Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Lightly Peated

Whisky, Blabber 'n' Smoke


Choice, Marketing, Glen Ord, and Bees

I am in the supermarket and my needs are simple – a bottle of shampoo. Nothing too fancy, just something to get my hair clean. But I am in an aisle surrounded by bottles of different shapes, sizes colours and texture. I am transfixed. What should I choose? Every bottle has a slightly different message, aimed at a slightly different audience. And then there are the questions – does it make any difference that some are cream like whilst others are clear but brightly coloured? I don’t know. I am overwhelmed with choice that has no consequence (essentially there is no big difference in the detergent) As nothing is specifically targeting me (the grumpy old git with less hair than he would like) the marketers are basically saying: “you’re on your own chum, we’re not much interested in your sector of the market – choose anything.” So in the end I do. I randomly pick what’s on offer and scurry away, slightly ashamed that I have spent more time and mental effort than I should, on something that doesn’t matter. Damn! But every time I get sucked in, fascinated by small differences and the puzzle of decision making.

If I went to a specialist whisky shop with no other idea than just wanting a new bottle I would be similarly paralysed. Bottle after bottle, racked up to the ceiling. Different shapes, lettering, colour, images. New releases, old favourites? It is difficult! Although there are significant differences in the taste and mouthfeel of different whiskies most of them are equally successful in their own way. How do you value one above another when they are equal but different? It is an interesting question, especially as whisky is not an essential purchase. Instead it is an interest, an aesthetic interesting and what I am looking for is something to engage my imagination.

Where does that leave us with ideas of choice and how it is influenced by marketing? The first thing to say is that although we like to think we are autonomous actors who decide things purely in accordance with our own criteria – this is not the case. Influencers do influence and we can all be manipulated, especially when decisions are mainly emotional. However there is  fun to be had in trying  to look outside of ourselves to see how it works and trying to be conscious of  thought processes. So as a case study let’s look at the way I thought about whether or not I was going to buy a bottle of The Singleton of Glen Ord.

The thought was sparked by an email from The Whisky Exchange, announcing it as their malt of the month, saying that up till now there had been very few bottlings of Glen Ord available in the UK and I am intrigued because I have never tasted a Glen Ord before and I am always attracted to that which I do not know.  But there again I have always been puzzled by the ’Singleton’ concept. I don’t understand  the need for an overarching single malt brand comprising three distilleries, with the output of each aimed at a different markets: Dufftown – Europe, Glendullan – America, Glen Ord – Asia. I’m sure there is a very clever reason but I don’t know what it is.  As with most things I don’t understand I put it out of my mind and ignored it, so when buying a whisky I never think of Singleton. It’s just there, somewhere in a black hole.

Should I put aside my prejudice and try the Glen Ord? Chances are it’s a decent whisky and there is also a good, non-whisky, reason for trying it. From the age of 8-13 I lived in a village in Cheshire and went to its small junior school. It was one of those schools so small a couple of year groups would be put together in one room. The headmaster was Tom Ord and he is one of those great characters who were embedded into the life of a village. he was headmaster for 20 years and  had a great effect on the way generations of children developed. He is also the teacher who had the greatest effect on my life and the one I  remember most clearly when I look back at my schooldays. So for me the name Ord has a special meaning and I like the idea of lifting a glass and thinking of him.

Is this an overwhelming reason that means I must decide to buy a bottle? Maybe – but there are still things about the branding of Singleton that are irritating. Firstly the typography produit pour remplacer le viagra. The font is basically good, it looks like some variant of Baskerville and I like Baskerville, but why the small underlined “o”? Is it a refugee from the abbreviation of ‘company’ or ‘number’? It just looks like an affectation. However it is not and accident; it has been thought through and the ‘o’ is obviously meant to signify something. I just don’t know what it is and I worry about these things. Then there is the logo of a leaping salmon, there to remind us that the Spey is a renowned salmon fishing river. Fine, Dufftown and Glendullan, although not on the banks of the river, are Speyside distilleries but Glen Ord is not; it is north of Inverness. Singleton is a brand to bring three distilleries together, except with the logo it saying of you and you but not you! This amuses me and reminds me of kids selecting teams for a pick-up game of football. However I  have sympathy for the designers who had to come up with something to unite three distilleries that don’t have much in common except for being powerhouses for blends. I must admit though that when I look at the bottle  all I see is a marketing construct, especially when I read the prominently displayed  strap line “Perfectly balanced, naturally rich and smooth”. If ever there was empty marketing speak to describe a whisky it is these 6 words – meaningless.

So here’s the thing: whisky is an industry dominated by large multinational companies. All their decisions are taken by men, or women, in suits around tables, in city meeting rooms far away from the heather and the hillsides. It is a 21st Century business. They segment their markets and decide which demographic to target and look at the things that appeal to them. Their strategies are carefully thought out and they all go through the same processes. When it works everything looks natural but when it doesn’t things seem a little contrived and we can imagine the meetings , discussions and decision making processes. For me this is the case with the Singletons. I look at the label and I see the meetings, I see the construct. I don’t see the whisky.

Therefore I will not buy the Glen Ord. I want to feel connected but I just don’t. It doesn’t engage my imagination. Instead I will have to find some other, whisky related, way of remembering Tom Ord. Luckily there is a way. He was a beekeeper and kept some of his hives at the end of the playground (try getting that past the governors today! Imagine the ruckus when someone got stung!) and honey is one of the tasting notes you will sometimes find, Wemyss even have a blended malt called ‘The Hive’. Perhaps I should buy that and think of jars of Cheshire honey, with their generic label,  and my childhood.

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