Last year saw a confounding number of self-proclaimed authorities on parliamentary practice. 2020 has revealed a staggering number of armchair epidemiology and virology experts. But rest assured dear readers, since time immemorial, everyone and anyone has believed that they can ‘do marketing’. Its genesis can be traced back to antiquity, and its early professional practice was solidified during the time of the industrial revolution. Unlike some career functions, marketing is everywhere you look – both inside and outside of your workplaces. And this ubiquity has resulted in everyone thinking they’re a marketeer – particularly now, in an interconnected world that has provided us with the platforms, tools and voice to freely share our opinions. But as the whisky world can regularly attest to – turning hype into hyperventilation is still a skilful endeavour.
For every distillery, bottler and bottling you’ve heard of – there’s another that you haven’t. The marketplace is becoming increasingly crowded (though it still seems more than capable of sustaining a wide swathe of commercial opportunities) to a point that keeping up with the raft of new distillery opening, new bottling enterprises and the ceaseless sausage factory of new expressions is near enough a full-time pursuit/obsession.
At the same time, most whisky enthusiasts still possess a relatively constant amount of time and money to spend on the hobby. And so, every new venture and product release finds itself vying for the same amount of limited attention and (in most cases) not un-boundless wallet. And that’s where the power of brand marketing comes in.
Contrary to the popular belief that brands are solely defined by their visual traits – logos, colours and packaging – when examined holistically, a brand’s definition can and should reflect a set of expectations, beliefs, stories and memories and relationships. And a brand strategy only comes to life when its personality and emotion are infused into what a company says and how it behaves when it crosses the paths of each of its audiences.
Whilst there’s always plenty of scoffing from the bloggerati at the notion of ‘whisky brand experiences’ and storytelling – both have been vital to the growth and continued interest in category. There will always be some who prefer their whisky as it comes – just a plain bottle with as much technical information as possible and little else. But it’s important to recognise that similarly to any other products, this level of geekiness and noodling doesn’t appeal to all consumers – indeed it has only a very niche appeal – enough to sustain a bottler sure – not nearly enough for the whole industry. Folks should be careful in wishing the whole world moulded exactly how they want it. No one ever benefited from homogeneity. It’s all very well suggesting that “without the marketing this bottle could be £20 cheaper” – but this is a super simplistic view that fails to recognise that without the marketing you’d likely not have heard of the product, and indeed it might not have ever existed.
The best producers and bottlers recognise the both the power of marketing communications, and their increasing necessity for the hyper competitive market that whisky has become. And the best producers and bottlers can be seen to be continually engaging with enthusiasts – both in-person (when such things were possible) and especially digitally. These activities not only forge brand loyalty and the ability to communicate the expectations, beliefs, stories and memories and relationships which engender it – they also provide barriers to entry for eager new entrants.
Barely a week goes by without a new bottler entering the market. And I’ve been around long enough to see more than a few come and then promptly go. It’s survival of the fittest. And whilst in the eyes of many, the quality of the liquid is the defining factor of success for any producer – in reality, it’s a jungle out there. There’s more than enough high-quality whisky out there – in order to succeed, brands have to go further to ensure they’re getting eyeballs open, attentions switched on and wallets opened.
That brings us onto today’s review. Skene Whisky is a brand that (before researching for this article) I was only passingly aware of. They’ve been bottling a variety of single and blended malts for the past four years and are possibly best known for producing the easy-going, well-priced (£28.57 from Master of Malt) Black Tartan. I’ve read online that they’re planning to release a number of new ranges later in 2020 – Skene Reserve, Sherry Editions, American Oak Editions and Peated Malt Editions – all at 48% ABV (higher than most of their previous releases).
The company appears to have forsaken both their Twitter and Instagram accounts for the past two years – and their only presence online as far I can tell seems to be via Facebook where there’s an array of beautiful photos of Scottish landscapes and generic stock photos of whisky being poured – and very little about their whisky save for the occasional post highlighting a Skene bottle (with no information provided about what it is and why it should be thought of as special) and simply a link to purchase.
But as you’ll see from my review below, Skene are clearly bottling some fantastic whisky - it is therefore my opinion, that they’re in desperate need of a little promotional love to let the world know about what they're bottling. Less stock photos of landscapes, more engaging content about what makes their liquid worthy of the attention of consumers – a clear framing of the expectations, beliefs, stories, memories and relationships. A little of the personality and passion that’s in the bottle onto the page. A little bit of effective marketing and communications.
Skene’s latest release is the blended malt Black Tartan 88 – no prizes for guessing the vintage. The single cask (#00016) release is composed of three Highland malts (strong rumours abound of an Edrington merger between Glenrothes, Highland Park and Macallan) that were blended at birth – I.E. the different makes were filled into an ex-bourbon hogshead simultaneously, rather than the amalgamation bring brought together post maturation. The result is a 31 year old that’s been bottled at 48% ABV. 337 bottles have been produced and were released last month directly via the Skene whisky webshop for £248.
Nose: Whilst this opens on a selection of bright, polished fruits –orange peels, peaches, gooseberries and melon balls – a modicum of patience sees it singing more tropically with tinned pineapple rings and guava added into the mix. Honey slathered over biscuits crumbs is joined by shaved white chocolate, whilst tree resin and panel lacquer sit alongside mint leaf, angelica and a gentle spice mix of ginger and pepper. Elegance personified. Dilution sees the addition of warm fruit pastries – apricot tarts and peach turnover alongside homemade waffles – pronounced fruitiness is retained throughout.
Taste: The fruit-forward theme continues with an arrival which is delivered in its own tin of juices. Bright and viscous mango slices and guava together with Galia melon and an assorted selection of jellybeans. Deeply sheened oak is balanced perfectly against expressive (but never uninvited) cask char, puffs of the lightest heathery smoke and touches of menthol cough syrup. The back-palate favours spice – restrained pepper with some residue notes of chalk and coastalness. Dilution presents a massive shift towards mid-palate orange-y notes – zesty mandarins and jaffas with a sherbet zing and an addition of syrupiness from lemon drops.
Finish: Medium to long with minty char, pepper and a perfectly judged fading dryness.
Black Tartan 88 is excellent straight out of the bottle – and exceptional once given the patience of proper resting. It shines brightly with vivid fruitiness and deep, but balanced oak integration – signs of both great distillate and of a great cask. It’s a whisky that deserves wider recognition that it’ll likely presently receive. What’s missing here if the wider notion of the brand, and the personality and passion to wrap it all up in – and as outlined above, a brand is much more than just logo a bottle and some packaging.