Whisky maker ups the ante

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Johnnie Walker reauters REUTERS Johnnie Walker, best known for its best-selling Red Label and Black Label brands, has launched a pair of pricier blends.

Calgary - When it comes to Scotch whisky, premium single malts get star billing, but the world’s top seller of blended varieties is aiming for a similar audience with some new, more upscale labels.

Johnnie Walker, best known for its best-selling Red Label and Black Label brands, has launched a pair of pricier blends – Gold Label Reserve and Platinum Label – in hopes of winning over growing numbers of affluent Scotch drinkers, many of whom are single-malt purists.

It also wants to attract new converts to Scotch with some ideas for mixed drinks that tone down some of the initial boldness of the spirit.

This may be sacrilege to those who say the only thing one should add to Scotch is Scotch. But the aim is to show a worldwide market that has been expanding by at least five percent a year that there is more than one way to enjoy a wee dram.

Think of the relationship between single malt and blended Scotch as that between a concert violinist and a symphony, said Ewan Gunn, Diageo’s global Scotch whisky ambassador. Besides Johnnie Walker, the British liquor giant also markets single malts such as Lagavulin and Talisker.

“To make a good single malt, you make one good product, you distill it, you mature it, you bottle it and your job is done,” Gunn said after presenting the new blends to bartenders and journalists in Calgary, Alberta.

“When you’re making a good blended Scotch whisky, you have to do that 30, 40, 50 times with entirely different whiskies. Then you have to bring them together in perfect harmony and only then is your job done. So for me, it’s a testament to true skill to be able to make a really good blended Scotch whisky.”

There’s no shortage of the stuff, as blended varieties account for roughly nine of every 10 bottles sold, and, according to the Scotch Whisky Association, 40 bottles a second are shipped from the UK.

Single-malt distilleries, with their rich, peaty product, owe much to blenders, as few would survive without contributing large volumes of their output to the mixes.

In the US, wine and spirits have stolen market share from beer in recent years, as the companies behind them have lured consumers with more upscale brands and cocktails.

Diageo is the world’s biggest distilled spirits maker. Its Smirnoff vodka is the world’s top-selling spirit by volume, while Johnnie Walker is the top-selling brand by value, a position showing no sign of tailing off.

In the most recent fiscal year, net sales rose 14 percent with volume up seven percent. Net sales of Johnnie Walker Black Label 12-year-old were up 15 percent, fuelled by price increases and the launch of Double Black, which costs 20 percent more.

The new premium varieties are positioned between the moderately priced Black and the swish Blue Label, which runs upwards of $200 (R1 700) a bottle. In North America, they are being rolled out to Canadian tipplers first.

Gold Label Reserve is notable for the addition of malt whisky from the casks of the Clynelish distillery in Scotland’s northern highlands, which traces its roots back to 1819.

It is recommended served chilled and enthusiasts may notice honey and toffee sweetness in the blend.

Platinum Label brings together single malt and grain whiskies from all parts of Scotland for a blend that is matured for at least 18 years. It features suggestions of almond and orange peel that linger on the palate for quite a while after a sip.

Gunn disagrees that good whisky should never be contaminated with other ingredients including water, and says a splash of H2O brings out different characteristics in the blends. One mix at the Calgary event included coconut water and green tea.

“I mean, it is a bold, complex flavour, unashamedly so. It’s not like we’re tying to hide how it tastes or dramatically change how it tastes or trick anybody,” Gunn said. “It’s purely about making it more accessible for that first or maybe second time someone tries it.” – Reuters

* The FNB Whisky Live Festival ends in Johannesburg from 7 to 9 November 2012 at the Sandton Convention Centre. The festival will be open between 18h00 - 22h00 daily.

Visit www.whiskylivefestival.co.za for more information

* Please follow us on Twitter @WhiskyLiveSA and on Facebook /FNBWhiskyLiveFestival

+ The FNB Whisky Live Festival promotes responsible drinking. No persons under the age of 18 years old will be allowed into the Tasting Hall, and designated driver tickets are available. Discounted food vouchers and a bottle of Valpre mineral water are included in the ticket price, and taxis will be on hand to ensure that everyone in your party is able to have a good time.

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