Sunday, 14 December 2014

"You can't drink a Jimmy Choo!" - Part 1



This is the first of three posts related to a recent excursion to Scotland to “experience” some of the fine drams under the Inver House label, namely, Hankey Bannister, Old Pulteney, Balblair, An Cnoc and Speyburn. Under the watchful eyes of Lukasz Dynowiak and Samantha Peter, five eager whisky passionistas (Annabel Miekle @thewhiskybelle; Dave Worthington @whiskydiscovery; Chris Hoban @Edinburghwhisky; Mark Gillespie @whiskycast and myself @whiskyrepublic, spent four and a half days immersed in all things whisky, not just the liquid but the environment, the terroire, and perhaps most importantly, the passion.



Day 1: Hankey Bannister whisky tasting at a Ruffians Barbers. What a setting! Sweeney Todd meets ...  What to expect? As a follicly challenged male, the prospect of an evening in a "barbershop" was to say the least, intriguing, and I was relying on memories of distant pasts to envisage what I might face; my childhood visits to the local barbers for the regulatory “short, back & sides”, the red and white striped barbers pole (with its origins in “bloodletting”), pomades and hair tonics (Brilliantine, Brylcreem, and Vitalis), the click and buzz of hair clippers, old men in high back chairs smelling of woodbines and talking football, echoes of the phrase "....and something for the weekend sir?" accompanied by surreptitious glances at rows of condoms, seeped into my mind.





Indeed, upon entering Ruffians barbers, there were some architectural markers of that bygone time (the black & white tiles, the barbers chairs), but there the similarity ended. In this most modern of barbershops, “products, accessories, and fragrances”, are neatly arranged in an environment that is fashioned in nostalgia and draped in retro chic. Words like carnauba, citrus, kaolin, beeswax, coconut & ginger root wouldn’t raise a well trimmed eyebrow here. This is a playful homage to the tearaway, the rapscallion, the “ruffian”, and even though it’s probably not aimed at a middle aged man such as me, I couldn’t help but like it!

Before addressing the main event of the evening, namely, a leisurely stroll through a selection of Hankey Bannister drams, we were invited to have a "hot/cold towel and head massage" experience. I was apprehensive......I have list of people who are (or were) officially allowed to touch my bald head (Dolly Parton, Burt Lancaster, Jenna-Louise Coleman (Dr Who's last assistant), and Ingrid Bergman, to name a few), anyway, suffice to say, the staff at an upmarket “coiffeteria” were not on the list! However, what at first seemed like a bizarre but fun way to begin a whisky tasting turned into an inspired choice.


  

Please note - these aren't the staff!

Under the beneficent ministrations of the knowledgeable and engaging staff, the hot/cold towel and head and face massage was a revelation! To quote Joni "you don't know what you've got ‘til it's gone".... and what I clearly had was a shitload of stress & tension that had been inhabiting my shoulders, head, face & neck, lurking there, insidiously tightening their grip on my psyche. The heat, the cold, the exquisite, deft, and expert manipulation of hand on head, unearthed, unpicked, and discarded, a knotweed of baggage, and in that seemingly fleeting 5 minutes, the stresses of the previous few days (even weeks), simply melted away. 


In all honesty, I would have been content for one of the team to insert a straw through the towels, into my mouth, and have the whisky delivered to me "drip style" in what would be the ultimate blind tasting....it was that good! 



Mark, Chris, Dave W & Dave A hard at work


Hankey Bannister.....and so to the whiskies! After some informative scene setting from Lynne Buckley (Brand Manager for Hankey Bannister), including an insight into the evolution of the brand and where it sees itself in the future, Stuart Harvey (Master blender for Inver House Distillers), escorted us on a tour of the range. Both Lynne and Stuart were expressive and informative, conveying both any technical information that we sought with passion and commitment. Like any quality tasting, it was akin to having a soundtrack accompanying the whisky such that you could almost feel the brand developing. 


