The story of David vs Goliath is one of big vs small, mighty vs weak, established vs newcomer. This is a story than can also be seen in the whisky world. But what really is the defining feature of a popular whisky? What gives a certain dram the edge over older, better-known brands? Is it all quality, or is there something else at play too?
Let’s take a look at the competitors.
Squaring up to the fight on the little guy’s side we have brands like Teeling, The English Whisky Company, Weymss and Kilchoman.
Each brand has a distillery that opened in the last decade or so and has only been producing whisky for around the same amount of time.
Now to the heavy weights.
Companies like Diageo or Pernod Ricard stand in this corner. These parent companies represent hundreds of brands and not only whisky brands either, but other drinks giants such as Beefeater Gin (Pernod Ricard) or Smirnoff (Diageo).
With decades of experience and market know-how, companies like these are the big boys of the whisky world.
The brands they represent are given that edge of having a bigger financier behind them who already knows the market incredibly well.
Line these companies up beside the little guy and you get a scenario somewhat similar to Mario lining up beside Bowser. Pretty intimidating. But what is the one thing that playing copious amounts of Super Mario has taught us all; assuming that your childhood was as awesome as mine, clearly?
The little guy always wins.
The brands represented by Diageo and Pernod Ricard etc., may have a wealth of knowledge and experience behind them, but sales of smaller, independent distillers are constantly on the rise. There is definitely some competition going on.
So what’s the difference? What are the smaller brands doing right to overcome their pretty massive opponents?
Firstly, they’re using their relative youth to their advantage.
Historical brands have a habit of spinning a yarn about some long dead Lord. We’re supposed to respond to his desperate struggle to use his family money to do something he was passionate about and start his own whisky distillery, named after himself of course.
Rather than relying on the past to grab customers’ attention, new brands are turning their stories towards their craft.
By focussing on their start-up journeys and how they managed to begin a business mostly from scratch, new brands are able to make themselves relatable and approachable.
There is no sense of blowing off the cobwebs of the past. Rather, these brands are acknowledging their history, but not focussing on it.
This turns their story into a plausible reality, something that customers can appreciate and understand on a cultural level.
The stories told by young brands are stories that can happen to anyone, or to someone you know.
Now don’t get me wrong. These brands do embrace their past. The English Whisky Company acknowledges the 600 year old family roots of their founders, Teeling discusses the importance of its own 230 year old history.
But these stories culminate in the modern day, and focus in on who runs the business and just how they got there.
“Vintage” has also made way for “craft”.
There is also a focus on the term “craft whisky”. This appeals to all the hipsters out there. This term takes a brand right out of the mainstream and roots it firmly in the margins that the rising hipster community love to embrace. Take Brenne, for example.
The word “craft” suggests this is something that is hand made, with dedication and time. It also suggests limited and unique, something that you can tell your friends you knew about before anyone else. Even if it’s not strictly true.
Big business is never going to disappear, but there are certainly ways for new, independent brands to use their status to get a foot up.
So just as in the David vs Goliath, Mario vs Bowser stories, the little guy wins out and makes it mainstream in the end. And isn’t that just too bad for all you hipsters out there!?
Photo of Led Zepplin, credit to Jack Dinh.