Patience Gould on alcoholic strength

on 26 April, 2013

Former Drinks International editor Patience Gould finds the trend for reducing alcoholic strength can compromise the spirit


Hurrah, for social media! And I never thought I’d hear myself shouting this from the rooftops, but – thanks to the lightening communication aspects of Twitter and the like – Beam Global  has been forced to scrap its decision to reduce the strength of its premium flagship Maker’s Mark Bourbon from 46% abv to 42% abv, and a very good thing too.

The proposed reduction was on the table because the company is having difficulty keeping up with demand – but what an excellent situation to be in. Many illustrious brands have had to go on ration – The Macallan single malt Scotch for example – at one time or another but have not tinkered with the inherent DNA, of which strength is a prime factor. If a brand has to go on allocation then shout it – it’s proof of ongoing success.

For my part there’s too much tinkering with brand strengths. Diageo tinkered with Tanqueray gin, bringing it from 47.3% Special Dry, which is still available in North America, to the 43.1% export strength in European markets. Brown Forman’s Southern Comfort, sorry SoCo, now weighs in at 35% abv, down from 50% though the latter is still available Stateside. And, back in the mists of time, Pimm’s – that once-lovely premium reminder of an English summer – was reduced from a respectable 40% abv to just 25% (needless to say the retail price remained more or less the same). And, of course, the then United Distillers took advantage of new regulations and put Gordon’s Gin down to 37.5% from 40% abv.

The reasons behind these ‘tinkerings’ are on the face of it to make brands more accessible to a wider audience, but underneath it’s all to do with dosh. The savings on duty are not to be sniffed at – the cut in Gordon’s reportedly led to £9 million worth of savings and that was just a 2.5% drop. However, what can be sniffed it at is if these changes affect the overall character of the brand and in the main they do, because they are often accompanied by a change in the liquid inside the bottle. 

Southern Comfort is now billed as a “unique blend of natural fruit, spice and whiskey flavours” when it used to be real whiskey. One could be forgiven for thinking the heart of this “grand old drink of the South” has been well and truly destroyed. Its founder, one Martin Wilkes Heron, must be turning – not to say spinning – in his grave. And all these changes, which have been accompanied by flavoured line extensions, have not helped SoCo’s progress – volume has not improved from 2007-2012 (Drinks International Millionaires’ Club).

I did hear on the grapevine that, in a review of brands, the newly formed Diageo – so we’re going back a few years – found that Pimm’s was on a case-by-case basis easily its most profitable line. From that point on the multinational has gone into overdrive, broadening the brand’s usage. No doubt Diageo has succeeded beyond its expectations but at what cost to the essence and heritage of the brand?

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