I don't work on Madison Avenue, but I'm often fascinated by the many marketing angles at work in the world of whisky, especially Scotch. I'm also a political scientist, so I enjoy studying policy and how people organize. Put these two "passions" (hey, I do have a life) together and it means that I find myself reading up on the whisky business scene with regularity. And speaking of religion, what's interesting to me is the zeal - and often times, ignorance - that accompany's people's beliefs about those 750ml brown, aged spirits that they covet and hoard.
I'm here to present a theorem of sorts, a tale of two distilleries and their current marketing approaches - Ardbeg and Glenmorangie.
All in all, Glenmorangie is known for producing stalwart, premier whiskies and leading the charge on elite cask management and maturation. It's signature malt is also supremely light, heathery, and filled with "orangey" (heh) and menthol topnotes, which give the distillery a larger, more neutral palette to "paint" with as it selects casks for ACEing.
Owned by Glenmorangie Company Ltd. (which is actually a subsidiary of the French Company Louis Vuitton Moet Hennesy) is Ardbeg, one of eight distilleries on Islay that are currently still producing. Ardbeg's claim is to be the "peatiest" whisky on Islay (which pretty much makes it the peatiest whisky in the world), and although you'll find no argument from me on the nature of the nose, its actual phenol levels (~55 ppm) are eclipsed by those of Bruichladdich's Octomore series (140-169 ppm). Ardbeg's strength lies in its cult following, members of a "committee" of over 50,000 members (how's that for an island of 3,457 residents?) whose zeal and evangelism rival anything you'll see at a Southern Baptist Convention (ironic? yes).
"Unquestionably the greatest distillery to be found on Earth. If perfection on the palate exists, this is it." Jim Murray, Whisky Bible
“Absolutely the best committee I’ve ever sat on and the only one that meets at midnight beside a Celtic Cross.” Dr. David Wishart, Scotland.
"Ardbeg has your back like an offensive lineman buddy." Frimmy, Noob?
My thesis in a nutshell: Glenmorangie is Microsoft, and Ardbeg is Apple.
WHOA THERE, Cereal dude. You tryin' to start a flame war?
Hey, even I relish the idea of the page-views. But hear me out here. This goes beyond surface fanboyism and settles down inside some well-established pop culture memes. Besides, it's an illustration through metaphor, not a direct comparison to every facet of their business models.
Let's start with Ardbeg.
- A company that is extremely tight-lipped about upcoming releases? Check.
- A company that releases only the minimal amount of tasting notes, because "It just works". Check.
- A company that draws huge crowds to keynote events, like pilgrims to Mecca? Check.
- A company that doesn't give a shit what your input on its whisky is, because it's the best. Check.
- A company that knows what you want before you want it. And you will want it. Checkmate.
You have Apple, Inc. in distilled (pun intended) form. Hell, this company even went so far as to check off an entire calendar day as it's day. Just claimed June 1st as its own, every year, for time immemorial. That's chutzpah. That's confidence. That's Ardbeg. Have you seen the hype for the Ardbog release on Ardbeg Day this year? I don't even have to taste it - I can tell you right now it will be worth a fortune in no time and be impossible to find a year from now. That's the Ardbeg reality distortion field in full effect.
- A go-to company with a reputation for quality and dependability? Check.
- A pioneer of all those finishing techniques that were so new back in the good old days? Check.
- A tendency to be forthcoming when elaborating on whiskey construction? Check.
- A tendency to be somewhat tone deaf in the face of criticism of an established product? Check.
- A willingness to be completely open-source about upcoming products? Check.
I have a feeling you're going to demand some evidence to back up my assumptions on that one. After all, for some reason, say a company is "like Microsoft" nowadays and Apple fanboys tend to let it go to their head: "Oh YEAH, take that Glenm... Glen... whatever it's called. Apple, WHOO!" Microsofties get Stockholm syndrome: "Why you hatin' on Glenmorangie, man? FASCIST!" You're all insane.
Look, in general, I love what Glenmorangie produces, as evidenced by the fact that I own all of their expressions except the Signet. Fanboys, you need to get with me on this. However, you Microsofties, you need to face up to the fact that Apple is kicking your ass in the mobile sphere, despite the beauty of Metro UI and the well-known drawbacks of iOS. It just is, and I just said that neither system (or dram) is perfect. This could be a generational gap - show me several images from the life of each distillery and tell me which one the Millenials will go with and which one takes the boomers. Go ahead. YEAH, I am right on this. That doesn't mean that I've just argued one is better than the other, unless you really dig ageism, which is okay I guess.
I am not a whiskey apologist, nor a tech apologist. Now that we've cleared the water a bit, a defense of my actual thesis is in order. In short, I've just claimed that one company has the "coolness" and hype on its side (but for how much longer?) and the other is playing the long, open establishment game.
I've read several interviews where Glenmorangie totally spilled the beans on the contents of their major releases. "Oh, have you noticed the original has been tasting better in recent years? That's because it's about 30% Astar blend now." Whoa, sweet. "Ealanta is aged in slow-growth, American white oak from the northern slopes of the Mark Twain National Forest in Missouri, cut and air dried for 2 years before being coopered into a virgin cask and mellowing the spirit for 19 years." Bangin'. "Any other questions?" Huh?
They can also be somewhat tone-deaf in their master classes. "Pick up the Artein. What do you smell?" There's a kind of meaty sweetness, perhaps a bit of almond butter and grape skins. "Well, what I smell is the orange, the heather, that signature Glenmorangie menthol topnote." That's nice, I'm tasting some leathery mocha notes here, along with chocolate cherries - quite dark for the Glenmorangie palate, no? "Chocolate covered cherries yes, but really look for that mint." UGH. Don't you think the Lasanta still has a problem with sulfur notes in the casks? "Some people have more sulfur sensitivity than others." (A true statement, but you see what I'm getting at here). Lasanta was never my favorite of their ACE whiskies.
What I really must commend Glenmorangie on is their latest crowd-sourcing initiative, the "Cask Masters Project" that aims to let the (mostly) common man have an input as to what will go into their next private edition release. I tried all 3 version finishes at Whisky Live NYC, and personally, I loved the chance to speak my mind about the comparative strengths and weaknesses of each expression. Any of them will be great whiskies, but if you get a chance, vote Bordeaux finish ;-)