There were any number of ways to begin this review, of another Macallan buried deep in a series, no longer available and lost in collector land.
But perhaps most pertinent of late is to touch on The Macallan’s brand, as it moves into a new phase of its long life as a single malt brand. Its much-publicised revamped distillery, which seems to have split opinion, has started to bed in. And now comes a big new push. It’s clearly trying to go somewhere different.
The interesting thing about The Macallan’s position is that yes, it’s lost the core drinkers, which was only ever a small market. Those drinkers have moved on, they don’t really care, they’re happily chugging Glendronach, we all know that; save for some stirring from yesteryear, a twinge when they remember how things used to be. But Edrington, the Macallan’s owners, probably don’t care about a small niche of drinkers, and why would they? They’re trying to grow a luxury product into a mass market product.
And that’s an interesting thing in itself, because if everyone jumps on board, then something no longer is considered to be a luxury. Luxury is elitist, keeping people’s at arm’s length – that’s the point; very easy to achieve by price, as any new distillery that doesn’t know what they’re doing will tell you, but very hard to do with anything else. It’s why no one really believes any of the hammed-up headlines for the next high-end whisky that comes along, because every producer is saying the same thing – no one feels it is a luxury, even though they’re paying luxury prices. That disconnect will resonate down the years.
Shall we look at the new and curious creative campaign?
Aw, that would be too cruel – and besides, most people are already chuckling at it. (Don’t forget, it’s just a brief from Macallan, over to some new creative ad agency in London – it’s not really coming from the whisky producer.) Yes, I personally feel it’s poor on a number of levels: the messaging that sounds like it’s for a charity helpline, simply the way it’s put together, the weirdness and confusion, the creators’ optimism that people will wait over a minute for the pay-off, if indeed it can be called a pay-off, when digital retention rates collapse after a few seconds if there’s nothing really happening on-screen. The only way this will increase sales is because it will be accompanied by a big sales push, not because of the marketing. (Also wasting money on making adverts for digital platforms is a common sin of most big marketing agencies, but it seems to prop the ad industry up somehow, like a pyramid scheme.) But that’s all I want to say: it’s silly, most people think it’s silly, and it’ll be dusted away in a year or two when it’s replaced by a new one.
I’m genuinely fascinated from a brand perspective to see what happens with the distillery over the coming years. Ken Grier, the former creative director at Macallan, and who I actually quite admired for the way he slowly elevated the brand, has recently left the company. So this is firmly in the territory of a ‘new creative era’, you might say.
Another common Edrington trait of late is to spaff out new releases. Highland Park is all over the place, a new, dreary release every day, and soon to be banned from Malt if we can stop Jason from giving them oxygen. Macallan, too, has many releases, but the issue is there’s no real structure, there’s no real information. A brightly coloured label here, some puffed up marketing copy there, every whisky sounds the same. Something about wood, definitely not telling you how old it is, buy it. And people will because it’s being forced down their throats by enormous sales budgets. It’s becoming very aggressive because it has to be at that level – a lot of money is on the table.
Now, on the one hand, will this bring new drinkers into the industry? Sure, one can only hope, and if it does, then marvellous. Because I don’t believe whisky brands actually compete with each other – rather they mostly support a culture, and the more happy people in that culture, talking, tasting, the better for everyone. A thriving whisky culture gave birth to the current boom, don’t forget.
But on the other hand, at what cost? The distillery’s soul – and I view this agnostically – has long since gone. For me, I ask simply, what’s left? Where’s the integrity of the brand? What is The Macallan of the future – perhaps the equivalent of a lonely millionaire living in a shell of a mansion scrolling through their Instagram feed to avoid confronting the emptiness of life?
Maybe we should have a dram. It’s the Edition No. 4, fourth in what has so far been a very good series of whiskies, well-priced upon release, but now you’d expect to say three or four times the original price online, as it has sold out.
The Macallan Edition No. 4 – Review
On the nose: Dried oranges, cinnamon, ginger; quite Christmassy. Not unlike the old Glenfarclas 15. Coffee. Tiramisu. It’s a lot like the others but doesn’t quite have the bass. Side by side with Edition No. 2, it’s notably fresher. Baked pears, dried apricots. Lime marmalade. Tomato sauce. Sponge cake. Very nice indeed.
In the mouth: doesn’t have as nice a texture; it isn’t as mouth-filling, but it’s still nice, still echoes the nose. Not as much breadth to the profile, but there’s a lot to enjoy. Spicy, with ginger, coriander, tempered by golden syrup. Pouring honey. The baked fruits at the fore: dried apricots, sultanas, oranges, a nice tomato-y tartness. Dried cranberries. A touch of grapefruit.
You’re going to have to fork out crazy money at auction for any of these – almost £200, which is absolutely not worth it, don’t even think about it – but I’d always plump for the Edition 2 over this any day.
Anyway, here’s my point: this is a solid whisky. Yet I don’t feel how I used to. I don’t feel as though I can ever love a Macallan anymore. Its integrity has been compromised, Icarus style, in pursuit of the dream.
Because this is the real issue with branding, so pay close attention: a brand is not what the Macallan says it is, nor what an advertising agency says on its behalf.
To quote Jeff Bezos: “Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.”
Thanks so much to Paul @thewhiskyshare for the sample!