Although we live in a world of Facebook and Twitter and instant e-mail responses, flowery descriptions, particularly of consumer brand products still play an important role in marketing.
I have always been amused at the wonderfully evocative descriptions used to describe wine. When this process started I don’t know, although many years ago I had the opportunity of visiting some of the finest vineyards in Bordeaux and was struck by the ambience that the winemakers had created, in what were really storage warehouses. I remember flaming torches on whitewashed walls, marble entryways, and subdued lighting over storage racks of some of the most valuable wines in the world. Being in the Scotch Whisky industry at the time, I marveled at the French ability to create a feeling of luxury, quality and expensive tastes in their wineries. I wondered why the Scotch Whisky distillers had not followed these practices. For I knew that the Cognac industry had similar techniques, maybe not quite so lavish, but nevertheless their producers had created the mystique and the feeling of expensive exclusivity for their brands.
So for many years I have been engaged by the lavish descriptions of wines. “A cheeky little personality;” or “a good nose with a strong finish;” or “an aroma of fresh pear, apple and cinnamon, with a touch of hazelnuts;” or the “smoky wood flavor, kissed by the sun.” These and many other descriptions are lovely and romantic, but have become common and acceptable language for fine wines and for some not so fine wines! I have to admit with a little practice one can notice fragrances of fruit and flowers in many wines. So I can’t say that this descriptive business is total nonsense but nevertheless it is really just good marketing.
Apparently, my feelings many years ago that the Scotch Whisky industry should follow suit has now happened. I was amazed to see that The Glenlivet Single Malt Whisky now has similar descriptions on its carton. After 38 years experience in the Scotch Whisky industry, I know that Smith’s Glenlivet was always designated by the industry as “top-notch.” As such, it commanded a premium price when traded in bulk from distiller- to-distiller for use in many of the major blended brands of Scotch. The industry has generally done a good job in establishing single malts as their premium products, commanding sometimes astronomical prices.
Scotch Whisky is aged in used oak barrels from the US bourbon industry and used sherry casks from the sherry industry. As the Whisky matures, it extracts flavors and indeed some coloring from the used barrels, which contributes to establishing its own flavor.
The Glenlivet, now describes itself as having a nose of “vibrant aromas of summer meadows and tropical fruits, notably pineapples” and a palate of “floral notes, smooth and sweet fruit notes of fresh peaches and pears and vanilla,” with a finish of “Marzipan and fresh hazelnuts.” This description on the carton also talks about the distillery producing Glenlivet high up in the remote area of Speyside in the Highlands of Scotland. I am certainly amused that tropical fruits, pineapple and marzipan and hazelnuts could have any connection to these remote areas of Scotland.
The wine industry, plants varieties of grapes usually in arid sandy soil often with flowering rose bushes at the beginning and end of each line of vines. Thus it is possible to pick up fruit flavors and floral aromas. Malt Scotch Whisky is made from malted barley – the influence on flavor comes not only from the barrels, but also from the waters of the Highland streams and sometimes the location of the distillery, the age of the pot-stills, and even the walls of the distillery itself. It’s hard to imagine summer meadows and tropical fruits resulting from the distillation process.
Nevertheless, I am pleased that the Scotch Whisky industry is Romancing the Dram. I think it’s good for the business, and it’s fun for the consumers who develop their own knowledge about their particular favorite Malt Whisky. So, I am all in favor of it.
One last point I was always taught that Malt Whisky is best between 8 and 12 years old. It does not improve over the 12-year-age, so those consumers who pay for Whisky of 15, 18 or even 25-year-old are not really getting any extra quality. Just, perhaps, bragging rights.
Ellis M. Goodman, author of Bear Any Burden: www.bearanyburden.com