Whisky snobs, look away now - your favourite tipple is going trendy

Distillers are tempting younger drinkers away from their beer and alcopops. Jane Bainbridge reports

Like the spirit itself, whisky drinkers take time to mature. While that may be good for the flavour, it is not good for long-term sales of the product. With older men making up their core drinkers, whisky producers are having to address the problem of a declining market.

Like the spirit itself, whisky drinkers take time to mature. While that may be good for the flavour, it is not good for long-term sales of the product. With older men making up their core drinkers, whisky producers are having to address the problem of a declining market.

Derek Brown, the director of brand heritage at Famous Grouse, says: "Like any business, you're continually reviewing the consumer base. People get older, so you have to recruit new people or you will decline."

But persuading younger - and female - drinkers that whisky is their tipple is not always easy. One of the biggest barriers to take-up by younger drinkers is that in the UK whisky is traditionally drunk straight, while in Southern Europe, up to 90 per cent of whisky is mixed.

The main exception in the UK is the American bourbon, Jack Daniel's. Its popularity among younger drinkers, and hence impressive growth (10 per cent increase a year, according to Mintel) is largely down to the fact that 85 per cent of it is consumed as a Tennessee Twister (mixed with cola).

How whisky is served is becoming a key area in the battle to win a new generation of drinkers. At Salt, a whisky bar and restaurant in London, half of the signature cocktails use whisky, and the more familiar Rob Roy, Whisky Mac and Whisky Sour are also available. Lincoln Hall, the managing director of Salt, says the bar attracts more women than men, with female drinkers tending to go for the cocktails in preference to straight whisky.

Appealing to women is an interesting dilemma. On the one hand, the overt masculinity of the advertising and culture of whisky can alienate female drinkers, but creating brands specifically for women is not generally seen as the answer. Paul Godfrey is the group marketing manager, malt whisky portfolio global at William Grant & Sons. He says: "Ironically, women like whisky because it's masculine. Some of the brands failing have tried to appeal to women with a different product. For a lot of women the product is acceptable and the masculinity is an area of appeal; it is part of the approbation of male rituals. A year ago we were working toward a feminine whisky, but after research we decided it was a terrible idea. Women don't want girls' versions of the drink."

The Macallan, however, created a new product to appeal to a younger and possibly more feminine palate. In September last year it introduced its Macallan Fine Oak malt - a slightly lighter, more delicate spirit - to appeal to younger, urban drinkers.

Ken Grier, the director, says: "We've done a lot of work in the US, which is a big market for Macallan, and there the urban, chic metrosexuals are just getting into single malts. We've been running very targeted advertising, particularly in the colour supplements. The young urbanites crave the status of the single malt. There are a considerable number of women who are very attuned to the world of luxury."

Whisky is well placed to tap into the trend of personal indulgence and "new luxury". Despite the headlines about binge drinking, there is a move toward drinking less, but higher quality, among some groups. And when whisky distillers talk of targeting younger drinkers, this still generally means people in their thirties rather than late teens or early twenties.

William Grant's Glenfiddich has targeted younger consumers through music. Its Independent Mix programme was a series of music nights at London venues, with the Radio 1 DJ Gilles Peterson playing at the main event. And it has promoted its Essential Serves - Glenfiddich with a twist and ice to make it a longer, more refreshing drink.

Famous Grouse has been working with the bar trade to share information on ways of drinking the whisky. "We're feeding the trade, we think it works and we're giving permission to consume it in different ways," Brown says.

Where does all this leave the traditional whisky drinker, who may not like to see their malt messed about with? "There's a huge amount of bigotry around whisky," Godfrey says. "We are about the democratisation of whisky so that people are free to enjoy it in any way they choose. It's not about breaking the rules, but reinterpreting them,"

And not everyone thinks that ditching the "dad's drink" image will necessarily upset older consumers of whisky. "The older market is very proud to see the products they know and love being used by a younger, trendier audience. There's pride because they got there first," Grier says.

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