Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Ardbeg Double Barrell vs Maccallan Linley Cabinet


From Ian Buxton's Whisky Rumour Mill pointing out the excess of some so called Luxury marketing:

"I shuffled to my desk with the heavy sigh of last night's hangover as the invigilator, evidently a teetotaller, eyed me suspiciously.

Yes, it's end of term exam time here at Rumour Mill Towers and I wondered darkly what the Grand Inquisitor (aka the Editor) would have in store. Turning over the paper I observed at once that there was only one question though, terse to a point, he'd omitted to note that it was compulsory.

"Compare and contrast the Ardbeg Double Barrel and The Macallan Linley Cabinet as alternative approaches to luxury brand marketing."

Well, dear reader, whatever do you make of that?

Unlike most of the whiz kids who constitute what the whisky industry is pleased to call its marketing experts, I'm old enough to have lived through the last nasty recession and I seem to remember that, just before we nose-dived into several years of non-stop sales, plunging house prices and mass wailing and renting of garments, there was any amount of froth on the top of the economy. There was, I recall, an investment fund that sold you "units" in a portfolio of classic sports cars and other similar nonsense.

So, being a bit of a Jeremiah, I tend to worry when I see things getting 'bubbly'. "Irrational exuberance" a financial commentator much wiser than me once called it. (Alan Greenspan, actually, at the Francis Boyer Lecture of The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, Washington, D.C. on December 5, 1996).

Could the same be happening to whisky, just as a tsunami of sub-prime debt threatens to overwhelm the global banking system? Well, let's look at exhibit A, Ardbeg Double Barrel.

For those who don't know it, a brief description. Ardbeg Double Barrel is a limited edition release of two bottles of Ardbeg 1974 ("hand-blown bottles" naturally, a stylish touch for connoisseurs of these matters), packaged with eight sterling silver drinking cups, two nice tasting notebooks, a pen ("bespoke...crafted out of mature oak and engraved with the Ardbeg zoomorphic knot design" - that's a posh way of saying there's a picture of some animals on it), the whole packaged in a replica gun case, such as a chap might use for his 12 bore shotgun.

There are 250 of these creations, for which Selfridges of London are asking a cool £10,000. If you like that kind of thing, it's undeniably handsome. All the elements are the best of their kind: noted silversmiths Hamilton & Inches of Edinburgh made the silver cups; the gun case is by the same folks who supply Purdey; the little notebooks are hand-stitched and the pen is an Omas no less (like Ardbeg, an LVMH company).

But still - £10,000? I decided to be awkward and deconstruct the whole thing.

At this level gun cases are bespoke (you knew that of course) but Holland & Holland will sell you a very similar cartridge case in oak and leather for £1,850. A 12 bore gun case is a little bigger - we'll call it £2,500.

Hamilton & Inches make all kinds of lovely things, but looking in their current catalogue a silver 'tumble cup' is £300 and they do very pretty little dramming cups in the form of a thistle for around £200. So I'm going to put the Ardbeg beakers in at another £2,500. All these are the full retail prices, by the way, with Alistair Darling's 17.5% VAT on top.

The pen is trickier. Omas do a wide range of editions. Let's take the limited edition Krug as an example, which retails at around £500. Allow a bit of exclusivity for the Ardbeg version and call it £750. (If you've never looked, you'd be surprised what folks will pay for a fountain pen when they're feeling exuberant.)

You can get very nice little leather manuscript books from Smythson for £115 a pop, so I've priced the two Ardbeg tasting note books at £250. That leaves us with the whisky.

Bit of a problem. By rights, it should be "worth" £2,000 a bottle to get to £10,000. But that was last year's price for Ardbeg 1965 in its museum case. Right now, the oldest Ardbeg you can buy (off the distillery's own website) is a limited edition single cask from 1975 at £399, including shipping. Admittedly there are 522 of these babies compared to the 250 bottles of 1974 in the Double Barrel but still it's a big step up from 1975 at £399 to a year older at £2,000.

Could the Double Barrel's pricing be a trifle, how shall we put this?, ambitious? We'll park that question for a moment and consider what this is all about and how it fits into Ardbeg's image.

Who exactly is going to buy the Double Barrel? Whisky aficionados are, presumably, as capable as we are of doing the arithmetic and comparing the price of bottles so it seems unlikely they'll make up a large part of the buying population. Rich people, in our limited experience of the breed, didn't get and certainly don't stay rich by spending £10,000 on £7,500-worth of stuff so that rules them out and anyone with a shotgun requiring a lavish carrying case has almost certainly already got one. So at the risk of boring you all to death, who is this for?

