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The Macallan Ice Ball Serve – Cool or Chilly?

by Oliver Klimek on March 16, 2010

The Macallan officially launched their new “Ice Ball Serve” machine yesterday, a heavy brass device that can mold chunks of ice into spherical shape. It basically is a branded adaption of a Japanese invention already on the market. Some pictured reports had already been published by Macallan representatives, and to finalize the launch, a flamboyantly worded press release was published on What Does John Know?

Normally, this would have been a non-event for me. But the whole circumstances of the launch, along with the blog discussion sparked by the publication of the press release, highlight a topic that I have been wanting to adress for quite a while now.

Ice in Your Whisky?

At the first look, this is just yet another re-incarnation of the age-old discussion about whisky and ice, intensified by The Macallan’s explicit mention of single malt whisky as an object to be adorned by the not-so-new ice balls.

To set things straight: For me it does not matter, if some people prefer their whisky with ice, be it a Famous Grouse or a 30yo Macallan. But I don’t. It’s entirely up to personal preference and I don’t want to play the missionary man.

But hidden underneath the obvious exchange of arguments pro and contra whisky and ice, there is another issue worth to be discussed.

A Dumbed-Down Rolls-Royce

As much as I don’t really care about the whisky-with-or-without-ice discussion, as much I am concerned about what this means for The Macallan in particular and for whisky in general.

Frankly, I don’t like the direction The Macallan is heading to. After the introduction of the Fine Oak range, this is another step towards the former Rolls-Royce of whisky transforming into a Vauxhall Corsa.

Carefully reading the press release and the blog comment of The Macallan’s US brand ambassador, it becomes obvious that this move aims at making The Macallan attractive for a new customer base hitherto mostly untouched by Scotch single malt whisky: bar goers and cocktail drinkers. By promoting their ice ball machine in prestigious bars all around Britain (and probably the rest of the world in the future), The Macallan wants to get the attention of the hip urban people in order to convert them from Margaritas to Scotch on the Rocks.

It is true: The physics behind the big ice balls really acts in favour of keeping the original qualities of the drink as intact as possible because the ball melts slower than your average ice cube. But honestly, this does not really matter at all to this clientele. Cocktail lovers are used to enjoy diluted drinks; they love slowly sipping Mai Tais or Caipirinhas through mountains of crushed ice. No, it’s all about the “I want one of those” effect that these big balls and the machine on the bar are suposed to have on the locals.

It’s not that I am against cocktails, I even created my own Macallan cocktail – The Machattan. But I see major problems with this approach:

Marketing instead of Quality is the Motor of Innovation

Both the introduction of Macallan’s fine Oak range and the Ice Ball Serve have their raison d’être in broadening the customer base for The Macallan. The question was not: “How can we make the best possible whisky?” but “How can we sell as much whisky as possible?”

In my eyes, this marketing-driven approach to whisky making is a real danger for the quality of whisky in general. To appeal to as many people as possible, compromises must be made. The ultimate result would be a generic unoffensive dram that is almost indistinguishable from its competitors. But this also means that it may be replaced perfectly well by a cheaper product at any time, if the price is perceived too high. The doomsday scenariao of a downward spiral in quality lingers in the future.

I don’t want to paint too bleak a picture here, but the question has to be asked if offering Macallan on the spherical rocks to whisky novices really can create a brand awareness fuelled by product quality. Or will they only perceive it as a generic brown spirit that may well be exchanged for any other booze if they feel like it?

Only if novices are properly informed about the true values and properties of whisky, there is a chance that they will stick to it and will even buy bottles of Macallan to enjoy at home without the need for a monstrous machinery.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Drink Spirits March 16, 2010 at 8:25 pm

You have to wonder who they are targeting. If someone is going to spend that much on an ice ball maker you’d think they’d have access to some of the finer whisky out there and perhaps an appreciation for it without ice.

And for people who do like ice, there’s a simple mold sold at the MoMa gift shop and eBay that gives you something close and just as effective:

http://www.momastore.org/museum/moma/ProductDisplay_Spherical%20Ice%20Tray%20Set_10451_10001_57253

I still go by Peter Zimmerman’s advice with water and whisky:
http://www.drinkspirits.com/whiskey/water-is-to-whisky-as-air-is-to-wine/

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Oliver Klimek March 16, 2010 at 8:42 pm

Or why not try the original version of “on the rocks” with polished pebbles out of the freezer. They can also have a certain coolness factor.

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Whisky Nut March 17, 2010 at 12:27 am

Whats wrong with the Fine Oak Range? Have you tasted the 21 year old? Its gorgeous and its just won another award.

How can you infer that the quality of the Macallan product has or will be diminished just because some people like their whisky on ice? Ice ball serve is just a bit of bar drama and its likely to hook more people into wanting to know more about whisky because its different – a conversation piece. At least the Macallan are trying something new. I’m now going to buy those home versions from the Moma store and make my own :)

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Oliver Klimek March 17, 2010 at 6:15 am

Will you have the FO 21 with ice?

I was specifically addressing the younger Fine Oaks that are most likely to be served this way. I tasted the 10yo and 12yo before I began to make notes, so I don’t have them on my site. But I am not very eager to try them again as for me, there are just a shadow of their Sherry Oak counterparts. And I am not alone with this opinion when I look around on the net for opinions on those. There ist not much difference between a FO 10/12 and all those Glenwhatevers that are usually cheaper than the Macs. And the ice job further dilutes this difference, IMO

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Whisky Nut March 17, 2010 at 10:39 am

Whether or not I have my 21 year old Fine Oak with ice comes down largely to the situation I’m in. If its a bloody cold night then I don’t think I would – maybe a splash of water. But in the summer yes I think I would. Why not? Whisky is there to be enjoyed. Some days I want to be a purist and others I don’t.

I think really if you are a massive fan of the Sherry Oak then I can see why the Fine Oak might not be your thing. But for many drinkers its perfect. For me the 15 year old Fine Oak is the perfect dram to give someone who might not be a massive whisky drinker. They love it – far more than the Sherry Oak. It has a light delicate flavour and the vanilla tones are just delicious. But does that mean Fine Oak isn’t up to the standard of Sherry Oak? Not at all.. Its just different and as they say variety is the spice of life.

Sure people will always argue about whether you should put ice in your whisky, and fair enough too.. All adds to a interesting debate methinks. Does it mean Macallan is going to hell in a hand basket. Nah…

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Jason's Scotch Whisky Reviews October 13, 2010 at 1:50 am

The trick you and other bloggers (myself included) is resist the charms (ie. free samples, and other compensation) that the whisky industry dangle in front of you in exchange for using your site as platform for them to roll out their canned media campaigns . . .

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David Alexander November 5, 2012 at 3:56 pm

I’ve managed to find one on ebay that’s currently bidding at £279, which is a fair price considering the RRP is over £600 usually. Pity I don’t take ice in whiskey though

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