TRBusiness was among the first to try Edrington’s new travel retail exclusive The Macallan Harmony Collection Smooth Arabica at a VIP press event in London earlier this month.
The new expression is part of the second edition of the brand’s limited annual release series (joining the Intense Arabica variety, which is available in the domestic markets) and is inspired by coffee.
Featuring flavours of ground coffee, hazelnut and vanilla, the single malt takes it cue from the Ethiopian arabica bean.
The Macallan Whisky Maker Steven Bremner immersed himself in the art of coffee, exploring the process from field to cup and uncovering the distinct flavour profiles at each stage to inform the making of the new release.
All of this was brought to life with a multi-sensory experience that had us sipping specially selected coffee, courtesy of Dear Green coffee roasters, alongside both the Smooth Arabica and Intense Arabica expressions, while swotting up on the parallel journeys of coffee production and whisky craftsmanship.
For us, the sensorial experience lasted two-and-a-half hours, but Edrington has created a travel retail friendly version too.
Until March 2023, travellers can expect to see different iterations of the pairing ritual (to suit spaces of around 10-15 sqm) popping up at key points of sale in the channel.
“We are already recreating the experience in pop-up spaces at Heathrow and Edinburgh Airport,” said Jeremy Speirs, Regional Managing Director, Edrington Global Travel Retail, when we interviewed him at the event.
“We have experience trays, so we bring to life the flavour profiling, with whisky tasting where we can offer it, as well as through personalisation and other mechanics.”
The travel retail exclusive Smooth Arabica (around US173/£140), aims to ‘broaden the net’ of consumers to a ‘younger and wider audience’ with its ‘affordable luxury’ price point – on top of bringing a dash of newness for existing fans of the brand.
It is currently rolling out in Europe and beyond, having launched in Hainan duty free in November.
“Since then, it has gone into London’s Heathrow, Edinburgh, Germany, Amsterdam and Singapore… It’s a worldwide roll out at our top counters in our biggest airports,” confirmed Speirs.
“Shoppers can find it in approximately 50-60 locations, with more coming in January/February 2023.”
The power of a cool collaboration
It’s not the first time The Macallan has taken inspiration from those in other fields.
“We do a lot of collaborations with The Macallan and for us it’s about finding people who have craftsmanship at the heart and share a passion for what they do and the making of their product,” said Speirs.
“They are experts in what they do. We are experts in what we do. And it’s about how to bring those two together.
“Who’d have thought a Scotch whisky company could learn from Bentley and vice versa?,” he pointed out, referencing the brand’s partnership with the British luxury motors company, which began in 2021.
“And I think that shows the power of collaboration for us.”
Work on the second edition Macallan Harmony Collection began approximately 12-18 months ago.
“There’s an accuracy to making the perfect cup of coffee. There’s an art to it,” said Speirs.
“We can draw the same parallels with Scotch.”
Baristas visited The Macallan Estate in Scotland (located just outside of the village of Craigellachie, close to Aberlour) to meet with Steven Bremner and share their expertise on the different styles and flavours of coffee.
Bremner then set about recreating the flavour profile (Smooth Arabica nods to ground coffee while Intense Arabica references cappuccino), using the whiskies he ‘knows and loves’, using specially selected casks.
“He would have brought around 30-40 different casks to make the recipe for the spirit, to get that balance, and then he scaled it up,” said Speirs, who pointed out how the single malts are matured in sherry seasoned oak casks.
The process of making coffee is “not dissimilar” to whisky, he added.
“There’s a lot more to coffee than being hot, black and frothy. There’s a lot more layers of flavour.
“The quality of natural ingredients is so important.”
As the expressions are ‘not constrained’ by an age statement, the whisky maker has more “freedom to play”, says Speirs.
“You can overlay liquids to get that balance.”
Packaging made from discarded coffee bean husks
A key attribute of the limited, annual release series is its focus on sustainability – namely the aim to utilise organic by-products, giving new life to materials that would otherwise have been discarded.
In this case, the packaging (made in the UK) is created from discarded coffee bean husks.
“85% of our packaging is already sustainable: being recyclable or from recycled materials,” said Speirs.
“We are always pushing how to go that bit further.
“This is a new material we haven’t used before – the coffee husk.”
The company looks at durability and how well materials travel as deciding factors before bringing any new packaging to market.
“We are testing this on a small scale with these limited editions to see if it can influence our [wider] packaging,” said Speirs.
It’s just one element of the brand’s sustainability journey.
“We are always thinking, ‘how do we become more sustainable?’ ‘How do we make sure we can test and try new things?’ ‘And how can we make sure we are not replacing one problem for another and that what we are choosing is truly sustainable?’,” said Speirs.
Time is invested in tracing the wood sourced for its casks and ensuring the company is regenerating the forests it turns to.
“The story goes a long way beyond packaging,” explained Speirs.
“We have moved a lot of our product items or materials from overseas back to the UK to make sure there is less of a carbon footprint and we work hard on our estate to make sure our distillery is carbon neutral. Luckily for us it was built [relatively recently] in 2018.”
Driving its decision making is an overriding goal to ‘do the right thing’.
“It’s not always the easiest route, but everyone has a role to play to ensure our legacy is the right legacy.
“We are well down the sustainability journey but it’s never-ending. I would say certainly in the next few years there is a step change on that front, and we can make that further change and push some boundaries again.”
Leveraging the resilience of the premium+ space
The Macallan operates in the ‘premium and above’ space, said Speirs, who points out that this has aided the company’s performance during the pandemic.
“What we have seen in the recovery is that although there are fewer passengers, I think we will get back to where we were pre-covid by the end of this fiscal year, which shows there is an appetite for premiumisation and premium products,” he said.
“Spend in our GTR boutiques, of which we have five now, was almost untouched. It was down about 15% at the height of the pandemic.
“People were treating themselves as they had saved on daily expenses. And we are seeing new customers coming in.
“It shows that ‘premium’ can withstand different challenges, and if it can survive covid, it can survive through most things. And that’s not being arrogant. That’s being confident in what we have as our product.
“Our job in that sense is to make sure people understand our product, to keep on working harder with collaborations like this, and to keep those travel retail exclusives coming as people want to discover new things.”
Part of the plan for 2023 is making the whisky buying experience in travel retail easier to navigate by delivering engaging experiences.
“Generally, the evolution of the channel is exciting for me, as seeing China and Asia coming back online is a big part of our business that we have been missing,” he said, pointing to India as an opportunity for growth.
“We have had it in Hainan but we have been missing that traveller.
“We have seen strong momentum in the channel in America, Europe and the Middle East and I hope that will filter through to Asia.”
Finding the ‘right’ way to activate brands with (‘hopefully’) bigger spaces to create ‘wow’ experiences for consumers is top of mind.
“People have had a rough time and I want to create the best experience we can for them at the airport,” said Speirs.
“It’s our job to make sure we do that and keep it fresh and interesting and creative.
“Growth for us looks very realistic in the next year and we are excited about that.”