The Social Utility of Scotch Whisky
Note ~ This essay was written as the final research paper for my surreal college class (PE 150: World of Commodities @ University of California, Berkeley) and submitted on November 22nd, 2013. I think it's aged well, and 8 Years later i'm bringing it back to borrow and apply some timeless lessons on designing product social utility 🪄
Scotch Whisky’s Promise of Upward Mobility and Unintended
Role In Social Stratification
It is common knowledge that levels of income inequality have been consistently rising in nations around the world. Not surprisingly, there has been a resulting rise in the aspirations of the middle class in the developing world. It is surprising and unexpected, however, that this upward trajectory has also been accompanied by a stark increase in the global consumption of Scotch whisky. Clearly, there is a parallel between rising aspirations and the consumption of this wildly ubiquitous commodity that has historically been perceived to be a symbol of privilege. Yet, “through canny marketing, innovation and political luck”, Scotch whisky has gradually been fabricated and molded into a luxurious necessity that any self-respecting man must consume to project his self-worth into society (Johnnie Won’t Walk Out, The Economist). How did this change happen and what have the implications on social relations been?
Whisky brands have mastered the art of using human beings’ need for respect into a source of profit. They have capitalized on the human need to feel socially superior by catering not only to their consumers’ taste buds, but also to their egos. Johnnie Walker Scotch whisky, for example, has blended the eternal promise of upward mobility to the consumption of its spirits. By capitalizing on its historic patronage to the 18th-19th century British Empire, it entrenched itself into markets around the globe. Scotch then transcultured within these different markets and came to adopt new meanings and symbolisms. The one meaning it holds in common within all these diverse markets is as a lens into a better, more sophisticated and refined life.
By playing to the whims and fancies of human nature, Scotch whisky—which like other alcohol spirits was conceived to taste good and be an instrument of cultural convergence—has unintentionally become an agent of social stratification. Its growing consumption has fed on rising aspirations amongst the middle class, and has fueled the ever-increasing divide between the haves and the have-nots. Whisky manufacturers like Johnnie Walker have pointed out to us that we should never be contently still and instead strive to keep moving forward. They have sold us on the idea that “premium whisky tastes good, gets you drunk and may impress your peers; what’s not to like?” (Keep On Walking, The Economist). Yet in doing so they have fueled the burning human need to differentiate and be superior to our peers.
Alcohol as a commodity has been around since the dawn of human civilization. Its many variants have had distinct birthroots, histories and consumption habits. They have been used for medicinal purposes, ritualistic purposes, as mediums of sociability and as transcendental agents. Every drink is loaded with symbolic meaning; every drink conveys a meaning. Beer signifies a casual laidback setting; wine conveys seriousness and elegance; champagne signifies celebration; and whisky conveys social mobility. Each kind of “alcohol is a symbolic vehicle for identifying, describing, constructing and manipulating cultural systems, values, interpersonal relationships, behavioral norms and expectations” (SIRC).
Choice of beverage is rarely a matter of personal taste. Instead, “drinking—like ritual—is a medium for ‘constructing’ the world” (SIRC). In the case of whisky, it is interesting to note the association of social status to the consumption of the beverage. Its rising consumption around the world, especially amongst the middle classes, “may be an expression of aspirations, rather than a reflection of actual position in the social hierarchy” (SIRC). Therefore, the consumption of whisky is used to construct an ideal world. It is in essence a “definitional ceremony through which people enact not only what they think they are, but also what they should have been or may yet be” (Papagaroufali, 1992).
The Gaelic “usquebaugh”, meaning ‘Water of Life’, phonetically “became ‘usky’ and then ‘whisky’ in English” (Mass & Hume). The drink can only be called Scottish or Scotch if it is produced in a distillery in Scotland and matured in an oak cask in a Scottish warehouse (Mass & Hume). Most Scotch is made from malted barley and each distillery has its own distinctive whisky, which is known as a single malt. Most whiskies that are sold are blended mixtures of a variety of single malts to which cheaper grain whisky made from wheat or rye is added. Most whisky sold until recently was blended like Johnnie Walker. However there has been a growing demand for single malt whiskies around the globe. The key whisky growing regions in Scotland are Islay, with typically smoky whiskies like Lagavulin; and Speyside, whose whiskies are typically sweet and smoother like Glenlivet (The Guardian).
