Kevin Abrook’s work is not something that will go unnoticed. His team is responsible for many of the new spirits that you see right now on the market. Whisky collectors looking for more expressions of Kininvie and Ladyburn, you know who to thank.
Previously as Global Marketing Manager for Innovation at William Grant & Sons (WGS), Kevin’s job essentially was to assess WGS’ portfolio and devise new products for launch, which to date include Kininvie, Ladyburn, The Girvan Patent Still, and Ailsa Bay. If you haven’t read about the new expressions available in Singapore, check out our post here.
Today, Kevin’s role to travel the world to share about the products that he and his team were responsible for. Interestingly, he holds the title of a Global Whisky Specialist for Innovation as opposed to the more conventional ‘ambassador’. Semantics, really. It does nothing to change the fact that he’s genuinely excited about what he does.
As a family-owned company, WGS has comparatively little budget when it comes to the exercise of marketing. But it also means that they have to double up on their creative efforts if they are to stay in the game. Who better then, to help explain and share information about the new whiskies than the man who was responsible for them coming to market in the first place?
Can you take us through the process of coming up with a new label?
The process is fairly consistent in the sense that the first thing you do is you look at the opportunity, you look at the market size, the trends, and also the timing – timing is very important.
For example, Kininvie, as people say, “Why now?” I think that apart from the fact that the whisky was tasting really good, we had seen in the market a lot of single malt enthusiasts jumping onto new expressions. They love experimentation. We’ve also seen the collectibles market, what with people investing in whisky, so that was a driving factor too.
The other thing is, there’s the whole craft movement. So, what does one mean by craft? And I think, I would argue that Glenfiddich is crafted, as craft is about quality. But I think people like to see new things and small distilleries. Now, Kininvie isn’t a small distillery but the batches are small, everything is reclusive; that is just a nice story that we had. And the thing is, it underpins all our innovations. You have to have a business opportunity but you also have to have a story, a real story that is rooted in heritage. And that goes through all William Grant’s projects.
So once you decided, OK there’s an opportunity for Kininvie, there’s an opportunity for Ladyburn amongst whisky enthusiasts and whisky lovers, then you decide, well, which markets? For us, for example, Asia is an area where William Grant’s as a whole, is weak, and yet it is a very strong single malt market.
We have our own distribution and that’s important here: you’ve got a good route to market, it’s a big market, and as a company we’re not doing so well in Asia. That was a logical step for us, and for these two (Kininvie and Ladyburn) in particular. We’ve got a growing number of whisky enthusiasts in Asia, and Taiwan in particular.
So the whisky explosion decided for you that Kininvie was to be released as a Single Malt?
Yes, and I have to say not only in Scotch. So for example another project that we launched (not in Singapore at the moment) is the Girvan Patent Still Single Grain. Before I joined William Grant’s in the mid-90s, they did have a single grain called Black Barrel, but it flopped. Why? Because it was a very good product, we don’t know why. But we suspected, at that time, the timing wasn’t right. Whereas now, funnily enough, single malt enthusiasts were asking us, “we know you’ve got a single grain distillery, why don’t you do something?” And Single Malt enthusiasts don’t just drink scotch. There’s a huge interest in Japanese whiskies, and also there’s Irish – there’s lots of Single Grain Irish – and we’ve also seen the trend for Nikka Coffey Grain. People like to experiment. That’s why the time is right now for single grain.
Is Girvan destined for the global market? Or is it targeted for select markets?
It’s global. Same for Kininvie and Ladyburn as well. This is all part of the gap analysis that we do. We saw that serious collectors and investors were interested in Ladyburn. Whisky enthusiasts and single malt lovers would be interested in Kininvie because they’d like a notch on the bedpost – it’s one they haven’t had. Single grain is completely different because we felt there’s an opportunity bring new people into whisky. However, that’s the long-term strategy. Initially, with the Girvan Patent Still, our strategy was to target single malt drinkers simply because those are the people who are going to have the most whisky knowledge and single grain is a bit harder for people to get their head around it. So we go to Single Malt lovers first with our aged single grain, and then we go to a much broader audience with a non-age statement.
What would be your messaging for single grain whiskies? How would you pitch this to single malt drinkers?
It’s very simple. Aged single grain, in great casks, with great wood management, is every bit as good as aged single malts, and we have the liquid to prove it. So for instance for our 25 Year Old Girvan Patent Still, there’re three words that I’ll use to describe it: liquid crème brûlée. It has this wonderful richness of flavour. We say on the bottle – in terms of marketing – it’s deliciously different. It’s not like blends, and it’s different from malt. It is a lighter style of whisky for sure, but aged in first-fill bourbon casks, which gives richness and complexity. And that’s the message we want to get: single grain can be rich and complex. It’s wonderful tasting liquid.
With regards to new expressions, is the approach different from how you would do it in Europe or the United States?