In preparation for the trip I'd bought a bottle of the Hankey Bannister 12yo but I hadn't had the opportunity to open it and was therefore immersing myself in the range as an HB virgin.
The Original, 12yo and 21yo sit comfortably in the fruity & sweet domain with the 21yo exhibiting a fuller body. The Original blend contains malts from all five of the International Beverage distilleries: Old Pulteney, Knockdhu, Balblair, Speyburn and Balmenach. For those with a penchant for the smokier dram, the Heritage Blend could be right up your street (think full body, delicate smoke, honey, citrus & vanilla). The prices of the range are very, very reasonable indeed.



....and Annabel working hard as well!

I can’t speak for everyone but it would be fair to say that the expressions took some of us by surprise in terms of their quality. This is a range of high quality blends! It may have been the "headiness" and intoxication of the first night away but I distinctly remember one or two of us suggesting that these drams were somewhat "underpriced" in relation to whiskies with a similar profile....(heaven forefend and please don't slap me should our paths cross at some time in the future!). So why isn’t this brand right up there in the minds of European consumers given that the quality is certainly there in abundance?


Forward momentum


Lynne explained that the brand does have a much higher profile within the global market but it became apparent to me that there were potentially one or two challenges in terms of taking the brand forward closer to home. This may be a really minor issue but I found it very interesting that when I held the 12yo I was struck by how small the bottle felt in my hand. The box itself is actually smaller than most boxes that hold this glorious liquid. 


When I think of the “shelf aesthetic” in relation to this range I find myself picturing how it looks when placed side by side with other whiskies. What's going to draw the attention of the potential purchaser? The bottle design is, to my way of thinking, spot on. Neither generic nor wacky, it carries more than a nod to it's distinguished ancestry. Indeed, the black glass and wording on the Heritage Blend is unashamedly modelled on a 1920's bottle of HB unearthed in 2012.  

"It's not how it looks its how it tastes that matter" I can hear many of you mouthing as you read this. I think that would be somewhat naive. Perception, anticipation, and emotion are just three constructs that play important roles in determining whether we buy one whisky over another. It is a simple fact that we must "engage" with a product before purchasing. Having made the purchase, then clearly it is the liquid itself that becomes the dominant element. In this case, when it comes to the liquid, the product speaks for itself and having sampled the drams I was reminded of the adage "big things come in small packages".


You can't drink a Jimmy Choo!


"Hanky Bannister, Hankey Bannister, Hankey Bannister".... the more you say the words, the less unfamiliar they become. There are solid branding reasons why the whisky is called what it is. From the Inver House publicity material we know that the brand dates back to 1757, and that Beaumont Hankey & Hugh Bannister were two gentlemen of passion, the former, a flamboyant socialite who “loved to charm the aristocracy”, the latter, a more considered and business minded individual. The blend of the two personalities, around which the brand has been built, is framed in the phrase “style and substance” and having sampled the range, I have absolutely no problem with that.


Building a brand around a name (in this case, two names) can be a challenging affair but the rewards can be powerful. Think of some of the high profile brands that have been meticulously constructed around a name...Johnnie Walker, Georgio Armani, Jack Daniels, Jim Beam, William Grant, Jimmy Choo and so on. Love 'em or loath 'em they have become established brands, so much so that, in some cases you don't even have to use the full name in order to get the reference (e.g. "I'll have a JD & coke") - they are ubiquitous, part of our cultural norm. 


I wouldn't think that team Hankey Bannister harbour thoughts of global domination on the scale of GA, JD, JB, or JC but shifting the mindset away from any thoughts of illicit, cheeky, sexual encounters (a la Hanky Panky) to a default recognition of Hankey Bannister as a marker of quality blendage may take a little time. On a slightly more serious note, I'll be really interested in seeing how the brand progresses. It deserves a wider audience. I've never fully understood any snobbishness when it comes to the "malts over blends" discussions. Good whisky is good whisky....end of. If you're ever caught in that all too common dilemma of having to choose some nice shoes over a good quality whisky, remember.....you can't drink a Jimmy Choo!



What a great night! Good company, good conversation, quality whisky, and a wonderful setting. A big thanks to Stuart, Lynne, Lukasz, Samantha and the staff at Ruffians.....roll on the rest of the week.....