Project Patrón

on 15 May, 2014

It’s hard to know what Diageo is really thinking. But sat at the trade tasting of Haig Club in London yesterday, I had a glimpse into its inner workings.

It started with Nick Morgan, Diageo’s head of whisky outreach, and Haig Club master blender Chris Clark, who together took us through the ins and outs of Diageo’s great currency, grain whisky.

This was a detailed education - and it was needed. For all the Scotch knowledge in the room, there seemed a distinct paucity when it came to grain whisky. For myriad reasons, malt whisky has always taken the column inches.

So, to relay some of this insight: grain whisky can be made from any grain, but is subject to the same controls as malt whisky – a minimum of three years of maturation in oak and the whisky must exhibit the taste of the grain from which it was made. What’s more, in a blend, it is the grain that “releases flavours that would otherwise be latent in the malt”, according to Morgan.

At Cameron Bridge, Diageo’s grain whisky plant in Fife, the largest distillery in Europe, wheat is the preferred grain, but maize might also be used, depending on market prices. According to Clark, it is the set-up of the Coffey still, rather than the choice of grain that gives Cameron Bridge spirit its particular flavour.  Also of note is that 10% of the cereal used must be malted barley, because its enzymes break down the grain’s starches into fermentable sugars.

Morgan said the whisky’s style  - which is light, round and palatable - was approachable for new drinkers. This coupled with the marketing prowess of David Beckham and Simon Fuller - who have “skin in the game” – means Diageo has global ambitions for the brand. The launch will be in duty free this summer, though prices are yet to be announced.

That was the main gist, but perhaps not the headline - and not this story’s headline either. Sat squarely in front of me, next to my tasting glasses, I had the inescapable view of a sample bottle of Haig Club whisky, the stick-on label of which read: Project Patron, Haig Club.

Taking Morgan to one side, I asked about what the label meant. “Patrón is a very successful brand that people admire,” he said. So is Haig Club trying to transcend the whisky category - to challenge Patrón - or recruit people to it? “We are trying to transcend the conventional and traditional Scotch category. We have pushed the taste profile [of Haig Club] so we are treading on others’ territory. [For instance] people have said it is very similar to rum in the way that it mixes.” 

Patrón is a brand that few don’t admire. It achieved coolness - that illusive quality – and dragged the tequila category into the world of premium as a corollary. Whether the blue bottle of Haig Club can do the same is anyone’s guess, but the blueprint is there for us all – including Diageo – to see.

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