There was a closure of many distilleries in the 1980s. The whiskey market began to decline in the 1970s, and things began to look terminal. However, what emerged from these challenges was a consolidation of power in the whiskey business with smaller distilleries bought up by more prominent brands such as United Distillers. As a result, sales grew again in the 1990s, and there was a growth in amateur enthusiasts who looked to sample and collect brands of whiskey from different companies, many of whom they thought were small craft distillers, but, in fact, were not.
How is this potted history of the whiskey industry significant to the label on the bottle? It is a clue to how what you see on the label might not represent the truth behind the drink. Words like “rare” and “limited release” that emblazon whiskey labels are ingenious marketing strategies looking to appeal to the inner geek of the market.
One term that has become part of this strategy to draw mystique to brands is “orphan barrels”. This is a marketing narrative that took bottles from a large international brand and relabelled them with an impressive story of how the whiskey came into existence – with a tale of a lucky discovery of some quality whiskey barrels. With minimal research, it was easy to see that the limited edition whiskey was numbered in the tens of thousands. However, the fear of missing out on a lost treasure was too much for most – the mystique was too high.
Diageo, the big brand behind this ingenious tale, was not the first company ever to happen upon this marketing approach. There have been many examples in whiskey labelling history where the words “rare” and “limited edition” has targeted the whiskey enthusiast who wants the cachet of having bought something only a few can own.
Although the story of the Orphan Barrel brand could be deemed a deception by the company, it does uncover the reason behind much of the mystique created in the whiskey industry. Like the provenance of a top painting, whiskey drinkers want to dig into the origins of a bottle of high-quality spirits. The drinkers place themselves in a group of discerning enthusiasts who want to know the story behind the brand.
If you look at the Templeton Rye label, it traces its history back to American Prohibition. It claims that it was a product of enterprising residents from a small town who chose to become outlaws to produce “The Good Stuff”. It makes its links to Al Capone, who chose Templeton Rye as his whiskey of choice – and how a few bottles were even found in the cells of Alcatraz – such was the desire created. The same recipe is used today.
Again, storytelling is used to help people believe they are a part of an exclusive group of fellow drinkers. The use of words like “outlaws” and the reference to a notorious gangster is part of the mystique the brand wants to create. It may be legal to drink this whiskey now, but one day in history you would have been risking arrest for a taste of this smooth liquor.
The age of the whiskey should also be treated with some caution. Marketers have begun to give whiskey kudos the older the drink can claim to be. However, the best whiskeys are thought to be between six and eight years old. Some whiskeys as old as 15 and 16 years can be tasty; many older distilled brands are considered undrinkable.
Whiskey marketers are again using this detail on the label to create a culture of aspiration. For some time, old has been immediately linked to antiques. With antique comes the idea of cherished and nurtured, and ultimately more expensive. This approach to whiskey labelling is to appeal to the fancy of the whiskey collector to own something precious.
The words on a whiskey label, therefore, need to be studied as carefully as the brushstrokes of a master. It is interesting how, like in the art world, the mystique around an item can become more important than the quality of the product. Artwork with a long and distinguished provenance can be worth millions even if the picture itself is nothing more than well-executed. In the whiskey market, this can be seen to go a step further. The age of whiskey could make the product undrinkable, but the allure of the tale told is just too much.