Tag Archives: Johnnie Walker

No age statements

The dark side of whisky

First published in Prestige Magazine (April 2012 edition).

An aside: The opinion I express is this column is somewhat contentious.  In a recent twitter exchange on the subject  I was informed by an esteemed whisky writer that I was “just plain wrong”.  The why was, and still is, not as clear.  In the interim thus this presumably snot-nosed, impudent upstart of a whisky blogger stands by his opinion.

As it appeared.

I’m often guilty of looking at the whisky world through rose-tinted glasses.  I am after all a self-professed whiskyphile, so a certain extolling of the virtues is part of the job description.  My natural inclination is to be mostly positive.  The reality however is that whisky is a human endeavour, and, like any other, is prone to human failings.  A cast which includes moonshiners, bootleggers, smugglers, gangsters, and all manner of dodgy bastards, have featured prominently in its story, a story whose aspect has been transformed – by the passage of time, and by subsequent regulation and legitimisation – from criminal to colourful.  Today a few huge conglomerates dominate production.  The industry is seen as venerable, and its members as responsible corporate citizens.  But are things really as proper as they appear?  I wouldn’t be self-respecting if I didn’t blend my admiration with a dash of scrutiny.

Marketing – if one was to adopt a cynical stance – is akin to commercial propaganda.  The discipline, in somewhat Goebbels-esque fashion, is no stranger to large-scale institutionalized deception.  In the marketing of whisky one of the more insidious examples, in my opinion, is the so-called No Age Statement (NAS) whisky.   The age, or to be more accurate (and lyrical) the duration of maturation, of whisky is a subject of lengthy debate.  To avoid labouring the point, let’s just conclude for our purposes that age is of distinct importance to the whisky drinking public.  Research published by Chivas Brothers last year revealed the following actualities: “94% of consumers believe the age statement serves as an indicator of quality” and “93% believe that older whiskies are better quality”.

It follows then that people expect expensive whiskies to be old – since one expects to pay for quality.  As the whisky market has boomed beyond forecast over the last three decades, suppliers have struggled to keep up with the demand for older stock.   This crisis has been to some extent remedied by the proliferation of the multi-vintage whisky – a blending of old and young whiskies.  In itself this was a tidy “innovation” (these had existed before but as an exception) presenting whisky lovers with an extensive new diversity of flavour and style, and stretching the dwindling quantities of older liquid.  There was however an accompanying dilemma – Scotch Whisky regulations require that any age claim must refer to the youngest component in a whisky.  This nagging inconvenience – upon which the integrity of Scotch whisky is largely built – would potentially motivate a cap on pricing and/or the expensive need to re-educate the market…or maybe not.

The low road was and is an option to withhold disclosing the age, creating a situation where the average whisky buyer automatically assumes these whiskies to be older than they are in reality.  There is no doubt in my mind that multi-vintage NAS whiskies have been designed to foster this misconception.  Witness Johnnie Walker Double Black in particular (in the context of Black Label): a derivative and misleading name, similar packaging, higher pricing, and no age statement.  Is this whisky 12 years old – or even older – as one might reasonably be led to assume?  I think not.

This example and others like it I believe are lies of omission, occurring when an important fact (and we know that age is undisputedly important) is deliberately withheld, or not made explicit, in order to perpetuate deception.   Despite the obvious moral dubiousness these lies have become common practice.  There’s a glimmer of hope though that this may soon change.

Last year the new Consumer Protection Act came into effect.  Here’s a little snippet:

False, misleading or deceptive representations

41. (1) In relation to the marketing of any goods or services, the supplier must not, by words or conduct—

(a) directly or indirectly express or imply a false, misleading or deceptive representation concerning a material fact to a consumer;

 (b) use exaggeration, innuendo or ambiguity as to a material fact, or fail to disclose a material fact if that failure amounts to a deception; or

(c) fail to correct an apparent misapprehension on the part of a consumer, amounting to a false, misleading or deceptive representation,

I don’t lay claim to any striking legal insight, but it seems clear to me that were a challenge to be made this piece of legislation could terminate the existence of the NAS whisky in South Africa.  The veil would be lifted and we would be able to appreciate the real Double Black, ostensibly at a reduced price.  Law aside, isn’t it just basic ethics that all material elements to a transaction be disclosed?

