The tide is turning on single grain whisky folks.
At the end of 2013, William Grant & Sons announced its foray into this space with its Girvan Patent Still product.
And now Diageo is joining the arena, with news just in that it is to launch a single grain product as well. With David Beckham.
Yes, you heard right. David Beckham.
Both these companies join others – mostly in the independent bottling space – who have held court with this product offering for a while. But the fact that two of the major whisky producers – and owners of grain distilleries in Scotland – are now leaping fully into it will almost certainly signal a greater breadth of interest in the category.
I was given the heads up of this new move and had the chance, therefore, to get some more background information on it during a recent interview with Dr Nick Morgan, head of whisky outreach at Diageo.
The whisky called Haig Club has been produced in partnership with David Beckham and entrepreneur Simon Fuller. It will be positioned as a way to open up the whisky category to new drinkers. But Nick stressed it is not a move towards “Scotch whisky light, nor grain whisky light” but rather a way to show that grain whisky is a key part of bringing out characteristics and texture in blended whisky (which makes up 95% of global whisky sales for Diageo).
“There’s a misconception that grain whisky has no taste or flavour and that all single grain whiskies taste the same. There is a lot to be done on the education of the qualities of single grain,” he told me.
The whisky is to come out of the company’s Cameron Bridge distillery, which Diageo as a whole has spent £70m on in the past five years to allow the distillery to produce 120m litres on three traditional column stills.
While it is true that the capacity of the distillery is 10 times that of perhaps Scotland’s best-known single malt distillery – Glenfiddich – Nick added that “this scale should not make people underestimate the idea of quality or consistency in this whisky.” It’s a key point that whisky companies will need to try to relay to those people already converted to single malts but one I saw first hand during a visit to Girvan at the end of 2013 – these are mighty distilleries, but they are extremely technical and the care put into creating the product is first rate.
The product is to launch in a range of European markets – the UK, Germany as key ones – along with Global Travel Retail, the US, Brazil, China, Korea and possibly Latin America. While there are “no plans to” release a wider range, Nick admitted there is the opportunity to widen it by focusing on different cask influences.
There are, as yet, no details on pricing although at the briefing I attended, it was mentioned the whisky would be very accessible, leading me to believe this won’t be hitting the super-premium end.
According to Nick, the time was right to launch a single grain for two reasons: the first is that whisky, in general, is very fashionable at the moment while the second is because there are big opportunities to capture the market of people in their late 20s who may not yet be converted to whisky and who could use this as an in-road.
He continued: “The big opportunity is in that life change stage where people are beginning to settle down, maybe living with a partner and slightly growing up. That’s where this liquid is targeted. And we’ll be talking about what this tastes like mainly. The detail will be there for people who want the detail so it will say single grain, it will say the types of casks chosen and give more detail on how it’s made. But that’s not going to be a key selling point. This will be about flavour. About a degree of mixability and its versatility – these will be the key messages, which is quite different than traditional Scotch whisky messaging.”
While the focus will be on making whisky more accessible, Nick added there “is no intent to hide Scotch whiskies; this will still be a very authentic tasting Scotch. It won’t have as big of a flavour as Johnnie Walker Black Label or Talisker but that is because we are trying to get people into the category with a liquid that has an interesting complex taste that isn’t as hard to tackle.”
So, with that in mind – just what did it taste like? I had the chance to try this a couple of weeks back and here are my thoughts on it.
The Haig Club Single Grain Whisky: 40%:
Made from a mix of whiskies matured in refill, ex-bourbon and rejuvenated casks.
(n): Some liquorice, burnt oranges, zingy and grassy. A slightly herbal note too (possibly tarragon or sage), along with bilberries and butterscotch.
(p): A bit spicy, with some rich butterscotch notes, before cherries, white sugar and lemons, and finally something earthy and liquorice to finish.
I only had a brief taste of this but it had great texture, wasn’t overblowing on the palate and was certainly easy to drink neat but I can picture it working a treat in cocktails. In short: this could do just what the company is aiming for – get new drinkers into the category.
Bold move Diageo – the packaging is certainly unlike anything I’ve seen. It does – I’m afraid – make me think mostly of cologne. But I suppose if David Beckham wanted to spritz this onto himself, I wouldn’t complain.
This is a big one folks. Putting grain whisky on the world stage like this will only shine more light on the category. And Beckham is a pretty big way to do that, you can’t deny it.
I’ll be intrigued to see how this develops – will it be ‘whisky for the vodka market’? Or will it artfully dance between being a whisky for ‘whisky lovers’ and ‘newbies’?
Time will tell. But leave your thoughts in the comments section below.