By Richard Thomas
As world whiskey renaissance continues to sweep forward, it has taken down certain fixtures of conventional wisdom with it, especially for the heretofore dominant category of Scotch whisky. From a global perspective, Japanese whisky and American bourbon have risen to challenge Scotch as the world leader in terms of quality, but Scotch has seen some shake-ups on the inside as well. The biggest shift this year was The Glenlivet overtaking The Glenfiddich to become the world’s top-selling single malt.
Taking The Lead
The rise of The Glenlivet to the top had been expected by observers for at least a year prior to the brand claiming the crown as the world’s top single malt whisky in September 2015, starting from when The Glenlivet crossed the one million cases sales mark in August 2014. They were gaining on The Glenfiddich and had the momentum, growing by 9.6% in total in the interval.
Big pushes and double digit growth in select markets played a big part in The Glenlivet taking the lead. In the United States, the world’s most lucrative whiskey market, The Glenlivet is the traditional market leader. Building on that standing, the brand “grew 6.4% in volume and 10.3% in value,” said Niki Burgess, The Glenlivet’s Global Brand Director. Numbers like that point to both growth in total whisky sold, but also in a bigger rise in the price commanded by that whisky. So, while the traditional 12 Year Old single malt continued to do well, so did newer expressions such as the Nadurra line.
Furthermore, double digit growth was the rule in a mixed bag of mature, old markets and emerging, new ones: Australia, France, India, Japan, Taiwan and the UK in 2014. Most of these countries saw the traditional entry-level 12 Year Old replaced with the no age statement (NAS) Founder’s Reserve.
The Glenlivet’s shift to NAS whiskies was and is widely seen among grumbling bloggers as a response to stock shortages. Yet looking at the sales numbers and the split between where the age statement vs. NAS whiskies are available, it seems more likely an example of what I call “robbing Peter in hopes Paul will pay you more later,” or the shifting of a fixed quantity of aged stock to where it will attract the most new customers. In this case, that meant mostly to America, which kept the age statement whiskies.
Claiming the top dog title can mean a lot in marketing terms, and many companies have fought tooth and nail to achieve or retain that status. Just within whisky, witness Diageo’s battle to undermine the 2013 Tennessee Whiskey Law, a move entirely about preserving Johnnie Walker’s status as the world’s top-seller in the face of a stiff challenge from Jack Daniel’s. In my own small corner of the world, I have found myself answering a sporadic trickle of reader questions as to whether the change-up at the top meant The Glenlivet was a better whisky than The Glenfiddich.
Despite this, one could describe the reaction of William Grant & Sons, owner of The Glenfiddich, to the challenge posed by The Glenlivet as seeming indifference. The Glenlivet’s push to the top was hardly a secret, but nothing substantial was done to help The Glenfiddich fend off the challenge, and (in public anyway) the response to The Glenfiddich now being the second-best seller is muted.
This stems from the differences in culture between William Grant & Sons and the owners of The Glenlivet, Pernod Ricard. The former is a privately-held, family-owned company. “As a family owned business, it is in our DNA to protect the future and think in the long term,” said Enda O’Sullivan, Global Brand Director for The Glenfiddich. “This means managing our stock profile carefully which required us to purposely limit volume growth over the last couple of years.”
The stereotype for privately-owned enterprises, and especially large, family owned companies, is that they are freer from the need to answer the short term demands of stock traders and shareholders and therefore generally pursue a more conservative, long-term strategy. The Glenfiddich’s choices and statements are certainly in keeping with that rule.
Pay Today Vs. Pay Tomorrow?
So who is right, who is wrong, and who is winning? Both business approaches, aggressive and conservative, have their success stories and their failures. Also, whether one approach works out or not has as much to do with the goals of the company in question as it does with raw sales numbers.
From a drinker’s point of view, both brands are still putting out some damn fine whisky. To the extent that there is a battle for single malt supremacy, it can only serve to call more attention to that.