I’d like to think this would become a regular feature around here, but seeing as I, myself, am powerfully irregular… there’s really not much hope in that. The fact is, pretty much every piece of booze related marketing/advertising/PR contains something at least a little silly and worth calling out…it would be impossible to track them all. But there are occasions when the silliness over-reaches and becomes downright stupid and even mildly enraging. The past week, there were two such pieces of booze “news” that came to my attention, one because of its big-time desperate inaccuracy, the other because of its big-time steamrolling greed.
Let’s go with the greedy one first. Back in December of 2013, Diageo announced that they would be doubling the capacity of and introducing a new range of four malts from cult-favorite distillery Mortlach. On the surface, this seemed like kind of good news, a renowned distillery usually laboring in the shadow of blends, finally gets to see more light of day. My immediate feeling, however, was, “they’re going to ruin this for everyone.” They announced that the range would be made up of two “no age statement” (NAS) whiskies and two older expressions. The NAS whisky trend has come under a lot of fire for being generally over-hyped, under-matured, and over-priced so that was warning sign #1. Warning sign #2 was the fact that Diageo really doesn’t do expanded ranges with their single malts. Usually, there’s just one or two core expressions from the Classic Malts line. The fact the there was going to be four core Mortlach expressions was a sure sign that Diageo was going big, and going big is never inexpensive. Warning sign #3 was when Diageo announced that there would be substantial price increases in its core single malt range to go along with the large and largely unpopular price jumps in their 2013 Limited Release editions. Whisky’s popularity is soaring, Diageo obviously think it’s time to cash in on existing brands, why would anybody think they’d do differently with the new Mortlach’s? It was depressing writing on the wall, but trying to fault a publicly traded company for making big profits any which way they can is like trying to fault a train for heading down the tracks.
This past week, Diageo offered up pics of the bottle design (hey, rectangular, how unique!) and details on pricing, and the whisky community just about crapped in their collective elastic waist-banded khaki pants. I’m sure some of the older ones swooned while the younger ones jumped to their feet and angrily pounded their chests. How dare they try to make money?!? Oh, the horrible injustice of it all! One blogger, one of the best commentators on the industry out there, was so embittered he seemed to lose his mind for a minute and practically demanded restitution because he felt it was the efforts of the tiny whisky geek community that allowed this billion dollar multi-national corporation to even attempt to re-brand the Mortlach name in the first place. Rising prices and NAS whiskies are nothing new, so why the increased outrage over this Mortlach stuff, why were people positively apoplectic? Here’s why. Because, with the exception of the US market, the bottle size for the Mortlach range will be 500ml. Yeah, you read that right. The prices for all four expressions, including the “Rare Old” NAS, entry-level (meaning it will be the easiest-to-find and the youngest…rare and old, indeed), are considered quite high for normal size bottles…and these new bottles are going to be a third smaller. Gosh, thanks, Diageo, how nice of you to try to sell us less for more. Who knows what the prices for the 750ml bottles that will be available here in US will be, I shudder to think about it.
The high prices and NAS whiskies, I would hope most people saw coming. The small bottles for even more money…I don’t think anyone saw that coming. That’s awful. It will be even more awful if it sets a trend and we see more brands on the shelves in smaller bottles with bigger price tags. High prices are one thing, but to be blatantly told you’ll be paying more for less is just relentlessly offensive. Lately, it’s felt to me that the whisky community in general has forgotten that the whisky industry is there for one reason and one reason only – to make money. It’s not there to make inexpensive, high quality whisky for a relatively small number of people. People yelp and howl about the greed of the industry and then post pictures of their huge collections online – it all seems a little naive and disingenuous at the same time. This time, though, this time the ranting and raving is well deserved. Diageo…you have gone too far. Hopefully this time whisky drinkers will more or less turn its back on this new level of greed. This isn’t a call to boycott, it’s just a wish that people will recognize that they’re being taken for fools and react accordingly. It’s usually hard to say if something as subjective and luxurious as whisky is “worth the money” – by what and whose standard do you judge that? Then there are those rare times, however, like this one, when the standard is clear, when you don’t even have to try what’s in the bottle to know that the money-grubbing is too crass, too egregious, and the cost is way, way too high.
