Sunday, August 26, 2018

A Fistful of Bourbon

Fistful of Bourbon: Scotland’s American Whiskey Gamble

William Grant is introducing a blended American whiskey and hoping that its expertise with blended Scotch will translate across the pond.

By Wayne Curtis

A Fistful of Dollars was a 1964 film starring Clint Eastwood that launched the genre of “spaghetti westerns”—Italian produced and directed movies shot abroad but set in the 19th century American West. Naturally, Quentin Tarantino once called it “the greatest achievement in the history of cinema.”

Fistful of Bourbon is set to be released in early September, starting in Texas and then rolling out nationally over time.

It is not a film, but rather a whiskey (obviously). I suppose you could call it a “haggis western”—that is, it’s produced by the noted Scotch firm, William Grant & Sons, which was founded in 1887, and famously makes Glenfiddich and Balvenie single malt Scotch whiskies. (It also produces Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum and Hendrick’s Gin, among many other popular spirits, including bourbons from its Hudson Whiskey line.) One early but discarded marketing idea for Fistful of Bourbon featured a silhouette of a cowboy, the drones of a bagpipe rising against the sky.

As with most new genres, Fistful breaks a few molds. Most traditional bourbons, save for a handful of craft entries, are bottled to look as if they could be props from an Eastwood western—marketed in old-fashioned medicinal-looking bottles, with dark labels featuring antique type lifted from a “wanted” poster.

Fistful takes a different route. It’s adorned with a wonky, ’70s-ish hand-lettered label. “The inspiration for the bottle design comes from the craft beer industry,” says Emily Ivers, senior brand manager for innovation at William Grant. “The idea was to pick an adjacent category, where the liquid is obviously king, but at the same time it’s irreverent and fun and playful. This brand aligned really well with craft beer.”

But the biggest departure of this new whiskey may be the liquid inside. It’s assertively touted as a blend: the front and back labels feature variations of the word “blend” no fewer than seven times. That reflects the fact that William Grant is sourcing straight bourbons from one or more unnamed distillers, then blending these to arrive at its desired flavor profile. And it’s doing so openly and unapologetically.

This might raise an eyebrow because the word “blend” is often a seen as kryptonite for whiskey lovers in North America. The category developed a bad rap after World War II when brands flooded the market with cheap blends to try to satiate drinkers who were thirsty for bourbon and rye, which had been in short supply during the war. The only problem was that these blended American whiskies were in many instances a little bit of whiskey and a lot of neutral spirit—leaving some to dub this “whiskey-flavored vodka.” Once the straight bourbon and rye were old enough to sell and became widely available, the demand for blended whiskey decreased to just a trickle. For the record, Fistful of Bourbon will not include neutral spirit, just different straight whiskies.

Kelsey McKechnie, whisk(e)y blender at William Grant, says Fistful consists of a mix of five distinct straight bourbons (that is, bourbons aged at least two years), with each selected for a certain flavor profile, (for instance, butter/toffee or leafy/floral). It’s bottled at 90-proof, but nobody at William Grant will reveal which distilleries are producing the whiskies, how many are supplying the bourbons, or the mashbills (the portion of grains) used in production. “In Scotland, we don’t do that sort of thing,” McKechnie says. “We never get into the nitty gritty of where the distilleries are. We really want to focus on the craftsmanship, and not make the story about back end. It’s about the nose and the taste.”

“Blend” has a more esteemed heritage overseas. Most of the Cognac you drink is a blend—that is, famed producers like Hennessy and Courvoisier buy up a wide array of liquid from small distillers, then selectively blend barrels for quality and consistency. Blending in France is a hallowed art.

Much the same could be said in Scotland, where Scotch producers traditionally acquired single malts from a range of producers, and then blended them together with grain whisky to make popular and respected products, including The Famous Grouse, Chivas Regal, Johnnie Walker, and Dewar’s.

At William Grant, that blending tradition has long been nurtured and developed. So, when the company looked at entering the American bourbon market, it didn’t hesitate. “In Scotch, we blend all the time, and we’re so proud of it,” says McKechnie.

Fistful is certainly not the first bourbon that consists of blends of other whiskies—High West Distillery, based in Utah, has been blending sourced whiskey for a decade, and other craft producers like Redemption have used a similar model. But few have been quick to tout that these were blends, leaving savvy consumers to figure it out by scrutinizing the label’s fine print.  

In contrast, the front of the Fistful label loudly boasts its blended credentials: “Created with over 100 years of whisky blending experience.” In some ways, this is a reprise of William Grant’s marketing of their category-defying Monkey Shoulder, a blend of malt whiskies from three Speyside distilleries (with no grain whisky). Since releasing it more than a decade ago, they’ve proudly touted it as a “blended malt Scotch whisky” on the label, and bet that the American consumer they’re aiming at hadn’t yet acquired negative notions about “blended Scotch.” And they’ve been proven right—Monkey Shoulder has been quite popular, selling about 300,000 nine-liter cases last year.

“There’s definitely some education to do,” says Ivers. “but the liquid will speak for itself.”

And Fistful’s taste? Impressive, in my estimation, especially at a suggested retail price of $25. It greets you with a peppery tingle typical of a high-rye bourbon, but then attenuates into a pleasing, mildly grainy softness, with a finish as wide as a prairie. Charlotte Voisey, director of brand advocacy at William Grant, says the marketing focus will be chiefly on consumers rather than bartenders (as is more typical for many William Grant products), and is formulated to mix easily. She suggests an Old-Fashioned with a grapefruit peel substituting for an orange twist.

“It’s an American whiskey, but it comes from us so there’s a Scotch underlay to it,” Voisey says. “It’s the craftsmanship and know-how of making Scotch that’s really the point of difference here.”

Just add Clint Eastwood.

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