Historically, the first records of whisky distillation date back to 1494. The process of distilling was initially used for perfume, which was then adapted to wine and “finally to fermented mashes of cereals in countries where grapes were not plentiful” (Delves). This spirit was termed aqua vitae (‘water of life’) and was mainly brewed in monasteries. It was touted for its medicinal properties, chiefly for the preservation of health, the prolongation of life, and for the relief of colic, palsy and even smallpox. Johnnie Walker’s production began much later, in 1820, in Kilmarnock, Ayrshire, Scotland. It was branded after its proprietor John Walker, his son Alexander Walker and grandson Alexander Walker II. There is a famous advertisement that features actor Robert Carlyle ‘The Man Who Walked Around The World’ that enchants viewers with the inspiring story of the rise of Johnnie Walker.
Scotch whiskies like Johnnie Walker have quite literally become the water of life for middle classes around the globe as they strive to drink their way into the upper echelons of society (Appendix—3). Johnnie Walker’s maker, the beverages conglomerate ‘Diageo’, has gained a grip on our psyche and convinced us that to really be a gentleman and make a statement of having ‘arrived’ in society, we must drink Scotch. So much so that today, four bottles of Johnnie Walker are consumed every second around the world, with some 120 million bottles sold annually in 200 countries (JW Website). Even the late Scottish judge Lord Cockburn—who was no fan of his countrymen’s drink—once asked, “Whisky no doubt is a devil; but why has this devil so many worshippers?” (Molavi, FP). The answer may lie in the human need for respect and superiority. We all inherently desire exclusivity and acceptance. The consumption of Scotch is simply another medium to distort reality and create a temporary illusion of refineness, sophistication and globalization. Essentially, producers of whiskys like Johnnie Walker have created a product with little inherent value, added to it a story we want to associate with and consequently imperialized not only our taste buds but also our aspirations for social mobility. “Step Up”, they say—as in step up to a better life, step up to the middle class, step up from that stale beer to a higher state of being: Become a whisky drinker! (Molavi, FP).
The entrenchment of this commodity into people’s lives began early and was greatly aided by whisky distilleries’ allegiances to their patron, the British Empire. Throughout the 18th & 19th centuries, Johnnie Walker bobbed along the trading routes of British merchants and reached “wherever ships could sail” (JW Website). The Walkers were ingenious at striking deals with ship captains and offered them a deal they couldn’t refuse, “the shippers would take goods with them on their journeys around the world, sell them, take a commission, and remit the remaining profits to the firms” (Molavi, FP). Therefore, Johnnie Walker and other Scotch whiskys began to be consumed relatively early all throughout the British Empire. Its ubiquitous establishment into the basic fabric of upper gentry occurred even before Coca Cola came to be a physical commodity. It was therefore, essentially the first beverage with a market so expansive and far reaching that the Sun never set on it.
Whisky’s early roots and “quality derived from more than a century of tradition and heritage” have helped it gain an aura of connoisseurship like that of wine (Off To See The World, The Economist). This reputation has aided its gradual adoption by a mass market. Furthermore, its Transculturation within these different markets has served to establish Scotch whisky into the very fabric of the middle classes too. In 2011 alone, 93.3 million nine-liter cases of Scotch were consumed worldwide (International Wine & Spirits Research). This number represented a 4% increase on the previous year globally, but a 24% increase within the BRICS (Crow, City A.M).
In the developed world, Scotch continues to be consumed for taste and habitually. In the developing world however, whiskys like Johnnie Walker hold vastly different meanings. In Brazil, whisky is a status symbol for growing middle classes; in Venezuela it is a store of value and as a diversion in an economy in deep trouble; in Thailand, businessmen place a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label on the table before closing a negotiation; in Japan, bottles of whisky are part of the ritualized gift-giving culture; and in India, one of the most famous comedians within Bollywood even took the name ‘Johnny Walker’. Campbell Evans of the Scottish Whisky Association states that the one trait Scotch holds in common amongst all these regions is that “it has become the drink of aspiration for the spreading middle classes” (Mckle, The Guardian). So much so Nick Blazquez, the head of Diageo for Africa says, “Johnnie Walker [consumption] is a useful signifier of success” (Keep On Walking, The Economist).
