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How Mad Men fuelled a thirst for whisky

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It may have seemed mad, but it worked.  One would hope Matthew Weiner charged heaps for product placement in his TV series about Madison Avenue advertising men in the ’60s … Mad Men was so full of whisky it’s changed the structure of sales of the stuff in Australia.

Not to mention the US.

This is not about Bourbon whiskey, Tennessee whiskey or rye – we’re talking about John Barleycorn from the United Kingdom (whisky) and Eire (whiskey).

Roy Morgan Research released a paper last week.  It says, unsurprisingly, that in 2006: “Australians aged over 65 were the most likely to drink whisky (10% in an average four weeks) and those 18-34 were least likely (8%).”

But after Mad Men hit the screens in 2007, the aspirants, wannabes and wouldbe-couldbes, the hipsters, yuppies and metrotechs occupying that presumptuous decade from 25-34 years of age suddenly hit the whisky. The proportion of this lot who profess to drink it has hiked by more than half:  in the 12 months to September 2013, 13 per cent of them were on the scotch.

Or Irish whiskey, at least.  Right out of the blue, Jameson’s is suddenly the preferred tipple of 22 per cent of the 25-34 year olds.  Among all drinkers, Johnnie Walker Red is number one, being favoured by 22 per cent of that lot.

In the four years to September, Australia’s total whisky/whiskey consumption, over an average four weeks, had risen by three million glasses to 19 million, meaning us whiskerers each manage about 10 glasses per month.

Which means many aren’t having very much at all, but that spoils the story.

Now the most likely whisky/whiskey tipplers are the 25-34 year-olds, 13 per cent of whom drink it, followed closely by the 18-24 year-olds at 11.9 per cent. All the other age groups are static.

Even more interesting is the ownership of the favoured brands.  As in the Australian wine business, the lion’s share is in the hands of just three big foreigners.

Among all drinkers, the top five preferences, brand-by-brand, go: Johnnie Walker Red (22 per cent), Johnnie Walker Black (10 per cent), Jameson’s (Irish whiskey – 10 per cent), Chivas Regal (10 per cent), and Grants (6 per cent).

The 25-34 year olds run like this: Jameson’s (22 per cent), Johnnie Walker Red (13 per cent), Chivas Regal (13 per cent), Johnnie Walker Black (11 per cent) and Grant’s (7 per cent).

Johnnie Walker, the world’s biggest whisky brand, is owned by the world’s biggest liquor manufacturer, Diageo. This monolith has a market capitalisation of some $A92,627,847,000.

It owns the malt distilleries Auchroisk, Banff, Benrinnes, Blair Athol, Brora, Buchanan’s, Caol Ila, Cardhu, Clynelish, Convalmore, Cragganmore, Dalwhinnie, Glen Albyn, Glen Elgin, Glenlossie, Glen Ord, Glenkinchie, Lagavulin, Linlithgow, Lochnagar, Knockando, Mannochmore, Mortlach, North Brechin, Oban, Port Ellen, Rosebank, Royal Strathmill, Talisker and Teaninich, which gives it what you’d call a solid blending base.

Among its other giant manufactories, Diageo has also developed Scotland’s biggest grain distillery, Cameron Bridge, in Fife.  So-called grain spirit is basically vodka, which is used with some malted pot-still spirit from those distilleries above to increase the volume of what we call blended whiskies.

Most standard commercial front bar whiskies are of this type.  The results of this dilution appear in Diageo blends like Justerini & Brooks (J&B), Bell’s, Black & White, Vat 69, Singleton, Haig, Royal Lochnagar and Dimple, as well as Johnnie Walker.

So it makes sense that Diageo also owns the world’s biggest vodka brand, Smirnoff, which can be made anywhere under licence, along with biggest-selling jewels like the gins Gordon’s, Tanqueray, Gilbey’s, and Seagram’s.  Diageo owns Bushmills Irish Whiskey, George Dickel bourbon; José Cuervo tequila; Pimm’s; Bulleit; Captain Morgan and Bundaberg rums and, well, Guinness.

And we can’t forget Bailey’s, the world’s biggest-selling liqueur.

Jameson’s and Chivas are owned by Pernod Ricard, makers of the famous pastis, anise and absinthe. Among other bits and pieces, this huge French show also owns, in the whisky division, Aberlour, The Glenlivet, Longmorn, Scapa, Royal Salute and Ballantine’s. It owns Green Spot and Powers whiskeys in Ireland, and makes Diageo’s Tullamore Dew under contract.

The vodkas Absolut, Luksusowa, and Wyborowa are theirs, and the gins Seagrams and Beefeater. Tia Maria, Kahlua, Malibu … the confounding list goes on, through the Champagnes Mumm and Perrier-Jouët, right down to the little matter of Jacob’s Creek, Richmond Grove and Wyndham Estate.

Irish whiskey has been the fastest-growing spirit in the world every year since 1990.  In the 2012-13 financial year, international Jameson sales increased for the 24th consecutive year, to a new peak of 4.3 million cases sold.  The total volume sold rose by 10.4 per cent, which is an astonishing figure until you realise that at the same time, the value of the product rose by 16.6 per cent per litre.  The US is crazy for Jameson’s – sales there soared by a whopping 21 per cent.

Grants is the biggest family-owned whisky show and the third-biggest scotch maker, after Diageo and Pernod Ricard.  Among its comparable list of gins, rums, vodkas and liqueurs, its whiskies include Glenfiddich, Balvenie, MacGregor, Monkey Shoulder, Highland Park, The Famous Grouse and The Macallan – largely very high-quality, high-profit luxury brands.

So a huge shift like this in the Australian whisky demographic is already divided mainly between just three foreign leviathans.  They have every base covered.  Every cent these metrotech yuppies take away from, say, Coopers, or the wineries, goes straight offshore.

If Australia were a little more honest about its thirst, and its abuse of water, it would change its tax regime to encourage the distillation of grain.  We grow top barley, which, unlike wine grapes, requires no irrigation.  In my lifetime I drank whiskies from bulk-volume Australian producers like Corio, Yalumba, Hamilton’s and Milne’s before they were taxed to oblivion with the brandy business in the ’70s.

There are 21 active whisky distilleries now, but these are all driving toward hand-crafted, upmarket styles after the single and pure malt varieties of Scotland.

Your standard Jameson’s is mainly the product of continuous column stills, as you see in oil refineries, mixed with a little richer pot still spirit.  To smooth it out, the ethanol’s distilled three times – it’s cheaper to bung it through a third time than it is to concentrate on a cleaner, more refined spirit with two distillations. It need only be aged in oak for three years, and like Scotch whisky, uses mainly very cheap discarded barrels from other liquor industries.

So once you’ve got your refinery built and your barley and barrels lined up, you can have a product of the Jameson standard on the market within three years.

Given the thirst our 25-34 year olds have for such stuff, somebody should be working on the script for the Australian TV show which will make our own brand desirable by the time the lobbying of the tax lawmen has its effect, and a few thousand struggling grape growers give the river a break, pull out their vines and get some barley happening.

Who knows – if the TV series is as good as Mad Men, we might even sell a shipload or two in the United States.  So what about, say, an ongoing  Deadwood type show called The Kellys?

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