Scotch Blends: Look out for the wave

Patience Gould checks out the latest state of play in the blended Scotch whisky world – and finds much cause for optimism

One of the key happenings in the coming year on the blended Scotch whisky circuit will be the re-emergence of Cutty Sark on to the world stage. It is two years since Edrington acquired the brand from BB&R Spirits and it’s taken that long to put it through a very thorough MOT. 

“As of this month we will be driving the brand forward. Had we gone earlier its engine would have blown up – it would have failed its MOT,” says Edrington’s brand controller for Cutty Sark, Jason Craig. “Now we are way more confident and it’s all systems go.”

Edrington is keen to point out that there was no need for sweeping changes. It was just a question of rediscovering the brand’s roots and its DNA while giving it a dusting down and overall tidy up. Another factor the new Cutty Sark team had to consider was how the brand fitted into the Edrington portfolio, which boasts on the blended front The Famous Grouse and on the single malt front the redoubtable Macallan, as well as Highland Park.  

There was nothing for it. As historical archives were thin on the ground, the team needed a book of words, and to this end commissioned top specialists to write a book about Cutty Sark and its history. “This was the underpinning of the brand,” says Craig. “It brought home the pioneering spirit of Cutty, which, for starters, was blended by wine merchants so therefore paler than the existing brands on the market – in a sense it was more like a white wine to a rich dark red – and it took off.”

Prior to Edrington’s acquisition the Scotch whisky, with its iconic yellow label, was in year-on-year decline and part of the problem was that BB&R Spirits did not have the critical mass in terms of distribution so was forced to pile all the proverbial eggs into a handful of baskets, which one by one came awry. Of late in Europe this just happened to be Spain, Portugal and Greece – and in the 80s Japan and the US, markets which, of course, have been under siege over the years, and the subsequent downturns have done nothing for the brand. 

“It was a nightmare scenario which could not sustain the brand going forward,” says Craig.

So the Cutty act has been honed – its colour sharpened and its availability broadened courtesy of Edrington’s global distribution pact with Jim Beam, Maxxium. As a result there is a five-year rolling plan in position charting a 30%-40% growth – so clearly the team is in confident mood.

“While Grouse is a very premium and very traditional Scotch whisky, Cutty Sark is not – it has appeal with the younger, mid 20-year-olds – 65% men and 35% women,” says Craig. Along the way Craig had a Road to Damascus experience in Madrid when he witnessed a group of young people with a bottle of Cutty on the table, mixing and drinking it with obvious enjoyment. “This is what it was originally intended for – it’s lighter and sweeter and a much more accessible Scotch than most,” says Craig. “There was no need to change this – just to get it out there.”