Having recently watched Ridley Scott’s The Seven Worlds Oscar’s ad for Hennessy X.O I was impressed by its storytelling and production values. The one-minute advert communicates the various taste components of the Cognac - such as sweet notes, rising heat, spicy edge, chocolate lull and wood crunches - in a creative and captivating way. Sure to be shared on social media - I first saw it on LinkedIn - the advert is a compelling odyssey of taste.
The advert got me thinking about taste communication on pack. I’ve recently been working on a packaging redesign project for another Cognac producer (to be launched in March this year) and taste projection - alongside other key messages such as provenance and quality - is an important element of our packaging solution. During the course of an interview with the head of the Cognac house, the fifth generation of the same family, my colleagues and I were struck by the family’s single-minded focus on perpetuating a particular style of Cognac - a golden thread that runs through all of the house’s spirits. This thread, and the specific flavour of each of the Cognac’s variants, has become a primary on pack message.
However, communicating taste is very often the exception in many categories like Cognac, brandy, rum and whisky for that matter. Having recently undertaken a packaging review of the rum and brandy categories it’s noticeable how few brands actually communicate the taste of their liquids. Having read Ian Buxton’s book 101 Rums to Try Before You Die it’s clear that many brands have a house style that derives from a combination of factors, not least the desire to create a spirit with a unique profile, like Boukman’s Botanical Rhum. Here’s just `a few of Ian Buxton’s taste descriptors: “Rich, packed with dried fruits and archetypal Demerera notes, warming and full-flavoured” (Caidenhead’s Classic), “super smooth, rich and surprisingly sweet” (Depaz XO), “soft and beguiling with a smooth and gentle entry from the lush, fruity nose” (Opthimus 18) and “balance of sweet fruit, spices, sugar cane and oak” (Ron de Jeremy).
Of course there are brands communicating flavour on pack - Ardbeg describes its An Oa as ‘Smoky. Sweet. Singularly Rounded’ while Famous Grouse describes its liquid as ‘The Finest Scotch Whiskies Blended and Matured In Seasoned Casks For A Rich Rounded Sweetness’ - but in a recent review of over 60 rums (and Rhums and Rons) only a very small minority of brands had a taste descriptor. In the brandy category some brands, like St-Rémy, include a taste descriptor but in its case it’s reserved for its Cask Finish Collection, the more premium product in a range of four.
In his book That s**t will never sell! David Gluckman talks about a ‘benefit out’ approach and “building your product on a compelling product story”. In the book he’s talking about Smirnoff Black being conceived as ‘the world’s smoothest vodka’ and to my mind a spirit’s taste and characteristics are important parts of this compelling product story. Of course if a spirit has no defining taste profile it’s hard to make a compelling story out of this but even a cursory glance at categories like brandy, rum and whisky reveal rich stories centred around both maker and process - where a specific taste is the goal.
So why is taste an important part of the story. Much has been written about provenance in spirits…and even more about craft. This much over-used, and abused, term finds expression on many brand’s bottles and IBCs and is proving a powerful brand message across the globe, especially with some audiences. Writing, in an article entitled ‘A Fortune to be Made’ in the February 2019 edition of Drinks International, Shay Waterworth says “Smaller craft brands from the US and Europe are proving popular in China - and it’s impossible to discuss the modern craft spirits movement in China without mentioning millenials, simply because the country has so many of them. They're one of the biggest driving factors behind the rising interest in craft spirits as not only do they travel internationally more than any other demographic, exposing themselves to western brands, they’re also more curious than the generations before them, experimenting with spirits other than baiju”.
Yet taste, according to research carried out by Harris Interactive for The Grocer into alcoholic drinks (May 2018), is still one of the major factors why consumers choose one category over another and one brand over another. Important consumer groups like connoisseurs and aficionados are clearly motivated to find out more about a particular spirit online, from books and magazines and through recommendations. Equally the on trade has an important role to play in telling a brand’s particular story, as I recently witnessed on a visit to the new London cocktail bar Fam, when co-founder Megs Miller took a customer through the bar’s range of tequilas. But at the point of sale when a consumer is tempted to try a new brand or category there’s not much talk about taste. Features like age statements, distilling methods, maturation processes and ingredients messages feature well, and play to the informed gallery, but taste seems a minor consideration.