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Finishing school

Published:  18 January, 2007

Judging by the recent Whisky Live event in Glasgow, the malt-whisky business remains as innovative as ever, especially in the wood-finish department.

For those with a shortage of malt distilleries but no lack of imagination, this sub-category has proved a useful outlet for their creative juices. And it isn't just to keep distillers and their marketing teams off the streets - there is genuine demand, at least from the sort of consumer who turns up to Whisky Live.

According to Richard Patterson, master distiller at Whyte & Mackay, the thirst for novelty among such people is near insatiable. You've got to come out with something new the whole time.' To keep the punters happy, Patterson has finished his Jura and Dalmore malts in casks that contained everything from Cabernet Sauvignon to Palomino Fino. But rather than shout the name of the previous contents on the front label, Patterson prefers to tell stories', as he puts it. Hence his latest Madeira-cask finish is called Black Pearl, with a description of the volcanic island on the back label.

A similar tack was taken by Bowmore with its Dawn, Dusk and Darkest ranges, which represent Port, wine and Sherry casks respectively. Quite whether the consumer realised is another matter, and the names are currently under review'. Meanwhile owner Morrison Bowmore has just launched four new expressions, including an Auchentoshan Bordeaux finish with an RRP of 60. Over at Glengoyne they are touting a Scottish Oak finish introduced five years ago by the distillery's previous owner, Edrington. In Europe, Glengoyne is also available in Port, rum, Rioja and claret.

And so it goes on, especially from the small- and medium-sized distillers, for whom finishes are a way of gaining

a greater share of voice. Yet even the mighty Diageo, with its 27 distilleries, has entered the fray - albeit discreetly. For the Distillers Edition, the six Classic Malts are each decanted into a different type of Sherry cask for a few months. Arguably the most successful is the Lagavulin Pedro Ximnez finish, yours for around 42. At this level, finishes are very much a niche category, there to stimulate interest among malt-whisky lovers and give specialist independent retailers something to push without fear of price-slashing competition from the multiples.

But the real pioneer of wood finishes also plays heavily in the mainstream. When Glenmorangie launched its Port wood finish in 1994, no doubt many in the industry saw it as a passing fad. Yet this first expression - together with Sherry and Madeira, which were launched two years later - has proved an enduring core range. With the addition of Burgundy 18 months ago, these finishes can be found clustered round the mother brand on many a supermarket shelf. Like the coffee in Starbucks, Glenmorangie has sought to add value by adding flavour. With a price premium of 2 on the standard 10-year-old, the finishes account for just over 15% of the brand's sales in the UK off-trade. The company claims it has not cannibalised sales of the mother brand, which, it says, has grown steadily since 1994. With the 10-year-old so ubiquitous, UK sales director Jim Cook is convinced finishes have been vital in keeping the brand fresh and consumers loyal. Also, in what marketing director Simon Erlanger calls a lovely side benefit', the extended family has hogged a lot of shelf space, much to the frustration of potential rivals. The strategy appears to be working. The latest figures from AC Nielsen have Glenmorangie up 16% in the off-trade in the 12 months to August, stretching its lead at the top of the single-malt charts over former leader Glenfiddich. Rather than copy Glenmorangie, William Grant's has gone for a higher price bracket with their rum-finished Havana Reserve (now called Glenfiddich Gran Riserva).

As with all new finishes, the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) takes a keen interest, and Grant's had to come up with historical evidence of past use. With empty rum barrels left behind in Liverpool and Glasgow by British sailors, it's fair to assume the Victorian whisky trade would have used them. Less defensible has been the abuse of provenance. When terms like Islay cask' began to appear on labels, alarm bells started to ring. For a Speyside malt to spend a few months in something that had once held Laphroaig, for example, smelt of overheated marketing. Of course, it's rampant in the food industry - think of Mediterranean-style peppers' from Holland - but the SWA is quite rightly clamping down.