A shopper's guide to the modern whisky landscape
In-store and in person, on-line and on-demand, we can buy whisky around the clock from around the world, writes Ian Wisniewski for WhiskyInvestDirect.
But not all whiskies are created the same. And brand-owners try to ensure that each release reaches the appropriate retail venues to facilitate sales to the target audience.
This strategy, known as ‘route to market’, is something of a rallying cry within the industry. Yet it has become more and more complicated to execute in recent years, as the number of people buying whisky – and their motives for doing so – has grown significantly.
“Different consumer groups have their own criteria for what constitutes value for money,” says Keir Sword, Managing Director of Royal Mile Whiskies, a specialist retailer with branches in Edinburgh and London. “For more experienced whisky lovers it tends to be flavour profile. For less experienced consumers the age statement, such as 18 or 21 year old, is often more significant.”
John Glaser, the founder of premium blended Scotch producer Compass Box, agrees. “Some people are buying for immediate consumption, some for re-sale… consumers now have a much greater breadth of experience.”
As consumer preferences diverge, so have the stores stocking these products.
In the past 15-20 years there has been a huge growth in the population of specialist whisky retailers, dealers and auction houses, dealing in the ‘primary’ retail market (ie. current releases) – a phenomenon also seen in the ‘secondary’ market, when past and present releases re-appear for sale.
To meet this demand for extensive ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ opportunities, on-line specialists such as Master of Malt and The Whisky Exchange seek to span the full world of whisky in their offerings.
On-line shopping offers great convenience, but shopping in person provides other advantages: talking whisky with knowledgeable staff, and being able to actually hold and study bottles selected from well-appointed shelves.
And however many dedicated whisky shops you check out, such as Royal Mile Whiskies (London, Edinburgh), and The Whisky Shop (branches across Scotland and England), the line-up will always vary from retailer to retailer, while the overlap means you can compare prices for the same bottling. Some London institutions such as Milroy’s, Berry Bros & Rudd and Cadenhead also offer a range of whiskies bottled under their own name.
Other specialist stockists are a little more context-specific. Airport travel retail was traditionally a way of buying favourite whiskies at a lower price than on the domestic market, but a growing number of producers now release bottlings which are only available in travel retail.
Whisky tourism has led to other opportunities. There are more whisky festivals than ever, and some offer exclusive bottlings. At the Islay malt whisky festival, for example, each distillery hosts an open day, with a limited-edition release marking each year’s festival, which is only available in person, there and then. Distillery shops often do the same, such as the hand-filled Glenfiddich 15 year old Solera, or the bottle of Warehouse 24 only purchasable by those who have taken the tour at Balvenie.
With so much to choose from, it can be hard to select the right bottle. One tried and trusted way to encourage experimentation is by discounting, either by reducing the price or by value-added promotions (when prices are enhanced by an accompanying gift item).
Kristiane Sherry, the Editor for Master of Malt’s online website, knows the impact that discounts can have. “Discounts really drive experimentation, as people are willing to take more of a risk buying a whisky they don’t know. And if a consumer is trying to decide between a couple of whiskies then an added-value promotion usually helps them decide, so it works very well in a ‘tie breaker’ situation.”
As the number of choices has risen, the popularity of miniature bottles has increased – a phenomenon seen by both retailers and auction houses.
As Kristiane Sherry of Master of Malt notes, “We offer 3 cl drams from various distilleries, and people who try this tend to come back and explore what else is available from the same distillery. But the option to pick and mix distilleries is also a compelling offer. I think we’ll see more fractionals of single malts on the market in general.”
Isabel Graham-Yooll, Auction Director of www.whisky.auction, agrees. “In the past couple of years whisky prices have gone up so impressively that many full-sized bottles are out of reach, and miniatures have become a focus, particularly as the price can be up to one tenth of the equivalent full-sized bottle.”
Overall, whisky lovers have more choice than ever before.
“The market is very buoyant, for brand new products as well as old and rare whiskies,” says Sukhinder Singh, founder of the multi-award-winning retailer, The Whisky Exchange.
Keir Sword of Royal Mile Whiskies agrees. “There are far more whisky lovers and many more whiskies to choose from compared to 25 years ago when I entered the industry… Hopefully growth will continue, and there won’t be the downturns we’ve had historically,”
That’s definitely what we all hope for, and the signs look good.
Ian Wisniewski is a freelance writer and leading authority on spirits, with a focus on Scotch whisky. Over the course of his two decades covering the industry he has published seven books, including the Classic Whisky Handbook, and has contributed to publications such as Whisky Magazine, The Times, The Malt Whisky Yearbook and Scotchwhisky.com.
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