Smashing Stigmas and Breaking Barriers: How Whisky is Staying Relevant in an Ever Evolving World

This article was originally written for Whisk(e)y Network. You can find the original here.

Whisky has a long and storied history, but the preconceived notions that have grown up around it can be off putting to the new generation of consumers. It’s seen as complicated, with too many rules on the “proper” way to drink it in order to “appreciate” it fully. Someone says ‘Single Malt’ and it conjures the image of an old gentleman in a smoking jacket near the fire with a cigar in one hand and a cut crystal glass of whisky in the other, not exactly a night out with friends.

I don’t think anyone would argue that whisky is still primarily the domain of white males. You just have to take a quick look at popular online whisky group demographics or high-end whisky competition judging panels to see the staggering gap in gender, diversity, and age. And yet – it’s better than it was! Back in the 1990s, women only made up about 15% of whisky drinkers, but by 2014 that number had risen to 37%. Multicultural drinkers have also been on the rise in recent years; and the predominant age of whisky drinkers, regardless of gender or race, has come down to the 30-49 year age bracket.

Even with these encouraging statistics, it’s up to the whisky companies to stay relevant with audiences that have different ideals, standards, desires, and worldviews than the older drinkers of yesteryear. This is no easy task, and while the whisky industry may have been slow to embrace the new methods necessary to reach the younger generation of drinkers, there’s hope yet to bridge the chasms. Let’s take a look at some of the methods the whisky industry is utilizing to stay relevant in an ever evolving world.

Visual Content

Thanks to the rampant technology of the day, we have become instant, visual consumers. Our eyes are greedy for information, with each interaction providing stimulation and a mini high to our brains that we seek over and over again. Whisky companies have turned towards the visual medium in order to capitalize on our thirst for just such content. They bring in celebrities to be brand ambassadors and award winning cinematographers to create sexy, exciting, hollywood-esq ad campaigns that target the thoughts and desires of the younger generation of drinkers.

Video is captivating for our ever shortening attention spans and is easily shareable via social media channels. And there’s no arguing, what with the world of influencers (remember when that wasn’t even a thing??) and celebrity spokespeople, it’s monkey see monkey want. We desperately want to look like we’re successful and desirable – and by buying such-and-such brand that so-and-so drinks and recommends, maybe we’ll finally feel better about ourselves and appear more impressive to the outside world.

Take this ad by Haig Club. It’s exciting, has great visuals, draws in the audience with the story and cinematic journey, and has a celebrity appearance. It also appeals to women and the younger drinker, making whisky look chic and cool. Which leads to the next point…

Specific targeting

It’s great to see brands actively targeting women (as Glenlivet does), POC (Crown Royal does a particularly excellent job showcasing diversity in their ad campaigns), and the developing drinker through innovative and novel means.

Take WhiskyX, for example. It’s a USA based, nationwide festival celebrating whiskies from around the world, and it was created specifically to make whisky fun and accessible to the current generation. We love festivals, so why not create an entire festival about whisky? 60+ whiskey brands, live music from musicians that play festivals like SXSW, and that ever important festival staple – FOOD TRUCKS. It’s events like this that help make whisky appealing to the modern masses.

Now this is an interesting concept I’d love to see more of in the whisky marketing world – focusing on psychographics rather than demographics; that is, targeting specific people based on their thoughts, ideals, and characteristics (such as marketing to the Adventurous or Inquisitive person), rather than on broader and less personal statistics such as age, race, and gender (and please don’t misunderstand and think I’m saying brands should make whisky or labels specifically FOR multicultural groups or women – I’m not. But rather, brands should acknowledge we, too, enjoy the good stuff and have buying power. I’m talking about inclusivity here). Putting on a festival centered around whisky pulls these ideas together. Yes, it’s generally people of a certain age that go to festivals, but it goes beyond that by narrowing down to people who want interactive experiences, like to have choices, enjoy live music, thrive in a crowd setting, are curious and open to learning, etc. etc.

And it’s just these sorts of open-minded individuals whisky companies like and want to win over, because let’s face it: there’s a lot of stigma surrounding whisky. And this takes us to our third and final point.

Reducing Stigma

Reducing the stigmas surrounding whisky (such as it’s difficult to understand and appreciate, it all tastes the same, it’s only made for sipping neat) is vital to enticing the budding connoisseur. Thankfully, companies are figuring out clever and exciting ways to break these barriers down, too.

Whisky, particularly Scotch, can be a beast to tackle, as the names themselves are not written phonetically. And what’s often the first thing seen on a label? The name. If the consumer is baffled by the very name, chances are they’ll stick with something familiar and less intimidating. Scotch brand Oban created an ad tackling this very issue. They’re using an attractive celebrity to educate their consumer in a genial way; and in the process, they’re breaking down the stigma that Scotch is hard to understand – quite literally. 

People may be drinking less, but they’re drinking better and expect more from their pour, and many companies are moving away from age statements and the associated indication that older means better. Instead, they’re focusing on flavour expression and wood types, because no – not all whisky tastes the same! This is an exciting opportunity for companies to push their style boundaries and experiment with different influences (such as Caribbean rum casks, beer barrels, Cognac, and even Champagne). No Age Statement (NAS) whiskies give blenders more artistic license, letting people know it’s not just cheap and rough whisky being used for cocktails anymore! The flavours of whisky are incredibly diverse, and getting this across to the consumer via new barrel expressions or highlighting a whisky highball cocktail over a basic vodka drink shows that whisky is not “too strong” or just a one trick pony meant for quiet sipping alone at home.

The contemporary consumer doesn’t mind shelling out more for the brands they like because they take a more vested interest in what they’re drinking, which is actually a relatively new trend. There is a deeper appreciation for the history of the brands, genuine interest in the process used to make the spirit, and the more unique the approach and methods utilized, the better! Companies are making such information easily accessible via their websites, behind the scenes shots shared on instagram, live videos broadcast across social media channels, and even teaming up with the likes of Amazon’s Alexa to bring distillery information directly to your home (more on the Talisker Tasting Experience here). It’s easier than ever before to get the “inside scoop” on your favorite distillery, and the more you know about their story and brand, the more you’ll likely want to support them.

It’s plain that whisky companies have their work cut out for them; and while there’s decades of stigma and snobbery to break through, the future is bright and full of possibilities. Through innovative ideas and embracing fresh, new tactics, whisky brands are making a strong effort to diversify their audience base and win over the contemporary consumer – and that’s something I think we can all raise a glass to!

Cheers!

Published by juliamenn

Performer. Artist. Author. Lover of food and travel. Animal enthusiast. Avid reader. Globe-trotter.

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