The Herald

Drambuster­s: How whisky is updating its traditiona­l image for the 21st century


PURPLE heather on the hills, the whiff of smoky peat and crystal clear waters: for generation­s whisky has been defined by the landscape that helps hone the precious spirit, woven with evocative tales of distilling’s chequered history.

It’s a tartan-trimmed image that has served Scotch well – the sector contribute­s more than £7 billion to the UK economy and accounts for 77% of Scottish food and drink exports.

Now, though, rather than linger on old-fashioned imagery of Scotland to sell their spirit, whisky producers are presenting a fresh face, with barely a sprig of heather or sliver of tartan in sight.

In some cases, the stories they are weaving around their spirit could scarcely be further removed from the traditiona­l whisky-soaked ideal of unblemishe­d Scottish scenery and centuries-old distilling traditions and tales.

Instead, they are aligning themselves with everything from rock stars to community environmen­tal projects, and even Scotland’s less glamorous industrial heritage, in the hope of standing out on the shelves.

Such as at Ardgowan, a new distillery in Inverclyde, which has bottled a series of whiskies with names inspired not by Scotland’s nature or tartan-trimmed history, but by the sweat and grime of Clydeside shipyards.

Its Clydebuilt range pays tribute to the river’s maritime heritage and shipyard craftsmen with names like Riveter, Sailmaker, Coppersmit­h and Shipwright.

The latest in the line, Riveter, was launched amid industrial displays at Govan’s Fairfield Museum, which is dedicated to the Clyde shipyards.

“The decision to use the name ‘Clydebuilt’ was a two-fold choice. It’s a phrase and imagery synonymous with a tremendous­ly important era in Scottish history, and it also gives us a strong sense of place and pride in where we are on the banks of the Clyde,” says Martin Mcadam, the chief executive of Ardgowan Distillery.

“Inverclyde is intrinsica­lly linked to Scotland’s iconic shipbuildi­ng industry and some of the world’s greatest ships were built right here on the River Clyde.”

Another producer mining history for inspiratio­n is The Glasgow Distillery at Hillington which opened in 2012 and creates spirits said to be inspired by stories from the city’s past. For instance, one of its brands’ themes is hooked around 18th-century city riots.

Other distilleri­es with longer histories are pivoting too as they strive to engage a new generation through links to personalit­ies from music, sport and art or, in some cases, creating stories around reallife far less famous individual­s.

Bladnoch, establishe­d in 1817 and the oldest privately owned Scotch whisky distillery in the world, could easily have stuck with the “heritage and heather” option.

Instead, its new, limited-edition, series of whiskies celebrates real-life individual­s as a means of cementing them in the minds of consumers.

Chapter 1 of Loch Maberry: Stories of Bladnoch pays tribute to a local character referred to as “Mr Arnold” who it says discovered Bladnoch when he owned a home close to the distillery, in Dumfries and Galloway’s Wigtown, and became a fan.

He was invited by Dr Nick Savage, Master Distiller of Bladnoch, to select a cask for bottling, a process which the distillery plans to repeat with other real-life characters.

Others have embraced household names: last May, Rod Stewart announced he was teaming up with Loch Lomond Distillery to produce Wolfie’s Whisky – a blended 40% ABV Scotch.

The distillery says the dram was “inspired” by the singer’s rock ’n’ roll heritage and early hell-raising days with the Faces.

Meanwhile, Ballantine’s has a new , limited-edition, AC/DC whisky, part of its True Music Icons range that includes The Queen, a limited edition bottle inspired by Queen’s Greatest Hits II album, with crest designed by Freddie Mercury.

And Chivas has partnered with the leading K-pop artist, LISA, for its Asian market.

In sport, Loch Lomond has collaborat­ed with Colin Montgomeri­e to create two limited-edition single malt whiskies to mark the 152nd Open at Royal Troon this summer.

Meanwhile former FIA Ladies World Rally champion, Louise Aitken-walker, has just unveiled a unique whisky bearing her name, marking 33 years since her greatest triumph, using casks at Invergordo­n Distillery.

The list goes on and on... Lagavulin has long-standing links with American actor and writer Nick Offerman, who plays Ron Swanson in NBC’S Parks and Recreation... the Dalmore’s Luminary Series No 2 was created in partnershi­p with acclaimed architect Melodie Leung, the director at Zaha Hadid Architects, and V&A Dundee.

The shift from the traditiona­l “heather, hills and copper stills” image is against a background of a hugely competitiv­e whisky arena, where disruptive newcomers are vying for space alongside others with centuries of heritage.

The re-emergence of mothballed distilleri­es with their own rich stories of revival and new beginnings are adding to the crush, leaving some brands with the tricky challenge of coming up with engaging themes and fresh stories to entice consumers to try their whiskies.

The modernisat­ion of whisky’s image goes beyond the label on the bottle, too. Some distilleri­es are tearing up their old-style visitor centres in favour of glossy modern interiors courtesy of chic designers, while adding fashionabl­e boutique-style hotels and restaurant­s with barely a tartan carpet in sight.

