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What’s In a Whiskey Name?

Posted on  | July 23, 2014   Bookmark and Share
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photo credit: allthingswhisky.com

There is no whiskey named Chutzpah yet, but who’s willing to bet against that happening? With new brown goods popping up almost weekly, the latest kid on the shelf is apt to be sporting a purposeful moniker. The classical-sounding “Glens,” “Macs” and “Olds” have worn thin, prompting marketers to seek fresh angles to grab attention, provide hooks to remember and, ideally, characterize the liquid at hand.

Catchy is key, what with Peat Monsters and Supernovas and Alibis and Ron Burgundy beckoning whiskey lovers. Some brands have stories behind the name; others are pure fancy (with fancy packaging to boot). The trend is unfolding at all price points, in every crevice of the category, from classic malts, bourbons and crafty small batches to flavored “party whiskies” and even product from Japan, Taiwan and India.

Perhaps most important, new-name whiskies are part of a broader movement, echoing the quirky labels of the craft beer boom as well as blend-driven cheeky names in wine. The collective effect is to make the whole category more modern. And with Americans well-attuned to expressive brand names in all sorts of consumer goods, this trend is likely to continue if not accelerate.

Fire in the Hole

Consider that the whiskey created by Seagram in the mid-1980s as Dr. McGillicuddy’s Fireball Whiskey received almost zero attention in the U.S. until it was re-dubbed “Fireball” in 2006 and emblazoned with an animorphic demon to promote its rebellious appeal. Now Fireball’s following is the envy of the brown goods world, and it has plenty of fiery company. To wit: Red Shot, Fire Eater (from Early Times), Cinerator (Heaven Hill), as well as the new Jack Daniels Tennessee Fire and Jim Beam Kentucky Fire. Similarly, the recent spate of honey-flavored whiskey labels imply that bees were involved in enabling that next round of shots at the bar.

Not every label is so self-expressive, but in some cases that doesn’t much matter. What is a Red Stag anyway? Of course, one might ask the same of Old Crow and Wild Turkey. Nonetheless, Jim Beam Red Stag came with a bit of mental superglue that helped the brand ramp up the flavored whiskey genre. By contrast, another recent Beam innovation, Devil’s Cut, has a solid pitch—highlighting a process that extracts whiskey trapped in the bourbon barrels’ wood after aging and then reintroduces it to the blend
for extra oomph.

Sometimes the connection between a whiskey’s name and its provenance is very direct. Jefferson’s “Ocean” Bourbon declares its raison d’être—having been “Aged at Sea”—on the front of the bottle. Several entries in the Isle of Jura portfolio (Superstition, Origin, Prophecy) reference the folklore of the tiny Scottish island where the single malts are made. But it’s not always obvious. Monkey Shoulder Scotch is named after a repetitive stress injury the malt men used to get when floor malting was all the rage in Scotland; dragging a malt rake around in circles all day resulted in one arm hanging lower than the other (hence monkey shoulder). Chicken Cock, a flavored whiskey line from Island Club Brands out of Charleston, SC, may sound like something a sly 12-year-old came up with, but in fact was the name of a product launched in 1856 and supposedly popularly served in a can during Prohibition.

Novel Twists

There can be serious piggybacking at play in modern whiskey packaging. Witness Highland Park’s Valhalla Collection recruiting famous Norse gods (Thor, Loki). With Larceny, Heaven Hill taps into the legend of Treasury agent John E. Fitzgerald, who allegedly stole whiskey from the warehouses he patrolled. Monument Valley Distillers (including John Wayne’s son Ethan) has launched Duke Bourbon, based on the style of whiskey the iconic actor enjoyed. Tincup, part of Proximo’s portfolio, honors the legacy of Colorado miners who drank their whiskey from metal cups—like the one now crowning their bottle.

And sometimes, a name is just a name. Entries in Diageo’s limited edition Orphan Barrel series—Barterhouse, Old Blowhard and now Rhetoric—have no real story behind them other than being bottled from re-discovered old barrels, but the packaging is rich with retro graphics and text.

