It’s time to ditch style over substance

20 December, 2018

If you could consign something to history, what would it be?

This is the theme of the TV show Room 101, where contestants attempt to persuade the host that their choice is the best to be put in Room 101 and banished for all time. I’d love to take part, because I have three excellent suggestions. First, men – it’s nearly always men – with pointy hats and dressed in lycra, blocking train doorways with their bikes. Particularly those really stupid-looking fold up ones. Second, American rock fans who make yelping and whooping noises on live CDs. At best this can be annoying, but at worst it can totally ruin a recording, just as it has the recent release of a live album by former Drive-By Trucker and Americana supremo Jason Isbell. It’s so bad I’ve tweeted him and asked him to record the same set somewhere in Europe. He hasn’t replied yet.

And third – yes, I know this is a column for a drinks magazine – is over-the-top and fancy packaging for bottles of spirits and, in particular, whisky.

I know we’re approaching the festive season, and across the world people are thinking about gifts for loved ones, and I’m aware that smart presentational packs are part of the gifting process. I accept that my stance here isn’t in keeping with the spirit of goodwill and joy to all humankind. But if you’re working in the on-trade, do you really want to have to pay twice the price for a fancy box you’re probably going to discard anyway?

I’ll be honest, I’ve never been one for glitzy wrapping paper. It always seemed a bit pointless to me that people spend ages beautifully dressing up their gifts, only to see their artwork ripped to shreds in seconds.

But if that ripping process reveals a bottle of whisky with no age statement and a fancy Gaelic name in a pretty box, then that’s altogether worse.

This is not to suggest that non-age statement spirits are necessarily wrong. But it is to question whether we’re being duped into a victory for style over substance. Was I the only person who wondered how many women invested in a blue perfume bottle containing whisky a few years back, and how many of their partners were disappointed to receive that same bottle?

I once asked on Twitter whether all travel retail whiskies were fit for purpose. The best answer I got back was “depends what the purpose is”. Much of this fancy packaging isn’t aimed at us lovers of fine spirits, or our customers. It’s aimed at people who don’t know any better. The producers of such whiskies even say so, arguing that they’re ‘stepping-stone’ whiskies for novice drinkers and not designed for mature and developed palates. Or, put another way: they’re targeting people who don’t know any better and are being sold a pup.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There are top-quality whiskies such as Monkey Shoulder and Copper Dog which retail at affordable prices. Berry Bros & Rudd has just launched a range of blended malts which are excellent value for money. All of these are sold in eye-catching and presentable bottles which look great on the bar. They do not come in fancy boxes.

This week I received a 5cl whisky sample in a large wooden box, lined with plastic and fabric. The box went straight in the bin. In the recycling world we live in, this can’t be right, can it? Enough already.

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