Monday 22 October 2007

New Jameson whiskey: Rarest Vintage Reserve

The place to be last week was apparently Irish Distillers' Midleton facility for the launch of a new Jameson whiskey. Rock star Sinead O'Connor entertained as guests were introduced to Jameson Rarest Vintage Reserve. Nicely echoing the current Annals of the Four Masters exhibition in Dublin, the "Four Masters" of production at Midleton took the stage: Barry Crockett (Master Distiller), Billy Leighton (Master Blender), David Quinn (Master of Science), and Brendan Monks (Master of Maturation).

Like Midleton Very Rare, another premium whiskey from the same stable, this new bottling has no age statement. Rather, like wine, it has a "vintage" indicating that this limited edition whiskey may vary from year to year. John Hansell, editor of the Malt Advocate magazine, provides some useful detail:
Rarest Vintage Reserve is a blend, like the other Jameson whiskeys, consisting of older grain whiskeys in addition to pure pot still whiskey (containing both malted and unmalted barley), some of which was aged entirely in ruby port casks (with the rest matured in second fill bourbon casks). They told me today that the grain whiskey is 23-24 years old, with the pot still component being slightly younger. The whiskey is bottled at 46% and is not chill-filtered!
There is no doubt, given the expertise of The Four Masters, that this is a very fine whiskey indeed. The bad news is that a bottle is expected to retail at a spectacular €250 in Ireland (it should be substantially less in other countries however, when Ireland's punitive spirit taxes are factored out).

The price is one indication that Rarest Vintage Reserve is not really aimed at the whiskey connoisseur. It's probably well beyond the pocket of the typical informed whiskey drinker. Nor does it push the buttons that normally excite the afficionado, i.e. it's not a single malt or a pure pot still and it has no age statement. It is also an extension of an existing mass-market brand, i.e. Jameson, the best-selling Irish whiskey.

There is a definite parallel with the most popular Scotch blended whiskey, Johnnie Walker. Johnnie Walker Red Label goes for about €26 in Ireland whereas Blue Label sells at around €180. Blue Label is a luxury product, targeted at the corporate gifts market and the CEO's drinks cabinet. For those who really value exclusivity (and connotations of royalty), there is the just-launched Johnnie Walker Blue Label King George V Edition.

Johnnie Walker is a Diageo brand, as is Bushmills Irish whiskey, which Diageo bought in 2005. For the first time, Irish Distillers Ltd (IDL) (owned by Pernod Ricard) has a strong competitor with global muscle. Diageo has been ramping up production at the Bushmills distillery but the long maturation period gives Irish Distillers a few years to prepare for the inevitable marketing onslaught. IDL can observe what Diageo has already done with its Scotch holdings so it makes a lot of sense to stake out their position in the market for high-end Irish whiskeys now.

There is a marketing experiment that is well-known in psychology circles. A catalogue seller offered a high-end bread maker for $279. Some time later, the catalogue introduced a deluxe version from the same manufacturer for $429. They did not shift many of the newer model but sales of the $279 bread maker almost doubled. The reason is that the most expensive model in a range becomes a reference point for the consumer. Against the $479 reference point, the less expensive model looks like a bargain, so sales rise.

This suggests another reason why IDL might introduce a very expensive version of Jameson even if they don't expect to sell many bottles. The airport duty free shopper will see the complete line up of Jameson products, including 12 year old Special Reserve, 18 year old Limited Reserve and now Rarest Vintage Reserve. If the marketing psychology holds up, sales of the 18 year old should take off.

As welcome as a new Irish whiskey is for its own sake, the advent of Jameson Rarest Vintage Reserve, backed by the marketing might of Pernod Ricard, is also exciting for helping to develop a new market globally for very high-end Irish whiskeys. This can only be good for lesser-known brands, including those of independent distiller Cooley.