Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Of Whiskey And Innovation (Part 2)

A small number of companies own most of the world’s major distilled spirits products, so it’s not surprising that we often see them doing similar things across their portfolios. ‘Innovation’ is the hot buzzword right now, even in the whiskey space which is usually innovation-averse.

You’ve read here about Diageo’s recent innovations with its Crown Royal and George Dickel brands. Now it’s the flagship’s turn.

Introducing Johnnie Walker The Spice Road, the first of a portfolio of whiskeys that take their inspiration from the traveling heritage of John Walker & Sons. It’s available only in duty free stores, but it shows what ‘innovation’ means for the world’s leading whiskey brand. (A title that goes to either Johnnie Walker or Jack Daniel’s, depending on how you count and who you ask.)

This is not a flavored whiskey, as one might be entitled to suppose. It’s a special, limited edition blend. Scheduled for future release are The Gold Route and The Royal Route. Here is how Master Blender Jim Beveridge describes this premier release: "To create the intense spicy flavor profile of Johnnie Walker The Spice Road, we used well-matured single malts and grains, presenting all their fresh vibrant distillery characters, aged in carefully selected, high quality American oak casks; and of course there is a trace of West Coast smoke in the background - revealing the classic Johnnie Walker signature.”

Duty-free means limited availability, and many readers of this blog have little interest in blended scotch. This is interesting nevertheless because it shows another way a whiskey-maker can innovate without necessarily making a new whiskey from scratch, thereby avoiding the many years of lead time that entails. It also ties-in neatly with the distribution channel, a very sophisticated maneuver.

It’s a good story too. Here’s the gist of it. From 1820, the Walker family and their agents traveled the world, navigating their way down the famous trade routes: the Spice Road of Europe and Asia; the Royal Route from Europe to Persia; and the Gold Route of the Americas and the Caribbean.

Their efforts ensured that, by the 1920s, Johnnie Walker had arrived in 120 countries and was being enjoyed on the great railways, luxury ocean liners and early transatlantic flights. Meanwhile, the striking image of the Johnnie Walker Striding Man was becoming an icon all over the world.

Back in London, close to the shipping houses and docks from which the Johnnie Walker agents traveled the world, Alexander Walker established the Travelers’ Room (pictured, above) where his agents would convene to rest, talk strategy, and exchange stories and samples from their travels.

This all sounds true and, assuming it is, it means Diageo shows more respect for Walker’s history that it does for Dickel and Bulleit, its main U.S.-whiskey brands, where it prefers fiction.

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