The second reckless moment in booze marketing was a lot less enraging and depressing. Thankfully it came not from the whisky industry, but from the beer industry. In mid-February, Miller rolled out their new Miller Fortune beer in a large, and somewhat desperate and obvious attempt to…I don’t know…do something! Big Beer, and by that I mean A-B InBev (Budwiser) and MillerCoors (Miller and…uh, Coors), control the large majority of beer sales in the US. But recent years have seen a small but steady decline for these ubiquitous brands. While the numbers are not staggering, the trend is clear, these big beer brands are losing market share to spirits, wine and even a little bit to craft beer. Young drinkers have turned away from these brands and they not likely to turn back. In an effort to appeal to these young whippersnappers who like their brown water and fancy beers, Miller has come up with “Fortune”…and it’s pretty much gone downhill after that.
The idea was that Fortune would appeal to spirits drinkers, specifically whisky drinkers apparently, and those cocktail enthusiasts who look for more complex beverages. I guess it didn’t occur to them that whisky drinkers and cocktail enthusiasts are…whisky drinkers and cocktail enthusiasts and therefore perhaps prefer whisky and cocktails. If they are into beer, they’ve already found a more complex beverage than Bud and Miller Lite…it’s loosely called “craft beer” and there’s approximately 9,458,345 different kinds out there.
According to the press release, Fortune “is an un-distilled, spirited golden lager”. This was shocking news to me. I mean, when was the last time you had an un-distilled beer? What would that even taste like? Like Diageo’s smaller-bottles-for-even-more-money-ploy, I sincerely hope MillerCoor’s un-distilled beer fad doesn’t take off, that would ruin beer for…oh wait, ALL BEER IS UN-DISTILLED! If you distill beer, you know what you have? Whisky (kind of, more or less…in a rough manner of speaking). While trying to snare drinkers who aren’t going to be interested in the product anyway, the PR people managed to cleverly state the obvious and confuse the issue all at the same time.
Mentioning the words “distilled” and “spirited” put the new brand into some early trouble when an inaccurate Bloomberg News Service article clumsily made references to the “bourbon-like lager” with flavors “hinting at bourbon” and made a big deal out of the idea that this is a beer you’re supposed to pour into a rocks glass, not a beer glass. MillerCoors had to come back out and do a little damage control to clear-up the erroneous notion that this was a flavored or bourbon barrel-aged beer. They didn’t clear up the beer in a rocks glass thing, though; that was their idea. Seriously. In their effort to recapture the palates of those who have turned away from beer and towards spirits, they’ve decided that Fortune’s amber color looks bourbon-like and therefore will appeal to bourbon drinkers if you put it in a rocks glass. Here’s what bourbon drinkers actually like to see in a rocks glass: bourbon. People spend tens of thousands of dollars on getting marketing degrees, a big company like MillerCoors supposedly hiring the best and the brightest of ‘em, and what they can come up with is, “maybe we can get knowledgeable spirits drinkers to drink our beer if it looks like bourbon and we tell ‘em to put it a bourbon glass! Hell, it’ll sell on looks alone!” People drinking spirits and cocktails are doing so because they like spirits and cocktails, NOT because they like to have something amber-colored in a rocks glass…that seems obvious to me, but then again, I don’t have a marketing degree.
This brings us to the beer itself, which is technically an American Amber Lager, a lighter style not really known for deep complexity. It’s 6.9% alcohol which means, technically because of the lager style, you wouldn’t be wrong in calling this a malt liquor…also a style not really known for deep complexity, certainly not known for being a rocks glass worthy beer. So, in the end, we have a relatively simple style of beer wrapped up in an edgy bottle and silly, confusing marketing speak, made by a huge beer company that seems to be just lobbing shit out there and hoping it sticks in an effort to recapture a bit of market share that they probably don’t have a chance of recapturing no matter what they do. Why? What the hell was MillerCoors thinking on this one? Trying to have a beer compete in the spirits arena is like throwing a cat into a tank full of sharks. The cat is just not going to make it. This is not a slam against cats, cat-lovers, if the shoe was on the other paw and you tossed a shark into a sandbox full of cats, chances are the shark’s a goner.
So there we have it, two reckless moments in booze marketing, one depressingly, relentlessly and aggressively money-grubbing, the other desperately flailing, ill-conceived, and silly. Unfortunately, Diageo knows exactly what’s it’s doing. MillerCoors, apparently not so much.