First things first: a hearty hug to my good friend Dr. Whisky, who is marrying his gal K on this coming Burns Night! Can’t wait to see you guys – but I warn you, this blogger Strips the Willow for no man (nor even his wife!).
Now, to business. Well, we’ve been having a grand old natter in the comments section of last week’s post about all manner of nerdy stuff - and long may that continue - but in the meantime I thought I should say a few words about the hot topic on the forums. No, not Oz & James’s Drink to Britain (although more on that later if I can muster the will to live), something much more exciting – It’s Ardbeg’s mega-peated answer to Octomore: Ardbeg Supernova!!This is a really fascinating case, with plenty to ponder and several unanswered questions. But is it an unfortunate case of two buses coming along at once, or an insight into the special behind-the-scenes machinations and rivalries between two of the world’s most famous malt brands?
In the first instance it must be said that, if intentional, the timing, manner and pricing of this Ardbeg release is incredibly bold considering the almighty hoo-hah kicked up by Bruichladdich for Octomore over the last few years. While Octomore was relentlessly hyped from its inception even before the first spirit had run off the stills (I remember it being alluded to on a trip to Islay in 2001!), Supernova only registered on most people’s radars last week when it briefly popped up in the Ardbeg online shop and was noticed by some eagle-eyed trainspotters, including Gordon from Spirit of Islay who got the buzz going in the online whisky forums. I didn’t have a clue about it before then and even Sukhinder professed total ignorance. This is in sharp contrast to Bruichladdich’s sound and fury with every new release, but particularly Octomore.
In addition to this covert - nay stealth – marketing, the timing of Supernova’s release yesterday would strike a cynic as being deliberately designed to pi$$ on Bruichladdich’s chips on the very day they were celebrating the PR coup of being featured on the telly in the afore-mentioned Oz ‘n’ James show (for anyone who managed to miss it, Oz & James put on their tiresome ‘odd couple’ shtick and went to Islay, where they drove a sports car fuelled on cask-strength Bruichladdich X4, before a trip around the distillery with Mark Reynier and Jim McEwan).
Intentional or not, the good folk at Bruichladdich probably weren’t best pleased to be gazumped in such a sudden, emphatic manner after months of trailing their moment of small screen fame and, to add insult to injury, Glenmorangie plc (Ardbeg’s owners) were also represented on the programme in the comely form of Master Blender Rachel Barrie who is, let’s face it, rather more telegenic than Mark & Jim.
To cap it all, at £65 (still an awful lot of money for a NAS dram, but that’s a separate issue) the Committee Bottling of Ardbeg Supernova is priced a full twenty quid cheaper than Octomore, with a general release soon to come that could well be even cheaper. This must be taken into consideration with the packaging of the products - Octomore has the special coating, the weird bottle-shape, the design features (all of which cost money and rack up the price to us mug punters) while Supernova is the same old Ardbeg bottle with a new label: total extra cost about tuppence. I don’t think it’s even got a box.
Needless to say, when it finally reappeared in the online Ardbeg shop yesterday morning, the Supernova took off (sorry) at something approaching hyperspeed (really sorry again), sold out in a little under three hours and is currently in orbit somewhere around the Death Star in a galaxy far, far away (Oh dear. Nurse, the screens!).
Admittedly the Octomore is more heavily peated and slightly stronger, but that doesn’t really matter too much once you get over about 55% and 100ppm as most people are going to put a spot of water in anyway. If Supernova turns out to be a better whisky than Octomore when it arrives on people’s doormats in a few weeks time - and that is a real possiblity, given Ardbeg’s greater resources and the tepid reviews Octomore has thus far received - Ardbeg’s triumph will be complete.
So what is going on here? Is this all just a total coincidence or are Glenmorangie being exceptionally clever? Are we meant to believe that all this is just a confluence of circumstances that happens to leave Ardbeg smelling of roses, or is it in fact a calculated strategy to win back those of the faithful who were displeased with Blasda (after all, Supernova is the exact opposite) and cast Ardbeg as modest, classy and good value while attempting to portray Bruichladdich as brash, style-over-substance blowhards with an over-priced product? Is it a glimpse into the clash of philosophies between a corporate giant and a small independent company on the most famous whisky island in the world? Or am I just totally blowing this all out of proportion?
If it is the former, it seems like a pretty ruthless manoeuvre, even a bit Machiavellian - and the whole thing leaves this blogger in the hitherto unfamiliar situation of feeling rather sorry for Bruichladdich. Of course, the unflappable Mark & Jim will brush this off like water off a duck’s back and move on to the next big thing, but yesterday was meant to be their day and they ended up being beaten at their own game. That, unlike so much of their output, will leave a nasty taste in the mouth.
What do you think about Supernova vs. Octomore? Let me know in the comments section below.