Diageo’s new whisky, Haig Club, fronted by the famously teetotal David Beckham, is a bold step by the company and by ‘Goldenballs’ himself. It was reported back in February that Beckham and his manager, Simon Fuller (apparently more enthusiastic about alcohol), had been spotted being driven around Diageo sites – intriguingly not pagoda-roofed malt whisky distilleries but the rather industrial grain spirit distillery at Cameronbridge and a bottling plant.
So the launch of a new grain whisky product by the pair earlier this month didn’t come as a complete surprise. Haig Club comes in an apothecary-blue, square bottle; Haig is a centuries old whisky name, the internationally known blend Dimple being one of the associated brands. As for the contents, Haig Club is a no-age-statement (NAS) single grain whisky from Cameronbridge distillery (whence the Haig history derives) and is drawn from three cask types – first fill and refill ex-Bourbon and so-called “rejuvenated” casks. No RRP has yet been released though there is some speculation that it will be around £45. By comparison, a bottle of Dimple 15 Year Old will set you back little more than £30. This product spearheads Diageo’s response to William Grant’s recent, similarly improbably priced Girvan Patent Still releases and bears comparison with the Girvan No.4 Apps, a NAS which carries a similar provenance and price tag. Initial indications were that William Grant were targeting a £75 price point before an apparent change of heart, making one wonder just what kind of margins are involved here.
In fact, Diageo already produce what was (until the Girvan release) the only OB single grain whisky on the market, Cameron Brig, itself from Cameronbridge as the name implies. Although this is only available at retail from a few shops and bars around the Fife distillery and at the Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh it is readily obtainable from online retailers. The c. £22 asking price represents great value but the name and the bottle make this squarely a product for whisky geeks and working men’s clubs in Fife. Besides this, independent bottlers have been releasing single grain bottlings (many single cask) for decades. The last such bottle I procured was a 19yo Invergordon from SMWS for the quite reasonable sum of £54.70. Diageo and William Grant are attempting something different with their new products though, as their marketing indicates. Let’s look at William Grant first:
Jonny Cornthwaite, brand manager of Girvan whiskies, said it was important for William Grant not to price the new brand at an inferior point to single malt Scotch.
“We have a responsibility as the first major brand producing a single grain Scotch to set the standard,” he explained. “Single grain should be viewed as an accompaniment to single malt, and 25 and 30-year-old single malts cost this much too.
“This is a brave new step for us, opening up this new category in Scotch whisky.”
So William Grant are trying to push the notion of grain whisky as a premium product, the equal of its malt cousin. The jaw-dropping asking prices of the 25 year old (£250) and 30 year old (£375) would be a tough ask for premium malts of this age and the claim that William Grant are the first to market is simply specious. The pricing also simply ignores the existing market for single grains which is, in fact, already well established. I appreciate the purpose of marketing but, given the falsehoods above, how can we take this explanation seriously?
There are good reasons why single grains are priced at a discount to malts though. Firstly it is only expensive, high quality summer barley that goes to make malt whisky; grain spirit can be produced from practically any crop, such as corn. Traditional methods of distillation requiring malting and pot stills are inefficient and therefore costly. Grain spirit production on the other hand is industrial and therefore very cheap. Sites such as Cameronbridge use column stills capable of producing spirit continuously, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and resemble refineries (the main reason grain distilleries don’t open their doors to the general public). Cameronbridge produces c. 120,000,000 litres of grain spirit annually, around twelve times that of the largest malt distilleries and Girvan is not far behind. It is precisely this industrial process that results in a much higher ABV (up to 96.4%) with far fewer of the impurities that actually give malt whisky its character, i.e. grain new make has less flavour. This means two things: that variation in character between grains is much less pronounced than between malts; the spirit is much more reliant upon the casks in which it is matured for its character. Ultimately, the combination of all these factors mean that malt whisky is much rarer, more diverse and yes, generally speaking, a higher quality product. This is not to say that well-aged grains cannot match their malt counterparts for quality but rather pricing them the same is a confidence trick, a feat of marketing rather than a reflection of the costs of production. N.B. I must caveat the above with the fact that I haven’t yet sampled the No.4 Apps and I hear that some of the contributing casks are up to 18 years old but this doesn’t affect the substance of my argument.
Diageo take a slightly nuanced tack with their new product:
David Gates, Diageo’s Global Head of Premium Core Spirits, said: “Whisky is experiencing a continued global renaissance and like many of the world’s most respected whisky experts, we believe this will be the year that grain whisky breaks into the mainstream and gains the recognition it deserves. Diageo has a proven track record in Scotch Whisky innovation and we have applied this expertise through the House of Haig in liquid development and craftsmanship, creating a sophisticated new whisky in Haig Club.
“David Beckham and Simon Fuller are renowned for breaking boundaries and shaking up markets in every sector in which they work. We are immensely proud to partner with them on our first large scale grain whisky innovation.”
Beckham added: “The House of Haig has a rich history and I’m proud to be working at the heart of a home-grown brand which has built an incredible heritage over 400 years. Working closely with Diageo, we look forward to collaborating on Haig Club, valuing and treasuring the Haig traditions while reinventing this whisky for years to come.”
Simon Fuller said: “This is a long term commitment. It is important to us that we create something unique and of great quality. With Haig Club we have an opportunity to push boundaries and help shape how Scotch will be perceived in the future, it’s an exciting proposition. We could not wish for a better partner than Diageo.”
Haig Club has been crafted using a unique process that combines grain whisky from three cask types. This creates a fresh, clean style that showcases butterscotch and toffee for an ultra-smooth taste that the company believes will be enjoyed not only by current whisky drinkers, but also by those who have always wanted to try whisky.
Quite why anyone would wait to try whisky until David Beckham says it’s OK, I don’t know. But then Diageo obviously see him as an influential figurehead for the brand (it certainly has a unique image that has already been ridiculed in whisky circles). Overlooking the choice of a famously abstinent mascot, the problem I foresee is that Becks (and, by extension, anyone who might take a cue from him) seems like the kind of guy who would want his Haig Club in a highball with a mixer. Whereas this won’t be a problem for his pocket, outside of trendy bars I’m unconvinced that the touted £45 figure will appeal to many when there are (much) cheaper options available. The provenance of Haig Club, particularly those scraped barrels, doesn’t make for great reading either thus there seems to be little to attract the regular whisky drinker. While I should perhaps relax and reflect that this product clearly isn’t aimed at me, I can’t help but think that such launches represent a worrisome trend. The marketing men are clearly now turning their attention to grain and a ‘premiumisation’ process that began with aged malts and has extended to NAS expressions could now be brought to bear on single grain. Whether or not Haig Club and Girvan Apps No.4 are good quality or value on their own terms, I cannot yet opine. But if I get the opportunity to try them, I’d certainly like to line them up in a blind tasting along with a Cameron Brig and a 19yo Invergordon IB!
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