DRINKS giant Diageo is preparing to open its third House of Johnnie Walker centre in Asia as Scotland’s biggest distiller steps up the marketing campaign for its most expensive whiskies.
Scotland on Sunday has learned that, following the success of its “houses” in Beijing and Shanghai, Seoul has been chosen as the site for the next outlet, which will be used to promote Scotch to high-net-worth individuals.
The centre in South Korea is expected to open later this year or early next year and will host exclusive events, as well as sporting a blending room in which wealthy customers can have individual bottlings commissioned.
Whisky has been a key driver of Diageo’s growth in recent years, with full-year results earlier this month showing a 6 per cent rise in group sales to £11.4 billion, driven by demand from the US and emerging markets such as Latin America.
Although many distillers have reported a slowdown in sales growth in China – as the ruling Communist party cracks down on expensive gifts – Scotch makers are still racing to increase their routes to market in fast-growing emerging economies.
Last month the Office of Fair Trading launched a probe into the UK implications of Diageo’s acquisition of a major stake in India’s United Spirits, which owns Whyte & Mackay in Glasgow.
Diageo – which makes Scotch brands including Bell’s and J&B, as well as labels such as Gordon’s gin, Guinness stout and Smirnoff vodka – has been heavily marketing its whisky in Asia and Europe over recent weeks on board John Walker & Sons Voyager, a replica of a 1920s ocean-going yacht. The vessel has docked in 25 ports, from Shanghai to Sydney and Cannes to Copenhagen, to promote the product to actors, businessmen and other influential drinkers.
Opening the “houses” and using the yacht mark a sea change in the way that Scotch is marketed abroad.
Jim Beveridge, master blender at Johnnie Walker, said: “Ten or 15 years ago, I would have been dressed in a kilt, with a sprig of white heather in my jacket. In the past, we would have had a map of Scotland on the wall and would have started talking about the different regions. Now it’s all about the different flavours in whisky.”
Nick Temperley, head of reserve brands in Great Britain for Diageo, added that he had his “highest-ever marketing budget” to promote whisky this year.
New chief executive Ivan Menezes – who took over last month from Paul Walsh – has pledged to continue investing in marketing and “innovation”, the industry’s term for releasing further bottlings or “expressions”.
Such “innovations” have led to the release of Johnnie Walker Platinum Label and Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve over the past year, with Beveridge confirming that further bottlings in his “super-premium” range are on their way to join John Walker & Sons Odyssey, which sells for some £600.
Beveridge also uses the “houses” in Beijing and Shanghai to mix unique blends for Chinese customers based on their tastes, which can cost between £80,000 and £100,000.