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What’s going on with whisky, according to three Johnnie Walker execs

Last year, we zipped off to Madrid to check out Johnnie Walker’s first flagship store. While we were there we quizzed three of the brand’s top executives to get their take on the fortunes of Scotch whisky, from the accessibility of Scotch to that ‘B’ word…

“The world of whiskies is fascinating – not only because we work in it,” said Cristina Diezhandino, global category director of Scotch and Reserve Brands at Diageo, as she opened the first Johnnie Walker flagship store last November. “We see a whisky renaissance, truly, globally.”

When someone like Diezhandino gives her assessment on the state of Scotch, you sit up and listen. And it’s far from a throwaway sentiment: Scotch whisky exports soared by 8.9% in volume terms to reach £4.36 billion in 2017 (the latest figures currently available), and it’s a trend that looks set to continue. The number of distilleries in Scotland is at a record level (the Scotch Whisky Association reckons there are now 128 in the country, the most since 1945). It really does look like boom time for whisky!

But challenges persist, especially around accessibility. Too many people still think whisky isn’t for them. What’s being done to roll out the metaphoric red carpet and welcome in new drinkers? Why are people starting to explore the category? And should we collectively be worried about the impact of things like Brexit? I commandeered Diezhandino, as well as Duncan Elliott, Johnnie Walker global marketing and innovation director, and Greg Klingaman, global head of retail and strategic partnerships, to get their take on the current state of Scotch.

whisky Johnnie WalkerThe new Johnnie Walker flagship store

Whisky as a social centrepiece

One of the most striking things about the new Johnnie Walker flagship store model (it is worth checking out our news post on the development if you haven’t already) is the educational piece on both the versatility and easy mixability of Scotch. A bar area gives visitors the chance to actually get hands-on and make their own drinks, while guided tastings tease out the aromas and flavours that while inherent in whisky, aren’t always easy to identify. It’s a contrast to the high-end almost museum-like Johnnie Walker Houses we’ve seen in some airports in recent years. Unsurprisingly, it was a concerted move from the brand, in line with consumer trends.

“Whisky really should be at the heart of social occasions and therefore things like this store today, which opens it up again and make it more accessible, is really where we want to take the brand,” explained Elliott. In his words, the swanky Houses were more Blue Label; the flagship store set-up more Black Label – i.e., there really is a place for everyone at the table.

whisky Johnnie WalkerWhite Walker – a tie-in with HBO’s Game of Thrones series

It’s part of what feels like a wider repositioning, if you like, of both the Johnnie Walker brand and Scotch whisky, in general, to meet people where they are. Take the Game of Thrones tie-up (if you’re unaware, where have you been?!). “It’s to make people think twice I guess about whisky, rather than drinking premium beer or Gin & Tonic or Aperol Spritz. So it feels like a really great opportunity to put ourselves into the minds of people who might not normally think about us,” he continues.

What specifically about today’s whisky drinkers is driving the step-change, though? For Klingaman, who comes into whisky from a fashion background, it’s about meeting a desire to be immersed in a brand experience. “It’s not a provenance story really, because we want to talk very much about flavours, personalisation and gifting,” he reckons. And also, people just want to have a good time. “Actually, whisky and Johnnie Walker can be fun, and the category hasn’t always been that way. In some ways, coming from the outside, it was perceived as a bit serious. We wanted to make sure we were doing something that showed people that whisky doesn’t have to be serious.”

whisky Johnnie WalkerThe Highball, an accessible whisky serve

Flavour, socialising and experience

Klingaman has his eye on three trends in particular shaping whisky right now. “One is this real interest in flavour and taste,” he says. “You see it most in the beer category, the absolute explosion of craft beer, and I think you’re starting to see that now in other categories.” Then it’s about getting social: drinking with friends, and mixing serves for them at home. “That’s why we’re looking at things like highball serves, more accessible serves, trying to introduce people to whisky in a way that isn’t just a neat serve or a neat serve on the rocks.” Finally, it’s the ‘e’ word again: experience. “There’s a real appetite for people to experience things now and not just buy them off the shelf.”

For Diezhandino, there’s also increased interest levels in how a product is created, and who is doing the making. It’s partly provenance, but there are also ethical questions there in our increasingly hyper-aware world. “It’s a very big brand, globally,” she says. “And you think: ‘who makes Johnnie Walker?’. You’ve got 12 people up in Scotland who are the master blenders, of which 50% are women, which is something that many people don’t realise. I get lots of questions about diversity or lack of diversity in our world, and the truth is it is more diverse already.” Seeing the authenticity of how Scotch is brought to life is boosting the category. “When we think about the trends that we’re seeing in consumers and what they’re interested in, and what they want from companies or products, Scotch is so well-placed to deliver all of those aspects.”

whisky Johnnie WalkerCristina Diezhandino

So far, so good. But can Scotch’s good fortune and all-round renaissance continue with the spectre of a disorderly Brexit looming? “I don’t think it will have a big effect, frankly,” Diezhandino is adamant. “Personally, I think Scotch is a global category and in truth, the world is its oyster. The consumption of Scotch really happens around the world, so I don’t think it will have a massive impact really.” It may be the official line, but she seems unperturbed.

Diezhandino does think there is work to be done to keep Scotch thriving, though. “What we’re trying to do is keep our conversation and our language fresh and inviting so that it’s not intimidating. Because I think perhaps what Scotch has done is present itself in a way that is a little bit more intimidating and I think that’s exactly what we shouldn’t do.”

Up the accessibility, scale back the stuffiness. Achieve that, and Scotch can surely continue its renaissance. That’s the message from Madrid. What do you think? Can Scotch whisky continue to thrive? What does the category need to do? Let us know on social or in the comments below.

Categories : Features

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