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Whisky’s demographic crisis

india Updated: Nov 27, 2012 02:09 IST

Professor Charles Spence spends a lot of time thinking about the noise made by potato chip packets. This Oxford University academic is a specialist in crossmodal research, a field of psychology concerned with the way our senses interact to shape our perception of the world. The sound of a rustling chip packet can make the contents seem up to 5% crispier.

“All these external factors—words on the label, packaging, weight, name, sound of the packaging being opened—are important to our experience of a product,” he says. “Packaging is not just about storage and about shelf life—it’s actually integral to the consumers’ experience and new product development.”

One industry giving serious thought to these external factors is Scotch malt whisky. The industry faces a crisis over its age statements. That number on the bottle—which must, by law, refer to the youngest whisky in the bottle, be it a blend or a single malt (even single malts contain a mixture of ages, unless they are single cask malts)— plays a huge role in consumers’ perception of quality. Chivas Bros says 89% of us actively look for an age statement when buying whisky, and 93% of us believe older equals better.

With global sales of Scotch now at a record high, however, aged whisky stocks have become increasingly scarce. Stretched whisky-makers have been forced to draw on younger stocks to maintain supply. The problem is that most consumers are prejudiced against buying a single malt that is under ten years old.

The solution: Drop the age statement altogether.

The result is the no-age-statement, or NAS, whisky. But how is a whisky buyer supposed to navigate his way without the signposts offered by age statements? It’s a marketing conundrum that has forced whisky brands to seek out a whole new set of quality cues to seduce us.

In the case of the new 1824 Series from Speyside distiller Macallan, that cue is colour. Named Gold, Amber, Sienna and Ruby to reflect their respective hues, the four NAS malts in the 1824 Series have been designed to showcase the effect of ageing in different types of sherry cask. But the 1824 Series, which is replacing the younger Macallans, has proven controversial. Colour is not always a reliable cue in Scotch, as many producers add a little flavourless caramel to ensure a consistent appearance. While Macallan does not use caramel, does their emphasis on the significance of colour set the consumer up for a fall?


Ken Grier, director of malts at the Edrington Group, Macallan’s owner, argues the 1824 Series simply “throw[s] off the shackles of arbitrary age,” allowing for a “more flexible vatting of casks chosen for their colour and the character delivered, whenever they are ‘ready’ or ‘ripe’.”

“Colour certainly has a much bigger influence than people think,” says Oxford’s Spence. “People often taste what they see. Red in particular is a very powerful cue for sweeter, because we think of fruits ripening.’

The tactile qualities of the packaging also help enhance quality. “Our research has shown that as the bottle gets heavier. your expectation of quality increases,” he says. ‘The weight correlates with what price you expect to pay.” One NAS whisky that successfully took this on board was Johnnie Walker Blue Label, which relaunched last year featuring a heavier base, light blue glass and a more conspicuous gold embossing. “Now naming is a much more strategic process for everything from cancer treatments to chocolate bars,” adds Spence, bringing us to the question of provenance. This has become an increasingly powerful factor in the naming of food and drink in recent years.

For island malts in particular, elemental imagery is a recurrent cue. Thus the: Talisker 57 [degrees] North, a wild and woolly malt named after the distillery’s latitude on the Isle of Skye. The powerful, peaty Ardbeg Corryvreckan, a nod to the treacherous Corryvreckan Strait nearby. Bowmore Tempest, a maelstrom of smoke and spice from the wave-battered shores of Islay. These are all malts which have replaced the age statement with a powerful sense of place.

The sound of the name can influence the quality of our experience, says Spence. High noises tend to be associated with sweet, pleasant flavours. Low noises with more unpleasant ones. A correlation he believes derives from the fact that an infant’s tongue goes out and up in response to a sugar, and out and down in response to bitter flavours.

An obscure and lengthy name helps us to perceive a satisfyingly rich and complex flavour.

A NAS whisky which could fit the bill in this instance would be Aberlour A’bunadh (a-boo-nah), a small-batch, heavily sherried malt from Speyside, which is as complex and idiosyncratic as it is hard to pronounce.

"But it’s not simply the case that people are being fooled by these external factors into thinking they are having a better experience," says Spence. - NYT