June 4, 2023


local businesses

On ice: How whiskey brands are marketing to a new crowd

Whiskey (or whisky depending on where it’s from) is a drink with a rich history, but it may be primed for a marketing shakeup. Despite its longevity, whiskey has recently been riding a wave of renewed interest. By 2025, the market for the aged liquor is expected to grow by more than 37%, reaching $109 billion.

Legacy brands have repeatedly found themselves needing to reestablish their place in the marketplace as younger competitors vie for a piece of the pie. And while the whiskey industry is largely dominated by a few multinational conglomerates that own distilleries older than some countries, new, Instagram-savvy brands are raking in millennial dollars. Advertising will be essential for these older brands to remain relevant.

“As the whiskey industry is on the rise and as millennials continue to seek out differentiated brands and offerings, we’re going to continue to build mass awareness for our brands through paid, earned and owned tactics,” said Harvey Purchese, senior vice president of marketing at William Grant & Sons US, in an email exchange with Marketing Dive.

However, keeping brands relevant can be a challenge as millennials like novelty and newness. How do marketers repackage a drink that’s been commercialized for hundreds of years as something fresh? Especially one traditionally associated with mature white men?

The new consumer

In 1990, women represented 15% of whiskey drinkers in the U.S. By 2020, that number had grown to 30%. While women have been involved in distilling since the origins of whiskey, the number of female whiskey drinkers, in the U.S. at least, has been low. Millennial women have begun to break that mold.

Some brands are responding to this trend. Glenlivet, owned by Pernod Ricard, recently released a new campaign localized to Australia and New Zealand that specifically targets women. In the advertisement, actress Anna Paquin speaks directly to women, encouraging them to drink it however they like, whether that be in cocktails or — gasp — with ice (which many whiskey purists say takes away from the experience).

The boom in popularity among millennial women is largely driven by a rise in popularity among the cohort as a whole. Millennials love cocktails, and whiskey is the primary ingredient in many of them. For many, cocktails can be a gateway to larger whiskey appreciation. The taste of straight, aged spirits of any kind can be off-putting to consumers. However, gradually learning to appreciate the taste through cocktails and mixed drinks can help consumers make the jump to straight whiskey, which may help to lead consumers to premium-tier vintages.

Many brands are aware of the need to gradually introduce consumers to higher-end products. Most people aren’t going to spend the money on a mid- to premium-tier product only to mix it with vermouth and bitters. Which is one reason why large conglomerates such as Pernod Ricard, Diageo and William Grant & Sons produce budget-friendly whiskies that are made to be mixed.

One such example is Monkey Shoulder from William Grant. The blended Speyside Scotch whisky can be drunk on its own, but for less than $30, it’s an affordable option for mixing. The cheeky name also grabs consumer attention. This strategy has paid off, and Monkey Shoulder is reportedly one of the best-selling Scotch whiskies in the world. The made-for-mixing blend has lent itself to clever marketing campaigns, including a giant cocktail shaker made from a cement truck, according to Purchese.

Diageo has a very similar brand, the Singleton. Singleton is actually a partnership between three distilleries —Dufftown, Glendullan and Glen Ord. Singletons can command a range of prices, but tend to be on the cheaper side.

“Out of the legacy whisky brands in the Diageo portfolio, The Singleton of Glendullan is the gateway into the world of malts. At its core it is a great-tasting, premium single malt, but it is accessible and light, making it the perfect Scotch for novice drinkers,” said Jamie Young, director of single malts at Diageo North America in an email exchange with Marketing Dive.

Such introductory brands can help consumers develop a taste for whiskey. However, after a taste is developed, how do marketers get them to make the jump to higher-end products?