Weather, Whiskey, and Brand Making

The weather turned cold overnight and with that change came the anticipation of building a fire in the pit outside, cracking a bottle of whiskey, grabbing a blanket, and indulging in the annual tradition of spending the wee hours ushering in fall. Now, I am a seasonal drinker – in warm weather I lean towards bourbon, but when the first threat of a frost comes along my drink of choice is typically scotch. But on a whim, I recently picked up a bottle of Irish whiskey and I am strangely excited to settle down with it. Many an armchair historian, anthropologist, and poet has studied Irish whiskey, if only in the bottom of a tumbler. But this glorious spirt has drawn little in-depth consideration from scholars, which is a bit of a surprise considering this 500-year distilling tradition has been the inspiration for ballads, bootlegging, and British imperialism.

Before It Was Brown. In Irish Gaelic, whiskey is called usque baugh and its origins are decidedly old. But you would never mistake the original version for a glass of Tullamore. In its earlier incarnations, usque baugh was distilled from wine or barley alcohol. It relied heavily on an infusion of spices for its flavor, including nutmeg, anise, licorice root, cinnamon, and clove. Indeed there are recipes that called for gold (yes, the metal), pearls, and even ambergris – the byproduct of whale vomit so prized by perfume makers. In other words, it wasn’t the kind of thing you think of as whiskey. For comparison, think of something akin to Drambuie, but more heavily spiced. 

Nor was it originally consumed in the same fashion it typically is today. Traditionally, the imbibers used it as a digestif following a large meal served to a lord’s retinue. It was a token of hospitality and a physical expression of status (i.e. power). It was not a drink for the average man or woman. Things became more complicated when the British enter onto the stage. 

The British continually scoured their colonies for potential medicines, and so administrators and soldiers assigned to Ireland seized upon the local whiskey as a cure against the malevolent climate. Believing at the time that the body was governed by the four humours, whiskey was seen as a hot and drying agent, in contrast to the wet Irish landscape. And so it would be offered up as a curative. It’s during this period that the character of whiskey began to change. With British imperialism in full swing, resources diminished. At the same time, the tools of distillation became less expensive. As a result, the ingredients shifted to something closer to what we know today. As the Crown establish greater political domination over Ireland, so came greater social control. As early as 1608, the British sought to control and tax whiskey. Irish nationalists at the close of the 18th century would try to repress its excessive use. Whiskey had given the Irish a reputation for drunkenness, a bias that survives to the present day. Of course, there’s the issue of how colonized and oppressed people respond to being kept down, but that’s a topic for another day. More import for this topic is that nationalists wanted to show a culture of self-control to buttress their arguments for autonomy.

These efforts at suppressing whiskey had a predictable result: They created a black market served by rogue distillers. Usque baugh can be produced on a small scale, and so its production can be easily hidden. (This scenario should sound familiar to Americans. Irish, specifically Ulster-Scots, immigrants to another rolling landscape, Virginia, seeded Appalachia’s culture of moonshiners. ”Hillbillies” were called that because of their connection to a figure who has had pride of place in Irish identity politics for at least 300 years, William of Orange.) But things change. By the early 1800s, Ireland was the largest spirit market in the United Kingdom, with demand for spirit exceeding that even of more populous England. As capacities expanded, Ireland became the largest producer of spirits in the UK, and Dublin, then the largest market for spirits in Ireland, emerged as a major distilling center. By 1823, Dublin boasted the five largest licensed distilleries in the country. At their peak, the distilleries in Dublin would grow to become the largest in the world. Of course, peaks are inevitably followed by decline.

The Irish War of Independence and prohibition in the United States greatly impacted the Irish whiskey industry, cutting off access to the two major markets of the UK and the US respectively. Whiskey production in the country went into decline, leaving only a few distilleries open. In 1966, John Jameson merged his business with Cork Distillers and John Powers, forming the umbrella Irish Distillers Group. Ten years later, the New Midleton Distillery opened in Cork, where much of Irish whiskey is now made. As of 2018, sales of Irish whiskey stood at 10.7 million 9-litres cases, with sales projected to exceed 12 million cases (its historical peak) by 2020, and 24 million by 2030.

Marketing At A Deeper Level. So why does all this history matter? Well, because it speaks to the underlying, unspoken cultural perceptions marketers need to overcome when developing a campaign or a brand platform. Traditional research would focus on two key (and, frankly, predictable) areas. Survey data asking people what they like and don’t like about Irish whiskey, and qualitative work, be it focus groups or in-depth interviews, essentially doing the same. The answers would be surface-level and have no real differentiating qualities. But what happens when you dig a little deeper? A few key points, uncomfortable though they may be, bubble up to the surface.

First, Irish whiskey has, in some quarters, acquired a bad reputation. Whiskey “experts”, which I don’t include in the list of actual whiskey experts, talk about lackluster quality and its inability to stand up to a Scottish single malt. But is it true? Or is it a manifestation of the negative biases many still subconsciously harbor regarding the Irish?  Or it may simply be the case that the Scots cut a more romantic image with their tweeds and kilts, and in doing so have created a more compelling brand image. The myth of Scottish single malts, fan of them though I am, is largely just that – a myth. And in myth lives power for a brand.

More likely, it’s a combination of a number of factors put together. If that’s the case, the question arises about how do market it. There are of course any number of ways, but the key thing is obviously to break through the noise, and in the case of Irish Whiskey, part of the equation may lie in the elitism and snobbery that has emerged around scotch. Single malts have a quality of sophistication and exclusivity about them – they are intimidating. They are elitist. Irish whiskeys, conversely, potentially represent democratization of the liquor. Its quality isn’t confined to an exclusive band of aficionados, its quality is what builds bonds and ties us together as a species.

Or as another option, build the brand around the history and inventiveness of the Irish. Tradition isn’t stodgy in this context, it’s bright, disruptive, and ingenious. It demonstrates its value by tying itself to the underlying creativity of Ireland.

The point is that by digging deeper and exploring a topic in fully, more strategic and creative options emerge. More importantly, ideas and patterns develop that can be used to differentiate not just a brand, but an entire category. This doesn’t happen by half-assing your research or rushing to develop understanding. It comes from learning how to ask the right question, follow the right rabbit hole, and apply the right analytical methods. And sometimes it comes from cracking open that bottle in front of a fire. Time to try the latter.

Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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