Posted on | April 28, 2014
Written by | Jeffery Lindenmuth
In their food, and in their beverages, today’s savviest consumers value authenticity and artisanal production. This group, which helped fuel the boom in microbrew beer and the craft distilling movement, are often the frontline of acceptance.
For some, the small scale and hands-on approach that defines craft spirits might seem at odds with a U.S. spirits and wine industry leader the size of Pernod Ricard USA. After all, the company includes behemoths like Absolut, Chivas Regal, Beefeater and Jameson, each a leader in its class. Yet, Pernod Ricard points out that each of these flagships enjoys the company of one or more smaller compatriots in their category. It’s a big-picture view, where micro-brands complement, rather than compete with, their larger siblings, while also benefiting from the distribution and awareness a larger spirits company brings.
Absolut has always been an innovator—with packaging, advertising and flavor extensions. With Absolut Elyx, the brand gets back to its origins of small, site-oriented distilling, by using single-estate wheat, distilled in a copper rectification still known as Column 51. “We are using technology from 1921, all manually controlled. It is really going back to the roots of what we’ve done, to utilize human supervision over every detail and offer something more for consumers who discern quality,” says Nick Guastaferro, Brand Director for Absolut.
Unlike Absolut’s previous super-premium entry, Level, which seemed to distance itself from the Absolut name, Absolut Elyx embraces the power of its well-known brand while telling a highly credible story of craftsmanship. “We think this is a new category, not a super-premium but a luxury vodka,” adds Guastaferro. Elyx currently has a strong focus on the on-premise, where bartenders value the vodka’s unique taste properties and silky texture.
Canadian whisky has long been the sleeping giant of the whiskey world, remaining generally sluggish in terms of growth and lacking the small-batch mystique that boosted American bourbon. Without a bourbon in the portfolio, Pernod Ricard looked to their Canadian partner, Corby Spirit and Wine Limited, for authentically North American whiskey. The result: Pike Creek and Lot 40.
Like many of the best handcrafted spirits, both of these whiskies come from a visionary master distiller, Don Livermore, who puts his PhD in wood science to good use in refining the maturation of these northern whiskies. “He is a mad scientist when it comes to many types of wood and how they react,” says Paul Di Vito, VP Irish & North American whiskey. “With Pike Creek, we talk about the cool climate and the swings in temperature affecting the maturation. It’s also finished in a Port barrel for 6 months, so it offers the kind of complexity a connoisseur can fall in love with.” Lot 40 is similarly unique among New World whiskies, made with 10% rye and aged in 100% virgin oak.
All in the Family
While Jameson remains the largest and most dynamic story in the fast-growing Irish whiskey segment, Pernod Ricard demonstrates leadership with small marques that show the diversity of style and price that are available within Irish whiskey. “We control 86% of the Irish whisky category, and most people here know Jameson and maybe Powers, but the key thing driving the explosion is the appetite for discovery and exploration,” says Di Vito.
The single pot still Redbreast 12 Year Old has been growing organically for the last decade, according to Di Vito. It’s a divine spirit, well-loved by connoisseurs, but when courting fans of the exclusive, small and unique, innovation is paramount. So, Pernod Ricard has introduced Redbreast 21 Year Old, limited to just 20 cases for the U.S. Connoisseurs can also look for Green Spot, which has entered the U.S. market with similar cheers from Irish lovers. “We are building a diverse category, and the truth is if we were not Jameson, it would be very tough to justify launching Green Spot, so that bigger brand strength is a real asset,” says Di Vito.
Midleton Very Rare is another example of an Irish whiskey that is truly handcrafted, and one that varies with each vintage. “Billy Leighton does that blend while Brian Nation handles the distilling personally,” says Di Vito. “These are genuinely tiny brands and the only thing that separates them from craft distillers for me is that these guys have been doing it longer.”
Laurent Cutier, Brand Director, Scotch & Single Malt, draws a comparison to smaller brands as being like young seedlings, that demand nurturing and care until they are firmly rooted: “What we do well at Pernod Ricard USA is greenhousing small brands and giving them time to grow. A brand like Plymouth Gin is a perfect example of that attitude,” says Cutier, pointing to the historic brand that Pernod Ricard has successfully championed right alongside benchmark Beefeater.
The approach is similar with Aberlour, a single malt Scotch that remains the boutique companion to the much larger Glenlivet, which is in itself small by some comparisons. (The Glenlivet sold 385,000 9L cases in 2013, big by Scotch standards, yet dwarfed by many leading vodka brands.)
The emphasis at Aberlour is on the people and their craft. “We have a rare continuity of workers at the distillery,” notes Cutier. “The people that make the whisky today are the same ones that made the whisky 18 years ago. They have seen that whisky from creation to maturation. Aberlour is further distinguished by the use of hand-selected ex-Sherry casks.
Cutier says these are exciting times for whiskey, and he welcomes the newer entries that are making the category so dynamic, while continuing to educate on the differences afforded a century-old boutique producer. “Some of these newer entries are well done; some others will improve their craft with time,” says Cutier. “Crafted and small batch don’t always guarantee quality. Know-how and a hundred years of expertise distilling and aging whiskey make a difference.”