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Blended Malt Segment Expands As Scotch Marketers Court New Consumers

July 2, 2018

Scotch whisky’s blended malt segment is expanding—buoyed by an array of high-quality, accessibly priced brands that are attracting whisky connoisseurs as well as new consumers.

William Grant & Sons’ Monkey Shoulder ($32 a 750-ml.) is a rising star within the blended malt segment. The brand finished at 77,000 9-liter cases last year—up from just 22,000 cases in 2014. Much of Monkey Shoulder’s success can be attributed to its focus on the cocktail culture. “We’re trying to push the boundaries of what preconceptions exist on Scotch,” says brand manager R.J. Whittington.

In October 2017, Scotch whisky distiller Whyte & Mackay introduced Shackleton, the third release in a line of blended malt Scotch whiskies honoring British explorer Ernest Shackleton and the bottles of Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt Whisky he left behind in Antarctica more than a century ago. Shackleton, a blend of over 20 Highland malts, retails at $35 and is at 40% abv. “We’re doing something with broader appeal, from both a price and profile standpoint,” says Whyte & Mackay single malt specialist Jason Moore. “Being bottled at 40% abv alone takes the whisky to a much more approachable place.”

Shackleton’s focus on a story is part of an overall trend, as blended malts adopt contemporary branding to diverge from Scotch whisky’s traditional image. Spencerfield Spirits Co. launched Sheep Dip Islay Blended Malt ($60) last fall. The new entry is composed of three Islay malts and has received wide critical acclaim, coming in at No.-13 on Whisky Advocate’s Top 20 Whiskies of 2017. Tim Master, director of specialty spirits at Sheep Dip importer Frederick Wildman & Sons, says, “Our liquid is quality; it wins awards. But Sheep Dip is also a fun brand that doesn’t take itself too seriously. That effervescent identity is important for a brand that’s going up against larger companies with bigger budgets.”

Edrington’s Naked Grouse ($35) blended malt was separated from the Famous Grouse blended Scotch lineup last year and relaunched as a standalone brand in three U.S. markets—Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Colorado. “The consumer we’re going after is far different from that of Famous Grouse,” says brand manager Chris Vogt. “We’re targeting a younger whisk(e)y drinker, a Bourbon drinker.”

Wemyss Malts is also focused on younger, more experimental whisk(e)y drinkers with its core blended malt range, comprised of The Hive, Spice King, and Peat Chimney (all $40). “We’re not after the very traditional single malt Scotch drinker,” says owner William Wemyss. “They’re fixated on age statements and particular brands, and we’re not going to pull them in. But we have no problem attracting drinkers who are younger and more open-minded.” Wemyss is set to release Batch Strength versions of its blended malt lineup next year.

Blended malt Copper Dog, which is part-owned by Diageo, is likewise distancing itself from Scotch’s traditional image. “‘Scotch’ is a term that Copper Dog chooses to largely sidestep,” says managing director Alastair Menzies. “We talk about Copper Dog whisky, as opposed to Copper Dog Scotch.” The Speyside-sourced brand launched in six U.S. markets last summer, and plans to add new markets over the next few years.

For Compass Box, a longtime player in blended malts, the rise of mixology has supported its growth. The Compass Box lineup features three core blended malt expressions, led by Islay-sourced The Peat Monster ($50). Bacardi took a minority stake in Compass Box in 2014.

While most blended malts stress accessibility, there’s potential at the ultra-premium end as well, as exemplified by Pernod Ricard’s Chivas Ultis. Retailing at $200, Ultis is a mix of Speyside malts from the core Chivas distilleries of Tormore, Longmorn, Strathisla, Allt-a-Bhainne, and Braeval. —Julia Higgins

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