Rethinking Standard Scotch

Whyte & Mackay shakes up the market with revamped blended Scotch John Barr.

Scotch whisky distiller Whyte & Mackay is best known for its upscale single malts The Dalmore ($65 to $230 a 750-ml.) and Jura ($55), as well as Shackleton ($35), its new blended malt label. But now, in partnership with its U.S. importer and marketer E. & J. Gallo, Whyte & Mackay is looking to crack the standard Scotch segment with a new focus on blended entrant John Barr Reserve Blend.

John Barr ($25 a 750-ml.) has long been available in the U.S., but never had a significant market presence. In September 2016, the brand received a makeover, debuting new packaging as well as reworked liquid created by Whyte & Mackay master distiller Richard Paterson and blender Gregg Glass. The new John Barr is matured in ex-Bourbon barrels and finished in Sherry butts for several months. “This whisky is crafted along the lines of the original blend, but takes contemporary tastes into account,” says Chris Watt, Whyte & Mackay vice president for the Americas. “The Sherry notes emerge to create an accessibly priced Scotch that punches well above its weight.”

Watt sees John Barr as a refresher in a sleepy market for standard blends. “There hasn’t been much innovation within the standard tier, and that’s the access point for most people—particularly entry-level Scotch drinkers,” he says. “We want to create some consumer choice.”

Certainly the U.S. market’s blended Scotch market could use some revitalization. Blended Scotch volumes in the United States have fallen from around 8 million cases in 2000 to just above 6 million cases today, according to Impact Databank. During that period, single malt Scotch has nearly tripled to 1.5 million cases. Blended Scotch volumes did manage a 1% depletions gain in 2016, but last year’s performance in Nielsen channels showed a 3.3% decline to 2.75 million cases through December 30.

Whyte & Mackay has ambitious plans for John Barr. The company aims for the label to surpass 150,000 cases in the U.S. market over the next several years. If these numbers are realized, John Barr would rank just outside the top five blended Scotch whiskies in the U.S. market and even higher in the standard segment ($10 to $25 a 750-ml.), behind only Johnnie Walker Red and Dewar’s White Label.

Key to achieving those goals will be Whyte & Mackay’s U.S. alliance with wine juggernaut E. & J. Gallo. Whyte & Mackay selected Gallo as its importer in 2015 after years of self-importing. The move has reaped major benefits. “We’ve definitely been broadening our distribution through the partnership with E. &. J. Gallo,” says Watt. “Since September 2016, John Barr has gone from a standing start to about 30,000 cases, and we feel confident that we can achieve our volume goals in fairly short order.”

John Barr is currently available in all 50 states except New Jersey. California and the Northeast are particularly strong for the brand, along with the southeastern markets of Florida and Georgia. Right now, most of the brand’s distribution is focused on independent retailers. “We haven’t gone aggressively into the California chains quite yet because we want to build the brand first,” says Watt. “We’re figuring out what works best before moving to the next stage.”

For E. &. J. Gallo, focusing on a standard blend that complements Whyte & Mackay’s higher-end portfolio makes sense. Gallo has a strong track record in building accessibly priced spirits brands—most notably with New Amsterdam vodka, which has grown from 45,000 cases in 2011 to over 5 million cases last year, as well as E. & J. brandy, the market’s top domestic brandy label. The brand increased by 6.5% last year and surpassed the 4-million-case mark.