskey, Jameson Orange — are approaching the knowledgeable UK market first.
Other brands may well be timid treading in this new direction in a market where there is a reputation to uphold, and a reputation to lose too.
Our expectations are that more brands will cautiously join the fray, attempting to offer an ever more approachable entry point. But an entry point to what exactly, remains to be seen.