Old meets new in on-trade whisky

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Sales Director, Edrington-Beam Suntory UK

While the on-trade picture is a mixed one, it is nevertheless an exciting time to be in the industry.

Our customers tell us that spirits remain a critical area of focus for on-trade outlets – in many it has become a vital part of increasing spend per-customer at a time when there is a challenge to maximise the value of every visit.

The rise of the casual dining sector (and the pressure that is coming from its rapid growth) has focused on-trade minds on spirits as they play a role pre-, during and post-meal and have taken share from traditional beer and wine in these moments. While whisky has fared relatively poorly – as these outlets tend to focus on gin, vodka and rum categories as growth drivers – I believe there is an opportunity there to be realised.

Likewise, the fall in out-of-town on-trade outlets and shift towards urban establishments serving a younger demographic has meant that buyers and bartenders have had to rethink their spirits offer and ensure that it is right for a new audience. Whisky has a significant role to play.

To understand the way that whisky can realise the potential in the changing on-trade, I believe we have to change the way we present the spirit to our consumers.

Our brands have already made great strides in this regard. We have been at the forefront of the growth in popularity of highball serves; consistently innovated new serves; worked hard to educate bartenders and consumers themselves; and brought focus to brands such as Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Auchentoshan and Naked Grouse to make them relevant for younger, more urban consumers.

Having brands with heritage and stories to tell remains a critical facet of our offer in the high-end bars and hotels (and The Macallan’s continued success is testament to how important this is) but how we communicate the category to new consumers is essential.

The Maker’s workshops

The Maker’s workshops Maker’s Mark is loved by bartenders across the globe as the original craft bourbon – famous as much for its flavour as for its distinctive red wax-dipped top.

Building on its on-trade presence, in 2017 Maker’s Mark launched The Maker’s Workshops as a way of engaging and training bartenders in the brand. Stepping away from the traditional on-trade training programmes, the workshops were inspired by four key materials for Maker’s Mark – wheat, wax, paper and wood. Events ranged from screen-printing personalised bar mats to hand-crafting scented candles.

The programme has hosted hundreds of bartenders over the past two years in the UK and firmly positions Maker’s Mark as the premier craft bourbon.

Age statements and regional origin will always be important for the seasoned whisky consumer. But talking about the different flavours within whisky in simpler and more engaging way will resonate all the more with younger consumers or those new to the category.

Likewise, creating serves that make whisky accessible to a wider audience is critical. We look to the success of gin in recent times as a sure sign of how important a core serve that is relevant to urban on-trade drinkers is imperative. But so too is a way of elevating that core serve to deliver differentiation and make specific brands stand out.

I believe that, as the highball emerges from the influencer bars where it has already found a home, we will have a straightforward, easy to order and easy to drink core serve with widespread availability and consistent quality. From there, we will work with the on-trade to explore its potential and innovate further.

At the same time, I also believe that more on-trade outlets will embrace the way that whisky can play a key role in broadening the appeal of a cocktail menu. For too long, whisky has fought shy of cocktail serves (with the exception of the American whiskies that have grown as a result). As Scotch, Irish and Japanese whisky brands have embraced the cocktail serve

I believe that the opportunity to stretch the flavour profile of a cocktail list will be more widely acknowledged.

Over the coming year, I believe that we will see the continued modernisation of whisky. As a category, there is a rich history and some remarkable heritage brands.

I foresee the on-trade reappraising and seeing these brands in a new light, rethinking whisky to ensure it captures the imagination of the modern consumer, and reconsidering the modern outlet mix and as it adapts to an ever-changing category make-up. And I foresee growth opportunity as a result.