Brand identity is about much more than a well-recognised logo. It’s about how a company looks, sounds and behaves. It’s about ensuring a high level consumer clarity about what makes a company and its products different, trustworthy and appealing. In the case of the 2018 Glenrothes brand overhaul, owners Edrington have to my mind given themselves a new mountain to climb. Whilst the change from age statements to vintages aligns Glenrothes with Edrington’s two other distilleries, and makes stock easier to manager over the long term, at the same time, it presents a challenge to communicate to new and existing consumers what is actually unique about distillery’s whisky.
It’s clear to see that Edrington have a set mould for how they’d like to market their three distilleries. Indeed, I find the approach a little unnerving. In each case, simply pick a number and add a synonym for ‘foundation’:
Glenrothes - Four Corners
Highland Park - Five Keystones
Macallan – Six Pillars
If another distillery joins Edrginton’s stable, then they’re playing for either three or seven.
Taken in isolation, the foundations style does help to contextualise the whisky-making art – the main aspects of the distillation and maturation process, the dedication of the teams working on each of them, and to a limited degree the differences between the three Edrington distilleries in terms of their approaches (the unique aspect of Glenrothes being its slow distillation in very tall stills with boil bubbles – producing a spirit particularly suited to sherry cask maturation) But, looking from the top down, and particularly when I start to read (on the HP Keystones entry for sherry oak cask) ‘…..casks contributing up to 80% of our whisky’s final flavour’, the methodology here starts to feel generic and cookie cutter.
Sure, the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch glassware remains, but everything else, including the approach to brand identity has now been homogenised. The discontinued vintage releases offered real discernible differences across the range. A fixed core range provides Glenrothes consistency, but if you don’t particularly like any of them, then you’re going to be quickly looking elsewhere. And the whisky market is as fickle as any other.
Where does the Glenrothes (with fewer corners to keystones or pillars) fit in? Whilst the distillery’s link to sherry cask maturation has long been a ‘thing’, Edrington are keen to push this aspect further - the distillery’s new website has a meta title of ‘Sherry Cask Speyside Single Malt Whisky’, and the core range Soleo Collection is entirely composed of sherried single malts. But, is that truly enough of a differentiator?
The 18 year old entry in the Glenrothes Soleo Collection is created entirely from sherry seasoned casks with a high proportion (unspecified) of 1st fill seasoned oak. The bottling has a higher ABV than the range’s more accessible entries – but, not much, a somewhat paltry 43%. This seems like a strange decision when you consider the price proposition which is completely in line with the new normal – a shy under £100 from Master of Malt.
Nose: Upbeat, ripe and fresh with newly picked pears and peaches sitting with dried mango slices. Toffee and buttery biscuit (base) sit with an orange fruit tea infusion, milk chocolate and plenty of scattered herbs (sage and mint). In the background, white sandwich bread and delicate but perceptible cinnamon and clove spicing. The addition of water brings out some toast and choux pastries as well as adding in slight polish and orange oil aromas.
Taste: Highly ‘Rothes’ in character – a malty chocolate bedtime drink with coffee beans and grounds and a solid heart of orange zest. Spicing is more punchy here – ginger, cinnamon, allspice and cloves – as things more steadily into an oak-forward territory with vanilla sponge cake and toffee popcorn. The mid to back palates develop a satisfying coffee and walnut cake creaminess, whilst scattered raisins and sultanas add yet more sherry-influenced character. Reduction here should be very sparing – there’s not much ABV to work with alas – a few drops introduces hot chocolate, and ups the orange character – tangerine, nectarine and clementine with lemon butter biscuit.
Finish: Medium, spice-forward (particularly ginger), developing into tannic steeped tea and drying oak.
The new Glenrothes 18 year old is a tasty but safe offering. There’s a good level of sherry cask integration whilst the distillery character remains alive and kicking with a strong malty orange vibe. However, at the same time, everything feels largely benign for 18 years of maturity – there are no surprises to be had here. Whilst the nose is rather lovely, the palate squanders the earlier promise with an overabundance of modern oak. Of all the bottles in the Soleo Collection this one makes me miss the supplanted vintages the most – similarly aged expressions were erratic and uneven, but often possessed an element of excitement to them. Conformity is great thing for stock management and, also for the ability to market a consistent house style – but it usually comes with an associated loss of originality. Walking the road less travelled can make all the difference.