Blogging from the Highlands of Scotland until I return to the Murcia region of Spain in the Autumn for a month or so
'From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step' - Diderot

Thursday, 4 December 2003

"Single Malt" or "Pure Malt"

A move by drinks giant Diageo, to produce a mixture of malt whiskies and to sell it under the well-known and well-respected until now 'single malt' name of Cardhu, instead changing that descriptor on the label to 'pure malt', has sparked a bitter debate between Diageo and other producers of branded 'single malt' whiskies.

For a start, I am not a whisky drinker, although I have in recent years tasted a number of fine 'single malt' whiskies which, to my untutored palate (in whisky, at least) bare close comparison with some fine cognacs or armagnacs with which I am more familiar and enjoy greatly.

Apparently the 'Scotch Whisky Association', the industry trade body, will hold a meeting today in Edinburgh at which an attempt will be made to thrash this matter out. The opponents of what Diageo plan to do believe that the move to make Cardhu a 'blend' of malt whiskies will damage the reputation for authenticity given by the descriptor 'single malt'. A 'single malt' is produced in Scotland, solely from the named distillery. A 'pure malt' will contain solely malt whiskies, but from a number of different malt whiskies.

One imagines that the Cardhu 'pure malt' will contain primarily Cardhu 'single malt' together with a judicious mixture of malts from other disttilleries. The Diageo move is apparently motivated by the fact that the Cardhu 'brand name' has been so successful in certain markets (e.g. Spain) that the amount that can be produced can no longer meet the demand. Rivals suggest that the correct way to tackle this is to increase production capacity over time. Perhaps this is not possible, for all I know, as one of the other foundations upon which the reputation of 'malt whisky' and 'Scotch' in general is based is upon the 'pureness' and 'uniqueness' of the water used. Or perhaps the move by Diageo is a major innovation which will be seen, in marketing terms, as a brilliant move in 20 or 40 years time.

It seems to me that this all rests on how the development of 'pure malts' is promoted. Undoubtedly it may be a way to increase overall sales by further segmenting the market into different levels of 'premium' product for the connoisseur of malt whisky. It all depends, I think, on what Diageo puts on the back label of its 'Cardhu pure malt' - will it specify the precise percentage of Cardhu 'single malt' and list the names and percentages of the other malts which it uses? I could easily imagine, for example, that a 'luxury' brand could be created by careful promotion of an exclusive mixture of 'single malts' from already highly-prized brands, or even - for niche markets - a 'palette' of a variety of small quantities of various combinations of different 'single malts' in named percentages.

In short, it is all a matter of understanding more clearly what Diageo plans, before one can decide whether it is a disaster in the long-term for the Scotch whisky industry or a brilliant move will take it to a new level, just as the development of 'single malt' whiskies did in the last fifty or so years.

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