Yes. Well, you can’t talk about Asia as a region, there’re individual differences within each market. In Taiwan, for us it’s very different, and easier in some ways because we have three retail centres that we own (The Balvenie Center). So that gives us an automatic route to market for our rare expressions. Again the distribution channels are different in China, as they are in Singapore. The one that is common though, is that we’re able to identify whisky collectors and high net worth individuals. These brands – I mean, Ladyburn isn’t cheap, so it’s going to be somebody who has some wealth who is going to afford it. And that’s the thing that’s common across these markets: identifying where those people purchase their whisky, and hopefully, get them to purchase our whisky rather than other rare scotches.
Back then you launched 10 brand variants in 2014. That’s quite a lot. Why?
That’s right, in 2013, we launched Kininvie 23 Year Old in Asia, and we launched the Girvan Patent Still 25 Year Old in the UK, both of which were exclusives. But we didn’t want to just have a niche for each one of those so, in 2014 it was important, particularly for Girvan, to build a range. So we then launched the non-age statement, No. 4 Apps. We launched 30 Year Old, and then we launched Proof Strength, and 28 Year Old for Travel Retail. And that was to say, look, Girvan Patent Still is a range, and if you are championing a new category as we are with single grain, a range says, “it’s a big brand.”
Then for Kininvie, we didn’t want this just to be in Taiwan, so the second run (Batch 2) was for Europe, and the third was the 17 Year Old (Travel Retail). And then we had the Rare Cask, then we had the Ladyburns, and then the Rare Cask Reserves. So we had a lot going on – sorry I’m racing ahead – Rare Cask Reserve is a collection of rare, bespoke, premium aged blended whiskies above 21 years old, again using our rare stocks. And the key thing about that is the bespoke nature – it’s personalised for different customers. And five of those were launched in 2014.
It was a very busy year because as a company, we realised that we hadn’t been innovating enough. There was an anecdote that somebody said about William Grant: it’s like waiting for a London bus. You’d be waiting an hour for a bus to turn up and all of a sudden six turn up at once.
Our chairman Glen Gordon was a big driving force behind innovation, because he felt other companies are doing a lot of innovation in Scotch and we’re not and we need to do more. There are marketing opportunities but it has to be driven from the top as well.
Is the trend for constant innovation going to continue?
I don’t think we will have as many. I think the 10 variants in 2014 was really to extend the range and fill up the gaps, and have other opportunities with our blends. It was really good because William Grant won World Whisky Innovator of the Year in 2013, and Scotch Whisky Innovator of the Year in 2014. I don’t think we’re going to see that pace of innovation because we need to bed those down.
That said, we will be coming up with something new every year. So this year, it’ll be Ailsa Bay Single Malt, and a range of premium blends called Hazelwood. And we will develop those in the typical William Grant way: we will seed them in a few countries first, and then extend it. For 2017 and 2018 there are some other things in the pipeline but I can’t say yet. It won’t be 10 in one year, that was hard work and it was a lot of pressure getting 10 new products out in 12 months. Logistically as well though, as a company, we need to sit back and say: actually, what’s really important? And I think you’d be seeing more of that from William Grant in terms of, being very careful about what we launch and making sure we launch them in the right way.
You mentioned there were difficulties; which to you were particularly daunting? And which of these variants are you most proud of?
I’m proud of all of them. You know, as I said they all contributed to William Grant winning innovator of the year in 2013 and 2014. I suppose it’s not every day that you get to launch a brand new category, so I guess I’m really proud of Girvan Patent Still. But I’m also proud of the work on Ailsa Bay Single Malt, which literally only been launched the last month or so (not in Singapore yet). That liquid is fantastic; a perfect balance of smoke and sweet. The packaging is really unique and contemporary because we realised, while it’s a heavily peated single malt, we couldn’t out-Islay Islay. So we couldn’t have a traditional whisky. We had to have something that celebrated a 21st-century distillery that is Ailsa Bay. It is a very contemporary packaging and I love the packaging work I did on Ailsa Bay.
Generally, the biggest challenge was the packaging. The bottles we actually turned around fairly quickly, but packaging has a really long lead time. And particularly the Kininvie.
When you open the pack: you’ll see it’s quite a complex pack. The box is from one supply, the insert is from another supply; you got the leaf, the fold-away fly leaf at the front, and the actual covering of the packaging is different from the box supply. So getting all those different components together to make the pack and then deliver them on time, requires a huge lead time.
And, we’re always under pressure to launch things quickly, and these are the challenges that we had no leeway with whatsoever. Everything had to be ASAP, everything had to work right first time. We had a great team back in Scotland developing the packaging. They did a brilliant job. But it was not easy.
Moving back to Ailsa Bay. What made you decide to go peated?
I think that was Peter Gordon’s (ex-chairman, WGS) vision. The Ailsa Bay distillery started initially to supply the blended market. The majority of the whisky is what we call, a Speyside style of whisky. But Peter Gordon wanted to produce a heavily peated whisky that didn’t have any medicinal notes; as he described it, a perfect balance of smoke and sweet.
So essentially a peated Speysider?
No, because we have Speyside whisky and we have peated Glenfiddich. Peter looked at the whole Islay sector and he felt that there was a gap. A lot of Islay whiskies are peaty; they have medicinal notes and they’re very dry. He felt that there is a gap for something that delivered (just) on that smokiness and peatiness, the sweet and smoke.