In 2012, Allison Patel and her husband Nital (a branding expert who has worked with Samsung, Hershey’s, Pizza Hut and Walmart) launched Brenne, a French barley-based single malt finished in Cognac barrels and aged around eight years. The emphasis is on floral and fruit notes, with no smoke and light wood, and the name (pronounced “Brenn” not “Bren-neh”) derives from a French word brien, which refers to a single blade of grass. Allison Patel does acknowledge some confusion (“People have definitely called me Brenne, thinking it’s my name”), but the name and non-Scottish packaging (sky blue, with a script font) are working, as Brenne is now in 20 states. “This isn’t a Scotch whisky impersonator,” she says. “It’s an elegant whisky, and I wanted the name to be just as elegant.”

Name, Rank and Age Statement

Single malt Scotch traditionally has been paced by age-focused releases; think The Macallan 12 Year Old, Laphroaig 10 Year Old, The Glenlivet 18 and so on. While age statements might not precisely indicate quality, they certainly convey a sense of the cost and perceived status.

The expansion of so-called No Age Statement (NAS) whiskies in the past few years has created a whole new marketing challenge. Scottish law requires producers to use the youngest whisky in the mix as the basis for its age statement. What if a bit of three-year aged spirit will perk up a fading 25-year spirit? You have to call it a three-year-old whisky or not state an age at all. With the genre’s cognoscenti raised on such statements, suppliers were challenged to find concepts—and names—that would prompt buyers accept high-end peers not defined by age.

When it comes to something like Glenmorangie Signet—a $200 expression featuring a blend of whiskies ranging from 12 to 21 years and aged in a combination of ex-sherry and new oak—Brand Ambassador David Blackmore says he relishes the hard[er] sell: “It’s so much more interesting to talk about the creative process, both the whisky making and naming, than just an age statement—which is, after all, just a marketing construct from another era.” He has a point; there’s nothing magical about the 10, 12, 15, 18, 25 pattern. “The idea is to create names that explain some of the personality of the whisky in question,” Blackmore adds. Signet is inspired by a tribal standing stone, among the most important archaeological finds in Scotland. How much that influences a whisky purchase, we may never know.

Last year, The Glenlivet launched Alpha, a $100 limited-edition NAS single malt in a mysterious black bottle, with absolutely zero information about the contents. No age, no barrel finishing, nothing. Soon after its release, story behind the whisky’s creation was “revealed” online. In a separate promotion, the brand invited its online fanbase, The Glenlivet Guardians, to a series of tastings where they voted for one of three mystery blends entitled Classic, Revival and Exotic to be the group’s next exclusive bottling (Exotic won).

Compass Box, a decade-old, unorthodox and well-regarded blender of Scotch whiskies, takes something of a modernist, rock-and-roll approach to naming its collection. In fact, the recent Delilah’s is an American oak-aged tribute to Chicago’s punk rock whisky bar. More recently, The General, a new blend of very old sourced whiskies, addresses concerns that some critics have about precious names “hiding” the contents of the bottle. Compass Box’s John Glaser insists that provenance, in this case, isn’t as important as the finished product.

The Real Name of the Game: Selling It

Bars and shops, of course, are keenly aware of the steady stream of stylish new bottlings. Vincent Mauriello, managing partner for the Gerber Group (Whiskey Blue, Stone Rose Lounge and other hotspots in multiple cities), is an avid bourbon drinker and wonders about the veracity of some of the cleverly named products. “Often the reason all the stuff is on the bottle is because the whiskey isn’t speaking for itself,” he reasons. However, he likes the broad range of expressions, barrel finishes and experimentation going on right now: “Our guests love to try new things, even if they typically go back to their home base. They love the flavor that different styles of wood, char or aging can bring.”

Frank Giresi, owner of Whiskey & Wine off 69 in Manhattan, which carries 300+ SKUs of brown goods, is excited about the trend. “There are so many interesting names, especially for bourbon,” he says. “Like Smooth Ambler, Big Peat, Widow Jane. The Widow Jane made from red Indian corn is fantastic stuff.” Christine Kennedy, a spirits specialist at the store, notes that while doubts can still arise, particularly with sourced American whiskies whose origins might be fuzzy, she notes: “For the most part, if I tell people that the whiskey doesn’t specify exactly where it’s sourced from, but it’s really good, they’ll give it a try.”


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