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Diageo’s Classic Malts – Taken Hostage by Johnnie Walker?

by Oliver Klimek on January 23, 2011

For a whisky blogger these days there are few things as convenient as joining the Diageo bashing game. Kilmarnock, Roseisle, Manager’s Choice, general company secrecy, you name it. Yes, there are a lot of things to critizce. These and others are all issues that have caused headaches in the whisky community, and rightly so. And I admit to have been playing that game too.

But what often gets forgotten along the way is the fact that many of their distilleries make a bloody good whisky! Granted, the famous label “Classic Malts” is not much more than a marketing initiative. Depending on your viewpoint, either a lot of malts can be regarded at least as “classic” as some the Diageo range – Macallan, Bowmore, Highland Park or Glenlivet are just a few random examples. Or you could argue that there actually none at all because single malt bottlings from before the end of the 20th century were so esoteric that they played only a minor role in the history of whisky after the invention of the column still and the subsequent world conquest of blended whisky. If at all, Glenfiddich would probably be the only malt deserving the “Classic” attribute because it was this distillery that first recognized a global commercial potential for single malt whisky, long before Diageo launched their range.

But admittedly in modern times at least two of them actually have gained a status that will secure them a place in the Whisky Hall of Fame – Lagavulin and Talisker. Even among the most critical experts, these malts – even in their entry level versions – have become benchmark whiskies setting standards for others, and ones that even the most sophistiated palates love to return to every once in a while.

Strangely enough and contradictory to the fact that Diageo is Scotland’s biggest whisky maker by far, many of their malts go pretty much unnoticed. Just look at the semi-secret Diageo distilleries without proper official bottling ranges. Of course there are the one-off special releases or ranges like Flora & Fauna, Rare Malts (R.I.P.) or Manager’s Choice,  but to really explore the full potential of distilleries like Mortlach, Benrinnes or Linkwood you have to rely on independent bottlers.

But also most of the Diageo distilleries with proper bottlings have a very limited bottling range. Quite a few of them only have a standard expression along with the Distillery Edition adding a cask finish to that. And some distilleries like Cardhu only offer their basic 10 or 12 year old and nothing else. When you are looking for expressions that are 18 years or older, the air is becoming pretty thin. Only 3 of the 27 Diageo distilleries currently offer them on a regular basis: Caol Ila, Knockando and Talisker. Gone are the days of the legendary Lagavulin 21, 25 or 30, are they gone for good?

There is a simple reason for the shortage of older Diageo malts and the inavailability of some original distillery bottlings. The whisky branch of Diageo is entirely focused on blends. As important the marketing of the Classic Malt range may have been for the continually rising demand for single malts in general, the top positions of the sales statistics are held by their competitors. Single malt whisky has always played second fiddle to blends at Diageo headquarters. And it will most probably continue to do so.

The global demand for blended whisky seems to be so high that the 27 malt distilleries in the Diageo porfolio are having a very hard time to cope with the needs of the Johnnie Walker bottling facilities. There is just not enough malt left to mature for longer than strictly necessary. The installment of Roseisle distillery is of course another consequence.

There have been speculations that Roseisle may in fact free up production capacities of other distilleries, leading to hopes among maltheads that we perhaps might see more official bottlings of the “hidden” Diageo malts. But I have my doubts, because Diageo justified Roseisle basically with predictions of future growth. And to be honest, Roseisle may be a pretty big distillery, but it is not spectacularily huge. In fact it isn’t even the biggest malt whisky distillery in Scotland, that merit goes to Glenlivet. So if Diageo has problems now to cope with the demand and if the future demand will be even higher, Roseisle may just fill that gap leaving the traditional distilleries under the same pressure as before.

And should global demand for blended whisky decline again in the (hopefully distant) future, what will Diageo do with their overcapacity then? Will they use it to bottle more single malt whisky or will they mothball or even close down some of the small distilleries? Time will tell.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Steffen Bräuner January 23, 2011 at 3:15 pm

Diageo is too busy bottling Brora and PE these days to consider any older vintages Lagavulins :-)

Steffen

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Michael January 24, 2011 at 1:52 pm

Lots of very good points Oliver.

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Jason Debly January 27, 2011 at 8:46 pm

Great post!

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Bernhard Schäfer January 28, 2011 at 2:36 pm

TGL is not the biggest concerning output, this is still Glenfiddich
Diageo has the goal of making additional 20Mio LPA
10mioLPA are made by Roseisle (and it will be bottled as well)
10mio LPA shall be shared by the other distilleries.
Every big company is focused on blends, do not forget without these blends we would have even less distilleries left.
And in general what you write is wrong, since the classic malts saw the light of the day, more and more expressions of single malts came on the market (and not only Diageo, virtually all producers have more then one expression, nowadays).
Thinking back to the 80′s there was usually one (1) expression of a whisky available regularily (it was different if you were going to the disitlleries themself). And today? Go to a ordinary supermarket and you find a range.
So I am not worried at all….

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Oliver Klimek January 28, 2011 at 2:50 pm

1. According to the Malt Whisky Yearbook 2011, Glenlivet has a capacity of 10.5 million litres, Glenfiddch and Roseisle have 10.0 million.

2. All other major conglomerates making blends also have top selling malts, just Diageo hasn’t. Pernod Ricard have Glenlivet, Grant’s have Glenfiddch, Edrington have Macallan.

3. Did you read this sentence? – “As important the marketing of the Classic Malt range may have been for the continually rising demand for single malts in general, the top positions of the sales statistics are held by their competitors.” Is this wrong? Or did you mean something else?

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