Where does whisky’s value come from and why do “criminals in South Africa buy it to prove they are successful criminals” (Keep On Walking, The Economist)? David Ricardo said that, “the value of a product is assigned based on how much skill the labor has and the time spent on its production” (On Value, Ricardo). Whisky as a commodity should not really have much value, however it is widely perceived to have mystical and heritage value. The little inherent value that it does have is a result of the time required to age the malts correctly and the expertise required to blend them palatably. Most of whisky’s value is external and comes from external branding and marketing. Johnnie Walker would not be what it is today without the ‘Striding Man’. Furthermore, rather than simply consume whisky to satisfy our cravings, we have fetishised this commodity. We really don’t know the producer of this commodity, yet we willingly trade in our money for a bottle of Scotch in the hope that it’ll send out a signal of desirability into the Universe (Marx).
Whisky makers have achieved this goal of ‘fetishization’ by branding whisky as a Gentleman’s drink, but been careful to keep it within the financial reach of mass consumers. They have sold consumers on a story they want to be associated with. They have captivated their minds and their wallets not just with the product, but also with a lifestyle: an aspiration. The CEO of Starbucks Coffee, Howard Shultz often says, “We sell an experience, coffee is an afterthought” (Molavi, FP). Well this ‘refined’ lifestyle seems appealing to the growing global middle class and corporations are now realizing the importance of catering to their needs. Homi Kharas of the Brookings Institution “estimates that the global middle class will hit 4.9 billion people by 2030, growing by 3 billion from today, and they’ll spend $56 trillion a year, up from $21 trillion today” (Molavi, FP). Johnnie Walker has been ahead of the game in this race. In 1909, they commissioned sketch artist Tom Browne to design the now iconic ‘Striding Man’ (Appendix – 1). The Striding Man “looked English, not Scottish; he carries a monocle, so he is literate; he carries a walking stick and wears a top hat: He is a dandy” (Hughes). The monocle, walking stick and top hat were all symbols associated with gentry and sophistication. Drinking Scotch made people believe that they too were an embodiment of the Striding Man, and in essence refined and sophisticated. Furthermore, the Striding Man symbolized progress and forward movement, both traits of aspiration. Along with the caption, “Born 1820 – Still Going Strong”, Johnnie Walker won over the hearts and minds of aspiring middle classes worldwide (Hughes).
Furthermore, whisky’s attachment to the mass media and cult television shows like ‘Mad Men’ have created a Mad Men effect, where with increasing viewership the consumption of whisky is also rising. When your favorite television stars Jon Hamm and Christina Hendricks drink, so do you (The Telegraph). Johnnie Walker even capitalized on this ‘effect’ by roping in Christina Hendricks—the heartthrob of red-blooded males all across the globe—as a brand ambassador for one of the firm’s spirits. Moreover, Johnnie Walker Red Label with soda was a favorite of Winston Churchill, and Diageo never fails to remind us of this little trivia. The Human race, for all its ingenuity and capability, is incredibly naïve and susceptible to outside influences. We crave whisky because advertisers tell us we should. Yet in doing so we create increasing numbers of boundaries between others and ourselves. Our need to differentiate, through the consumption of whisky and other fetishised commodities, has unintentionally aided social stratification.
