...owned by the same company. I was settling down with my muse (currently Ardbeg Day's Committee Release) this evening and had an epiphany of sorts.
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.
These distilleries are known for being unquestionable leaders in their fields. Glenmorangie are the pioneering experts of ACE'ing (Additional Cask Enhancements) since 1995, treating the world to "finished whiskies" like the Lasanta, Quinta Ruban, and Nectar D'or that are all the rage nowadays. Many distilleries have since followed Glenmorangie's lead, whether it's simply to chase the money (Glenmorangie's offerings fetch a premium price and reputation) or to expand their flavor portfolio. Some distilleries like Bruichladdich - revived by Mark Reynier and Jim McEwan - have even leapt out in front, blazing a trail of experimentation that has proven extremely rewarding. Nowadays it's no surprise to hear of whiskies around the world spending time in an exotic range of casks for flavor enhancement: sherry, port, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Pedro Ximinez, Manzanilla, Sauternes, bourbon, rum, virgin (helloooooo Ealanta)... maple syrup. I shit you not. Goes well with breakfast on top of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, I suppose.
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
These Ardbeggians love their Ardbeg, and the distillery is more than happy to include them (committee membership is free) and indulge them. What struck me tonight, as I skimmed through the latest news on these two distilleries, was how diametrically opposed their current marketing strategies are - a difference made stark when you understand that these distilleries are owned and operated by the same parent company (despite their independent leadership).
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.
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.
Then we have Glenmorangie, the quintessential "whisky establishment" types who've been around a while.
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.
Glenmorangie's been at this business for a while. The long game has long been on their side, and they're doing everything they believe is necessary to stay on top. But acting like sherry, port, and Sauternes finishes are a bold, new thing at every tasting is clearly a bit passe. The release of the private editions (like Metro UI) are a great step in the right direction here. Astar and Ealanta? There are no better expressions of wood finish on the market.
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 ;-)
So you see, I'm not really hating on either distillery here. In fact, just the freakin' opposite! I own dozens of their whiskies and enjoy them all. Still, I think the comparisons are apt, and the topic is perfect for drams and cigars. DISCUSS!