It was his vision really, and we had a lot of ability to create different distillates. We have stainless steel condensers on a couple of the stills so that gives a more sulphury, heavy type of whisky. We can be very creative with the whiskies that we produce.
What’s the eventual direction for Ailsa Bay? Just NAS expressions?
I can’t say about the future. I must admit, I think much of the original thinking was we would produce a peated whisky for peated whisky lovers, because we don’t have a peated whisky brand in our portfolio. The logical thing to do would have been to come up with a 10 Year Old to launch in 2018. But what we did was to mature them in ex-Hudson Baby Bourbon casks. We matured them in those before we transferred them to other casks, and that gives them this accelerated maturation. We’re not hiding anything – I mean the whiskies are five to seven years old. And people know the distillery was only built in 2007. But we felt the whiskies were really tasting fantastic now.
As a company, we think that non-age statements are actually quite good, because it focuses on what whisky should be about, which is the flavour, rather than getting hung up on the age. But of course, whisky connoisseurs in particular love age statements.
What about Hazelwood – why that name? Isn’t that what Kininvie used to be called?
2013 was the first time that Kininvie Single Malt was released under the Kininvie name. But Kininvie Single Malt was released as a 15 Year Old, called Hazelwood 105. And that was to celebrate Janet Sheed Roberts’ (great grand daughter of founder William Grant, and swho officially opened the Kininvie distillery) 105th birthday. It wasn’t for sale, and it was about 1,500 bottles that were given to staff. And I think it was 2006. Then in 2008, there was a second expression of Kininvie Single Malt (17 Year Old) to celebrate her 107th birthday. That was for sale, but it was only for the opening of Heathrow Terminal 5. I think there was only about 300 bottles.
So, that answers the question about Hazelwood; it’s associated with Janet Sheed Roberts. She lived in Hazelwood House on the Kininvie Estate. Janet Sheed Roberts was a remarkable woman. She was the oldest living woman in Scotland and lived to a 110. But she led an incredible life. She qualified as a barrister, and that was in the 1920s, which was really unusual at the time. Women had only just got the vote. She travelled the world on her own and she visited Paris, Mumbai, and Shanghai – centers of the Art Deco movement of the time, so that’s the inspiration from the packaging point of view.
The name Hazelwood is inextricably linked with Janet Sheed Roberts. The packaging design takes its cues from the Art Deco from the cities she visited. And the liquid does, too. The 18 Year Old is based on Paris. You think of Paris, you’ll think of sophistication, elegance, and so the liquid is sort of an elegant style; it’s got a lot of Kininvie and Girvan in it.
When you think of Mumbai, you think of spices, you think of exuberance, you think of exoticness. So the liquid for the 21 Year Old Hazelwood has some sherry in front. It’s old, it’s spicy, it’s got notes of leather, dates and honeycomb. It’s great.
The 25 Year Old is based on Shanghai. You’d also think of something exotic, but it’s more floral in style so it’s sort of like lotus flower, orange blossom; it’s got some of Girvan’s influence in there. All the different styles are reflective of the cities that Janet Sheed Roberts visited.
So will it be launched here?
I don’t know the answer but I think Singapore does have some sort of Art Deco quarter, I believe, or perhaps Raffles will have some sort of Art Deco architecture so potentially it could happen.
But at the moment, it’s available in Global Travel Retail, and we have it in two outlets domestically (UK). We have it in the Savoy hotel, which is an Art Deco hotel in London, and the Prince de Galles on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, which again is also an Art Deco hotel.
Perhaps that’s the start. It’s available at Global Travel Retail because Janet Sheed Roberts travelled. And then we would be picking specific accounts, specific bars and hotels in specific cities that have an Art Deco culture.
But will it be available for travel retail here in Singapore?
It should be, yeah. It was launched in Paris last month at the Paris Charles De Galle airport. But it will be coming to Changi and other airports later this year.
What about Ailsa Bay?
No, that won’t be in Asia for a long time. We’re launching Ailsa Bay in the UK, because that is its home, and Nordic markets, because the Nordic markets have a very high capital consumption of heavily peated whiskies. So we’re going to the markets which have a taste in peated whiskies first. So this year the UK and the Nordic countries, next should be Northern Europe, and the year after maybe we’ll extend it to other markets. Ailsa Bay will be an ongoing release; there won’t be any batches releases.
So back to the Kininvie, will both 23 Year Old and 17 Year Old be batch releases?
The 17 Year Old will continue to be a batch release. Batch 1 was from 2014, Batch 2 was produced at the end of 2015, so you’ll see it on market in 2016. Our plan is to have one production every 18 months or so. So our plan for travel retail is to continue with the batches at about 25,000 units globally.
Any reason why one is done by batch, and another is an ongoing release?
Travel Retail wanted an exclusive; they wanted something different. So really, it is about listening to our customers. Because with the 17 Year Old, people are picking it up, and they’re opening up their bottles and they’re drinking it. We know that. The issue we have is in the 23 Year Old, where people are buying and waiting for it to increase in price on the secondary market. That’s not happening with the 17 Year Old. So we take the batch numbers off, and say, “look, it’s a standard signature style and we want you to drink it. It’s a lovely whisky.”