Whisky has been unique amongst alcoholic beverages in attaining this unforeseen goal. Its taste and character have been replaced by a ‘necessity to drive home a point’. Its consumption has become a statement. This trend can be seen from the vast number of imitations of Scotch whiskys around the world. While whiskey produced in Japan, the United States or other nations remains largely untouched by imitators, Scotch has become a lucrative target for counterfeiters. More volume of Johnnie Walker Black Label is consumed globally than is produced in Scotland. The middle classes in China and India are increasingly turning to Western habits and tastes to appear more refined and globalized (Kollewe, The Guardian). Consequently, excess demand has created counterfeiters like Kavalan, “a Taiwanese whiskey distillery that has its sights set on the Mainland Chinese market” (Doubles All Around, The Economist). Kavalan is fruitier than smoky single-malt Scotch but appeals to the Chinese palette more. Chinese consumers believe they are getting renowned Scotch, tailored to their taste and at a cheaper price. It’s a win-win for everyone involved except the real Scotch manufacturers. Yet, even with imitators, their production has been skyrocketing in the past decade—“Scotch exports have risen by over 40% on value since 2000” (Doubles All Around, The Economist).
Even in the face of the vast commercialization of whisky, aspirational middle classes are still demanding more and more of the product. Connoisseurs may begin to move off the spirit, but there will certainly be a steadily rising demand from countries where more and more people join the middle classes. Just as with the growth of the sugar industry, there was a downward movement of the product amongst social classes, whisky too began its phase of consumption amongst the upper echelons of society. It has not, however, become an object of little value and mass consumption. Through crafty marketing, it has maintained its illusion of value and elegance. Back in the 1930’s, the DeBeers Diamond Trading Company created an aura of ‘pureness’ around diamonds (Epstein, The Atlantic). They made people associate it with luxury and extravagance. Then they associated it with the idea of marriage and ‘foreverness’. Any self-respecting man had to buy his bride-to-be a diamond if he wanted to maintain his social status. However, diamonds themselves are in vast supply and have no real value. We believe they have value because we have been made to believe so via the gradual engineering of our psyche and social systems.
Similarly, whisky too has been engineered into our psyche. Its goal was to be a drink that tasted good and promised us upward mobility. Yet its crazed fetishism by aspirational middle classes has come to accentuate the growing divide between our social classes. The consumption of whisky is therefore a lens through which we can view the rise of global inequality. Critics may argue that whisky, and alcohol in general, have “long been regarded as social levelers and the act of communal drinking is a means of communication between those in different ranks and status in society” (SIRC). Therefore logically, rising whisky consumption should signify a cultural and social convergence. However, the reality is that there has been a rise in social stratification as a result of rising whisky consumption.
The creation and existence of ‘classes’ within whisky brands like Johnnie Walker have accentuated and alienated the ‘classes’ that exist within human society. Red Label, the firm’s cheapest offering is a taste of the good life for those just breaking into the middle class; Black Label is a step up the social ladder and represents promise and coming success; Green Label is a symbol of upper middle class wealth; Gold Label indicates that the consumer has officially ‘arrived’; Blue Label is the premium label only to be consumed by connoisseurs; and lastly, the limited edition King George V, represents the pinnacle of success. Effectively, via its Labels, Johnnie Walker and similar Scotch whisky brands have stratified society into categories. The labeling of these categories, while good for business, has also inadvertently led to increasing stratification in society. A Blue Label drinker can’t be seen mingling with a Black Label drinker now, can he? Or even if he is seen mingling with the ‘inferior’, less ‘refined’ man, he better well make it a point to show society that he is a Blue Label man, certified by and courtesy of Johnnie Walker’s numbered authenticity certificates in each case of Blue Label.
It is no surprise that the sales of Johnnie Walker are highest in hierarchical societies. People crave exclusivity, and they like to show that they are exclusive. A Scotch whisky is yet another instrument via which they can make this statement. They don’t care about social stratification so long as they are not the ones in the lower strata of society. Human nature is a peculiar thing: It is our biggest gift and also our biggest curse. We have the capability to create and dream up solutions to any kind of problem, yet our basic desires and needs distance us from each other. In the case of Scotch whisky, the fear of missing out on making a statement and appearing refined drives us to consume more. We all want to be the Striding Man and Johnnie Walker too has played well into rising aspirations. Their Striding Man was once clearly British; now however he has gotten a facelift and is a colorless silhouette (Appendix—2). He could be Chinese, Nigerian, Indian, or American: he could be just about anyone (Molavi, FP). Well anyone within the Label he buys into; not one higher, not one lower.
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