The developmen­t can be seen on Islay, where Ardbeg has unveiled plans to turn Port Ellen’s Islay Hotel into a “world-class whisky and hospitalit­y experience”.

Due to reopen as Ardbeg Hotel in May 2025, the multi-million-pound enhancemen­t has been described as a “witty and distinctly Ardbeggian re-styling of every floor”, with “quirky and luxurious bedrooms and suites, each telling unique stories of Islay and its legends complete with numerous playful details and hidden surprises”.

Further hints at a shift from the traditiona­l whisky image can be heard in talk of featuring “all manner of phenolic phenomena”, conjuring up something more akin to Edinburgh’s Johnnie Walker Princes Street experience than an island hotel.

The distillery is also one of a number in the sector that are elevating their profile through “good deeds” and charity tie-ins, making them attractive to modern, socially conscious, consumers.

It recently set up a £1 million fund aimed at supporting community and environmen­tal projects on the island.

Intended to be distribute­d in £200,000 tranches over five years, its first year saw 28 local projects benefit, including Islay Karate Club, Bowmore Lunch Club and the Islay Book Festival.

It is also supporting an ongoing project to build a community hub in Port Ellen.

On the Isle of Mull, meanwhile, Tobermory Distillery has unveiled a charity partnershi­p with the Mull and Iona Community Trust to support the long-term restoratio­n of the Ardura Forest, an ancient oakwood that is part of the Atlantic rainforest.

The initiative includes a partnershi­p with wildlife cameraman and television presenter Gordon Buchanan, and has led to the release of a limited-edition whisky, Ledaig Triple Wood, created by him along with the community trust and the distillery.

Moray Finch, general manager at Mull and Iona Community Trust, says the partnershi­p should have a lasting impact on the island.

“With support from Tobermory

Distillery we’ll be collecting seeds and growing native trees and scrubs to plant in Ardura alongside removing non-native rhododendr­on and Sitka spruce trees from the site.

“These management actions will create new homes, shelter and food sources for the forest animals, birds and insects.”

Environmen­tal partnershi­ps were pioneered by Glenmorang­ie Distillery when it partnered with Heriot-watt University to create Dornoch Environmen­tal Enhancemen­t Project (Deep), to restore a sustainabl­e native oyster reef in the Dornoch Firth.

More recently it has further shed much of the traditiona­l imagery that often surrounds whisky with a new visitor centre and revived boutique hotel, Glenmorang­ie House in Tain, which features technicolo­ur rooms created by designed by hip Londonbase­d interior designer and story-maker, Russell Sage.

The distillery centre is said to include joyful references to its whisky, flavourins­pired decor, and “whimsical nods to its brand icon, the giraffe” all a far cry from twee tartan and heather.

Gary Fortune-smith of Leith-based Threebrand, a marketing and design agency which specialise­s in working with food and drink makers, says there has been a definite shift in how whisky brands are presenting themselves.

“A brand is like a living entity, it has a personalit­y and it has a character, which evolve over the years because of market demand, conditions and consumers, and [because of] how much more educated and more engaged they are now than in the past,” he says.

“We have been in that era of

‘tartantast­ic’ that still sells in certain centres but we have moved away from that overt old-fashioned style to much more modern, contempora­ry manifestat­ions of it.

“If you look at some of the market leaders, you can still see some of the designs link back to that. But to rely on hills and babbling brooks and tartan now means it has to be done in a much cleverer and subtler way.”

Consumers are seeking authentici­ty and brands with stories that resonate with their modern lifestyles, he adds.

“Each brand has its own history, its own provenance and heritage, and they need to bring that story alive in some form that allows it to be more relatable to its market and customer. But the most important thing is authentici­ty.

“Customers these days are less susceptibl­e to marketing ‘BS’. They don’t want to spend hard-earned cash on something that has been invented.

“The brand story has to be steeped in truth – without truth and transparen­cy you can get caught out by customers. They have that tool called the internet and can do their own research.”

A brand is like a living entity which has character and a personalit­y which evolve over the years, due to consumers

 ?? ?? Riveter is Ardgowan’s fourth bottling in the Clydebuilt series inspired by the Clyde’s maritime history
Riveter is Ardgowan’s fourth bottling in the Clydebuilt series inspired by the Clyde’s maritime history
 ?? ?? Former rally world champion Louise Aitken Walker has had a whisky named after her
Former rally world champion Louise Aitken Walker has had a whisky named after her
 ?? ?? Ardbeg has engaged interior designers Russell Sage Studio to transform Islay Hotel
Ardbeg has engaged interior designers Russell Sage Studio to transform Islay Hotel
 ?? ?? Mr Arnold chose a cask for bottling as part of Stories of Bladnoch
Mr Arnold chose a cask for bottling as part of Stories of Bladnoch

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United Kingdom