Perhaps I’m being optimistic.  This is an entrenched agenda which will take some shifting.  Nonetheless it’s encouraging to hear industry voices seemingly supporting this position, whether out of self-interest or not.  Christian Porta, head of Chivas Brothers, was quoted as follows: “In an age when consumers of luxury goods increasingly demand transparency and authenticity from brands, it is vital that we empower consumers with knowledge so that they fully understand the value of what they are buying.”  Mr Porta, I salute you; you renew my faith.  May the dram be with you!

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Johnnie Walker at the Taste Festival

I attended the Taste Festival over the weekend, courtesy of tickets from my friends at Liquidity. I ambled over to their stall on arrival to say thank you, and sampled their Pyrat rum (part of the Patron stable) whilst I was there. I’m a big fan of rum and this one did not disappoint. With its bold orange taste it’s a great option, indeed one of the very few options, if you’re looking for an aged rum in SA.

Classy Pyrat Rum advertising

The Festival itself was well put together and populated by an interesting variety of stalls, mostly restaurants, but also wineries, bars, and an assorted mix of food and beverage brands. As I mentioned I didn’t pay for my tickets, but I would have been mightily disappointed if I had. It seems that all the entrance fee got you was the opportunity to spend more money. It certainly didn’t seem to have subsidised what was on offer. Tasters from the various restaurants were priced at between R20 to R40, and ranged from ok-fair-enough deals, such as Savour’s Salmon carpaccio and Solms Delta’s Cajun seafood, to ludicrously bad value, witness Nobu’s microscopic yellowtail sashimi. I once had the dubious pleasure of dropping 200 large (as in Sterling) on supper at Nobu, and had to stop at a Burger King on my way home to fill the gap, so no surprise there.

A message then to the organisers: come on guys, we like what you’re doing, but don’t take the piss.

Ok, now that that’s out of the way, to the serious business i.e. whisky, of which there wasn’t much to be found at the festival. I kept looking however, kept walking if you will, and my efforts were rewarded. I came upon the Johnnie Walker (JW) stall, beckoning to me like an oasis in the desert…and I needed no second invitation.

A few facts about JW– it’s the best-selling whisky in the world, it’s part of the Diageo stable, and its product philosophy is “Big Flavours”. I’ve pondered the latter often. For marketing purposes it’s great positioning. Whisky is all about flavour, so what could be more appealing than big flavours. Bigger is better after all.

At this stage it might be worth having a quick aside on the topic of chill filtration. Chill filtration is a process that takes place before bottling in which whisky is cooled and passed through a fine mesh filter, trapping and removing certain congeners (fatty acids and oily compounds) that tend to precipitate at lower temperatures. The finer the filter and the more extreme the cooling, the greater the amount of congeners removed. This is done for aesthetic purposes, so that the whisky does not appear hazy, especially when ice is added. However these congeners are a significant contributor to flavour, so many whisky-makers choose not to chill-filter their whiskies, labelling them “non-chill filtered”.  The bottom line is that chill filtering extracts flavour from the whisky.

Ok, back to JW. My question is – does the “Big Flavours” philosophy represent the reality of the product or is it just a line fed to consumers? Well, the range of JW’s is chill filtered. In fact if my industry sources are to be believed, Diageo has a particularly aggressive approach to chill filtering, using fine filters, and low (-4°C) temperatures. I can’t definitively confirm if this is true either generally or specifically for JW, but for the sake of conjecture let’s assume that it is. What does this say about the commitment to “Big Flavours “? Isn’t the removal of flavour at odds with such a claim? Perhaps “Style over Substance” would be more accurate?

I’m being harsh of course. Almost all blended whiskies are chill filtered, at least to some extent, so this is standard practice. And the JW range is superb and flavourful to a man. You don’t get to the top without having the chops. Nevertheless, food for thought…

The tasting itself was exceptional; short of the Glenmorangie Signet sonic tasting, probably one of the best I’ve experienced. The hosts were knowledgeable, the props, lit display cabinets containing flavour cues, were perfectly atmospheric, and the whiskies, as I mentioned, were superb. JW Red is not amongst my preferred whiskies – the Talisker inspired salty-smoky flavour, whilst interesting, is a bit abrasive for me – but Black and Green, the other variants showcased at the tasting, are standouts.

On that note – keep reading (my blog), keeping drinking (responsibly) and keep well.

Black

Red