Turning to The Macallan Linley Cabinet we see an alternative, but equally elevated approach. This is a one-off - a custom-built 'one of a kind' drinks cabinet by Viscount Linley's workshop complete with six single malt vintages from The Macallan's Fine & Rare collection: 1937, 1940, 1948, 1955, 1966 and 1970.

Handcrafted from English Oak and Burr Oak, the drinks cabinet also includes six bespoke crystal Linley whisky tumblers, cigar humidor and the secret compartment which has become a signature feature of Linley furniture. If you're interested it might still be on sale in Harrods though no need to hurry - it didn't fly off the shelf (at a cool £55,000) during their World of Whisky and Watches evening. However, as the Macallan PR coyly put it "it has generated considerable interest". Mind you, I'm considerably interested in the Ferrari 430 but it doesn't mean I'm going to buy one.

Still, the whisky here must make up a healthy part of the price, though The Macallan wouldn't be drawn on this when we contacted them. However, back in 2002, Macallan themselves priced these vintages at £11,400 and prices have risen significantly since then. We wouldn't be surprised at a price tag of around £25,000 which means you're paying £30,000 for a unique Linley drinks cabinet with glasses, built-in humidor and not forgetting the secret compartment. There might, just, be an argument for that, though here at Rumour Mill Towers Ikea is more the decorative style.

At least a drinks cabinet has got something to do with single malt whisky, which is another problem with the posh person's party bag that makes up the Double Barrel.

So, there we are - two contrasting approaches to luxury marketing. Of course, if you're interested in whisky (perish the thought) you could just pop in to Glenfarclas and snap up one of their superb Family Casks collection for £14,500. That's an average of £337.20 a bottle for quite outstanding whisky dating back to 1952. No fancy packaging, no pens, no notebooks, no secret compartments, no crystal tumblers or silver drinking cups - just whisky. Just fancy that. I know what I'd like for Christmas.

A Ferrari 430 actually, since you ask.

Now, since it's Christmas, you're getting some bonus extra rumours this time.

1. Probably the most exciting news out there is the impending sale of Highland Distiller's long-silent Glenglassaugh Distillery. It's been mothballed these last twenty years and one presumed would never re-open. However, our moles tell us that a Russian-backed consortium has money in place and, pending some legal formalities, the deal is done. Look out for an announcement early in 2008.

2. Michael Collings' new offering Imperial Tribute (a limited edition blended malt, with more than a passing resemblance to Chivas Regal) seems to have been stalled somewhere, with an apologetic email balanced perilously between the twee and the tragic suggesting as an excuse for the non-

appearance of the website that "all the IT elves have been diverted to Mr S Klaus. Being a long established customer he has had priority." Mmm.

3. We're probably all in favour of the rebuilding of the old Islay Hotel in Port Ellen. Over the years the derelict building has turned into an eyesore that's all the more unfortunate for being virtually the first thing visitors arriving by ferry will see. The news that it's been demolished and is being rebuilt is very welcome. Two cheers for local accountant chappie Roland Worthington-Eyre (you can tell he's a local by the distinctive Ileach moniker) - but no cheers at all for his "innovative" financing scheme.

This involves taking £25 off you for a lottery ticket in which you're asked to guess where a whisky barrel dropped on a parachute from a plane flying off Port Ellen will end up after bobbing around for 5 minutes in the briny. You couldn't make it up, though evidently someone did. Roland hopes to sell 60,000 tickets, against a prize fund promising around £650,000. Or to put it another way, he plans to trouser a cool £850 grand. That should buy a few bricks.

Moreover, it looks very much as if the best possible complexion has been out on the prize fund. First prize is a building plot "worth" £150,000, "plus £100,000 in cash towards the building costs of the home of your dreams..." Well, take it from us, £100k isn't going to look at the building of the home of anybody's dream, let alone on Islay with its attendant additional costs.

Then, there's the 2nd prize - accommodation at the new Islay Hotel! We emailed the promoters 3 weeks ago requesting further information but curiously have had no response.

A neat marketing scheme, then, but like the barrel probably destined for Davy Jones' Locker!"

There's a bid difference between superficial luxury products and really well crafted high quality goods.



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