It may sound odd to talk about vodka when reviewing a Scotch Whisky, but the newest member of the Diageo Whisky family, Haig Club, is as relevant to what’s going on in the vodka space as it is whisky. Haig Club arrives at a time of great change in the spirits industry, one where ever-dominant vodka has started to give its top spot to whisky.
How did it happen? Part of the answer is hubris. Vodka never thought it would be anything less than king, so during the recent vodka flavor boom, vodka makers got greedy. Instead of focusing on their customers, they thought about cashing in, and the result was a flood of ridiculously flavored vodkas. At the same time, vodka companies did little to remind consumers to continue drinking their unflavored options – why would they, they were kings. Now the vodka flavor boom has gone bust, the dust has started to settle, and all that growth that vodka was enjoying with flavors turns out to have been at the expense of its core unflavored business.
At the same time, whiskey has been advancing on all fronts. Lead by American whiskey, the whiskey boom has tempted consumers with flavor. Why drink a caramel-flavored vodka when an American whiskey gives you caramel, cinnamon, and oak, and all without adding anything artificial to the mix? Want flavors? Whiskey can do that, too, and when you add sugar and some cinnamon, you get products like Fireball. With whiskey (even technically flavored whiskey liqueurs like Fireball), consumers felt they were getting more for their money. The value proposition between a $20 bottle of whiskey that’s patiently aged for 3-6 years or $20 for a bottle of liquid that came right off the still into the bottle is pretty clear.
Diageo has major horses in both races. On the vodka front, Diageo has enjoyed great success with their flagship brand Smirnoff Vodka, as well as their co-operative vodka relationships with Ketel One and P-Diddy’s Ciroc. Diageo’s bet on the whisky front is mammoth with their monolithic Johnnie Walker Whisky line. During the shift in dominance, Diageo has been savvy about creating compelling crossover options with their brands, most notably with Captain Morgan, whose Captain Morgan Black and Captain Morgan Limited Edition Sherry Oak Finish straddle the line between whiskey and rum.
Now with the new Haig Club Single Grain Scotch Whisky, Diageo is making a leveraged bet that they can attract a segment of the high-end vodka consumer who enjoys a little flavor in their drink, but not too much. While whiskey has become extremely popular, it still suffers from the perception that it’s a strong spirit, and for the most part it is. Compared to the generally neutral, sweet, and affable vodka, whisk(e)y can come off as edgy (with its tannic oak), intense (with a depth and complexity of flavor), and challenging (especially if it’s over oaked or smokey). To address these concerns and build a bridge for vodka drinkers, Diageo has turned to something that is an essential part of almost all their blends: grain whisky.
In blended whisky, like Johnnie Walker, grain whisky is a tool that’s used to help even things out, create equilibrium, and often add softness, sweetness, and levity. For the Haig Club release, Diageo decided to go with 100% grain whisky. It’s important to distinguish here between neutral grain spirits and grain whisky. As with Single Malt Whisky, there are very specific rules regarding what can be called a Single Grain Whisky, including that it must be aged at least three years in oak. While grain whisky can be made from many different ratios of grain (typically barley, wheat, and corn), the Haig Club is made from 10% barley and 90% wheat.
Haig Club is a blend of whiskies that have been aged in a combination of casks, including refill hogshead casks, refill ex-bourbon barrels, first fill bourbon barrels, and rejuvenated casks. It’s a fairly sophisticated wood program, especially the rejuvenated casks, which are made by stripping and re-charring previously used casks.
Building on their history of success working with personalities, for Haig Club Diageo has partnered with two British mega-stars, football/soccer star David Beckham and entertainment mogul Simon Fuller. This dual partnership is smart and shows that Diageo has learned the lessons from Ciroc about not putting too many of their eggs in one basket. The Haig Club partnership also mirrors the kind of pairing which has made Casamigos Tequila a success, namely one star and one mogul. Bringing both David Beckham and Simon Fuller on board with Haig Club puts the whisky in an immediate spotlight and helps establish it as a luxury brand.
Haig Club Single Grain Scotch Whisky (40% ABV / 80 proof, $75) – The first thing to note about Haig Club is the distinct blue bottle. In the Scotch whisky world there’s fairly uniform packaging, and so the Haig Club’s unique bottle really stands out. The stylish blue bottle also helps obfuscate the whisky’s color which is light gold. The nose on the Haig Club has some nice light, sweet notes like coconut, vanilla, and butterscotch. Underneath those sweet notes is spicy black pepper along with an odd waxy charred pineapple note. There’s also a very subtle diesel note in the mix that dissipates after a short while.
The entry is much more pleasant than the nose and leads with butterscotch, vanilla, and coconut. This sweet and affable opening transitions fairly quickly to spicy on the way to the midpalate with the introduction of strong black pepper. The midpalate is spicy and is defined by black pepper along with oak. The oak notes here are nice and combine well with the black pepper spice and lingering butterscotch from the opening to create a sense of balance and complexity. Towards the end of the midpalate Haig Club picks up a sour undertone which follows through onto the finish. Haig Club’s finish is short and slightly sour with black pepper and a dash of butterscotch. It’s a slightly dry finish but not as dry as we’d expect, especially for a spirit courting vodka drinkers.
While Diageo is clearly on to something with a luxury focused, crossover, single grain whisky, they’ve missed the most important element of good whisky: it has to be delicious, and Haig Club just isn’t. Haig Club does hit some of the notes it’s trying to hit well. The butterscotch and coconut notes are nicely presented and the black pepper and oak combine with them to create some nice complexity, but it’s lacking in character and, for lack of a better word, yumminess. Fortunately for Diageo, the success of Haig Club may be more dictated by image-based exposure, and that stunning bottle should be able to do the job that the liquid inside falls just short of. 83 points.